Women With Drive: Giovanna Amati

The Italian driver who overcame a dramatic kidnapping incident to become a talented racer who climbed the ranks

We continue our #WomenWithDrive series with a look at Giovanna Amati, the Italian driver who overcame a dramatic kidnapping incident to become a talented racer who climbed the ranks.

Early life

Giovanna Amati first displayed her daredevil instincts at the age of 15 when she used her pocket money to buy a 500cc Honda motorcycle that she used for late-night rides around the streets of Rome. Too young to hold a licence, she managed to keep her motorbike hidden from her parents for two years. After a start like that a racing career was a logical next step.

Amati was born in 1959 into a wealthy family. Her mother was the actress Anna Maria Pancani and her father, Giovanni Amati, owned 50 cinemas in the Rome area. Italy in the 1970s was often quite lawless and a family like the Amatis could attract unwanted attention.

Kidnapping ordeal

One afternoon in 1978 Giovanna was kidnapped by masked men who took her from a car outside her parents’ house. Initially she was held nearby but when the police came looking she was bundled into a large plastic bin bag and moved to a more remote location.

For 74 days she was held in a wooden cage. Her ordeal came to an end only when her father paid a near $1million ransom by diverting takings at his cinemas from Star Wars despite Italian courts ordering that his assets be frozen.

Giovanni had delivered the funds to a tobacco shop owned by Maurizio Massaria, the ringleader of the kidnap gang, and, when the police pounced, all but one, Daniel Nieto, were arrested. A month later, Nieto, who was said to have formed an emotional attachment with Giovanna during her ordeal, began contacting his former victim.

Initially, Giovanna said nothing, but, when the police found out, they used her as bait to trap Nieto. Armed officers made the arrest on the Via Veneto as Giovanna arrived on her motorcycle.

A experience such as that would have broken many people, but Amati claims it only made her stronger.

“For sure it made me stronger,” she told the BBC. “I mean, spending three months in captivity – it makes you stronger. Either you go mad or it makes you stronger, and I got stronger. You just don’t have the contact with the rest of the world, but then once you get out you recover.”

Racing school with Elio de Angelis

Amati turned her attentions to motorsport and joined a racing school with her good friend Elio de Angelis, who would go on to win twice for Lotus in Formula 1 before losing his life in a testing accident in 1986.

Amati spent the 1980s trying to climb the motor racing ladder. After four years and occasional good results in Formula Abarth in Italy she stepped up to the national Formula 3 championship, but results were hard to come by. She managed a solitary win in 1986 and entered the European Formula 3000 Championship for 1987.

1992 South African Grand Prix. Kyalami, South Africa. 28/2-1/3 1992. Giovanna Amati (Brabham BT60B Judd). She failed to qualify at her first Grand Prix. Ref-92 SA 04. World Copyright – LAT Photographic

Amati struggled to be competitive in Formula 3000 in both Europe and Japan and after five seasons in the category the biggest impression she had made was on British driver Phil Andrews whom she deliberately ran off the road at 160mph in a test at Oulton Park in 1990.

Formula 1 test

Despite the lack of results Flavio Briatore, the boss of the Benetton Formula 1 team, arranged for her to test one of his cars at Donington. Just before the start of the 1992 Formula 1 season it was announced that she would be joining the Brabham team. The announcement took everyone in the sport by surprise.

Brabham’s glory days were long gone and the car was horribly uncompetitive. In the first three races of the season – South Africa, Mexico and Brazil – Amati failed to qualify each time. She was replaced by Damon Hill.

“I had all the interest on me because I was the only woman in the championship but with that car I couldn’t perform,” said Amati in 2015. “Brabham at that time had a lack of sponsors and a lack of budget. My engine was leaking oil, water, everything, and when I asked to change it there were no spare parts. So it was difficult, and all the other cars were performing much better than ours. I couldn’t qualify with that car and the problem was that they didn’t give me another chance afterwards.”

Amati continued to race in various sports car and GT series throughout the 1990s but retired in 2000 to take work as a commentator for Italian television.

Read more about other women with drive such as Lyn St JamesDesire Wilson and Sarah Fisher.

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