Women with Drive: Lella Lombardi

The Spanish Grand Prix of 1975 lasted just 29 laps and was the last to be held at the Montjuïc circuit in Barcelona. At the end of the race five spectators were dead, overshadowing the achievements of Jochen Mass, who won his first grand prix, and Lella Lombardi, who became the first woman to score a world championship point (or half a point, since the race had not passed half-distance when it was stopped).

There was trouble right from the start of the race weekend. The circuit, which was hosting a Formula 1 race for the fourth time, having been alternating with Jarama since 1969, was made up of public roads and lined with steel barriers. It was the barriers that were the problem when it emerged that many had not been bolted properly into place.

Threats flew back and forth. The drivers threatened to go on strike and the authorities threatened to impound the cars if no one took to the track. While these shenanigans were going on, track staff with the help of team mechanics were working to secure the barriers to ensure the race took place.

Lombardi, who was starting just her second grand prix, qualified towards the back but managed to avoid a first-lap pile-up caused by her March team-mate, Vittorio Brambilla. On lap 25 tragedy struck. The rear wing broke on Rolf Stommelen’s Embassy-Hill, sending the car over the recently repaired barriers into the crowd. Four laps later the race was stopped and Lombardi found herself in sixth position. Half points were awarded so Lombardi wrote her place in Formula 1 history by scoring 0.5pts. No woman has scored since.

From truck driver to racer

Maria Grazia Lombardi was born in Piedmont, Italy, on March 26th 1941. Neither of her parents drove and Lella, as she became known, enjoyed her earliest experiences behind the wheel from driving the delivery truck for her father’s salami factory.

She scraped together enough money to go racing and competed in any car she could get her hands on. She took part in various junior series, both single-seater and tin-top, and began to make quite an impression in Italy. In 1970 she won the Formula Monza championship and graduated to Formula 3. In 1972 she finished 10th in the Italian championship but her major breakthrough came the following year when she won Italy’s Ford Escort Mexico championship and qualified for the final of the Monaco Formula 3 race, which supported the Monaco Grand Prix and was the most prestigious support race on the calendar. Those who didn’t make the cut that day included future world champion Alan Jones and 1985 Indianapolis 500 winner Danny Sullivan.

Lombardi’s performance in Monte Carlo led to an invitation from John and Angela Webb, who ran Brands Hatch, to compete in an Escort Mexico celebrity race. She won it, beating future grand prix winner Jacques Laffite.

The victory secured Lombardi a drive in the Rothmans Formula 5000 championship for 1974.

Consistent good results in Formula 5000 encouraged the Webbs to rent a year-old Brabham from Bernie Ecclestone so that Lombardi could enter the British Grand Prix, which was to be held at Brands Hatch. She failed to qualify by less than a second, but her talent had been noticed.

“The £5000 we spent renting a car from Bernie was our only investment in Lella,” Angela Webb told Motor Sport magazine. “She lived well and had little trouble getting sponsorship. She stayed in Italy and flew to each race, yet she never asked for expenses. She was charming but stubborn and independent, and a tremendously careful road driver. I went with her from Snetterton to Norwich once: 30mph all the way. People were staring and peeping. She didn’t care. “She did her own thing. She wasn’t interested in fashion and usually wore trousers if she was in civvies. She had an image to keep: ‘I’m tough so don’t mess with me.’”

Lombardi’s fifth place in the Rothmans championship attracted £50,000 from the Lavazza coffee company to take her into Formula 1 full time with the March team in 1975. Of the 11 races she entered that year she qualified for all but Monaco and, barring her half-point in Spain, her best result was seventh in the German Grand Prix at the fearsome Nurburgring.

Lombardi stayed with March for the start of 1976 and finished 14th at the season-opening Brazilian Grand Prix, but when Ronnie Peterson suddenly quit Lotus and became available she was replaced. The Lavazza money was starting to run dry but she did secure a drive in RAM Racing’s year-old Brabham. She failed to qualify in Britain and Germany but finished 12th in Austria in what was to be her final grand prix.

Formula 1 was behind her but Lombardi, just as at the start of her career, continued to race in a variety of categories. She had some success in sports cars, including a class win alongside Marie-Claude Beaumont in the 1975 Monza 1000km, and raced in both the Le Mans and Daytona 24 Hours. She also had a one-off drive in Nascar at Daytona in 1977.

But it was her long association with Osella that brought the greatest rewards. In 1979 she became the first woman to win an FIA-sanctioned world championship race when she finished first in the Enna 6 Hours alongside Enrico Grimaldi. Later in the year, now partnered by Giorgio Francia, she won again at Vallelunga, and in 1981 the pair had a string of good results including victory at the Mugello 6 Hours.

She continued to race in touring cars, mainly Alfa Romeos, into the 1980s, but ill health began to affect her. She blamed increasing chest pain on a sailing accident but the reality was much worse. She stopped racing at the end of the 1987 season and five years later succumbed to breast cancer. She was just 50.

With the launch of W Series, we aim to not only repeat Lella’s incredible feats, but to increase the number of women participating at the highest levels of motorsport across the globe.