Legendary Ladies Of Motorsport: Lella Lombardi
We’ve got Mrs Max Mosley to thank for seeing some Girl Power on the tracks during the glory days of Formula 1,“Putting a woman into a Grand Prix cockpit meant shattering a lot of tradition,” said the manager of March engineering, Max Mosley in 1975, “Of course, my wife kept telling me the only reason I was hesitating was because of Lella’s sex, not doubts about her skill. In the end, I guess my wife was right.”
In the end Max Mosley did choose that driver to race for him. He was talking about Lella Lombardi, the sole female driver to have scored points at Formula 1 and only one of two to qualify for an F1 race. There’s precious little recorded about Lella’s life that’s readily available but an interview with People magazine in 1975 reveals a diehard petrolhead. She recalled her earliest memories of making race cars out of what she found in her mother’s sewing box and pushing them around the kitchen floor and said that at the age of eight, without telling anyone, she decided she’d become a race car driver. Whether that’s really true or not, it is exactly what she did.
In her teenage years she became more obvious in her ambitions by racing motorbikes with the local boys. A local priest told her that she should be spending her time pursuing more feminine pastimes. While Lella agreed in theory, she ignored the request to tone it down. She worked as an errand girl for a racer for whom she also acted as co-driver on rallies. On convincing her pilot to let her have a go at the wheel, she won the race. The story goes that she bought a secondhand Formula Monza 500 and began to race in earnest, working on the car herself. After nearly a decade of racing and with some help from Count Vittorio Zanon, March Engineering approached her to be part of their two-man Grand Prix Team. Lella’s response was a gamely, “Why not?”
Her racing career in F1 saw her earn one point when she finished a race in sixth place. Actually, half a point, because the race in question was the unmitigated disaster of the 1975 Spanish Grand Prix. The 1975 race saw five spectators die when the rear wing on Stommelen’s Embassy Hill broke and ricocheted him off one set of barriers (that ironically, his mechanics had strengthened) and into another across the track.
Without a long list of wins to validate the skills of the Italian speed-devil we have to rely on the testimonies of her colleagues. The March crew chief at the time, Roy Wardell, was blown away by her professionalism, “Most male drivers would have been bitching and complaining,” Wardell told People Magazine,“but she drove more than 300 miles flat-out without a whimper.” His only criticism was her rookie-like caution on the track. He put it down to the driver’s fear that if she spun out it’d give everyone reason to assume that women couldn’t race. Plus ça change.
Alas after the first race of 1976 in Brazil she was replaced at March by Ronnie Petersen. A brief stint with and old Brabham run by RAM wasn’t a success. And her F1 career came to a . But it didn’t signal the end of her racing career which continued until the late 80s. She took part in NASCAR in 1977 and saw success with Giorgio Francia in Osella sports cars and with Alfa Romeo GTV6 touring cars.
To give you some idea go how little is known about Lella Lombardi, the age she died from cancer is disputed. Some sources give her age as being 48 while others say 50. In either case, it was too young an age, especially in a sport which has so few female role models. When Count Vittorio Zanon paid for Lella Lombardi to enter F1 it had been 17 years since the world had seen a female F1 racer.
What’s the gap going to be this time?