On 15 August, 44 years ago, Lella Lombardi qualified for and finished a Formula 1 Grand Prix – the last time that a female driver has done so. W Series seeks to end the long wait, believing that, in time, with practice and experience, our best graduates will be able to compete in F1 on level terms with male drivers.
To mark the anniversary of the 1976 Austrian Grand Prix, our driver, Vicky Piria, sat down to watch the race and tell us why her fellow Italian, Lella Lombardi, continues to inspire her and everyone at W Series.
It was so cool to look back at what was a momentous day for Italian motorsport. As well as being the last F1 Grand Prix in which a female driver – my compatriot, Lella Lombardi – competed and finished, the 1976 Austrian Grand Prix was also the last that Ferrari didn’t compete in. Their driver, Niki Lauda, was in hospital following his infamous accident two weeks earlier at the Nürburgring and the team were protesting the FIA’s decision to reinstate Lauda’s title rival, James Hunt, as the winner of the Spanish Grand Prix three months earlier.
I’ve seen clips of Lella’s races before, but I have never had the opportunity to sit down and watch one in full. I now have even more respect for Lella, and all the drivers from that era. I was struck by how authentic the circuit looked with no run-off areas, and by how beautiful and distinctive the cars were. Three cars led that race at the Österreichring – John Watson’s Penske, Ronnie Peterson’s March and Jody Scheckter’s Tyrrell – and they all looked so different, with the Tyrrell on six wheels! With such huge discrepancies between designs, the drivers had fewer reference points and so must have been working on instinct to find improvement much more so than today.
The cars looked so aggressive with those big tyres and I can’t imagine how challenging they were to drive without power-steering, especially in a race which started in wet conditions. I sit so low in the car and have the Halo head protection device attached to the cockpit of my W Series car too. But back then you could see much more of the drivers and, with the g-forces, they must have constantly felt like they were about to be thrown out of the car. Nowadays we have lots of knowledge around how to prepare for races mentally and physically, and special supplements and technologies to help us, but they had very little of that.
Make no mistake, you had to be special to drive in F1 then. Hunt averaged 140mph on the qualifying lap which earned him pole position that weekend. That’s phenomenal at one of the fastest circuits on the calendar with the track limits perilously close, the weather changing and Lauda fighting for his life in hospital. As a human being all of that must unsettle you, but as a racer you never think about crashing and hurting yourself once the visor goes down and the lights go out. I am never fearful of having an accident and I know those drivers would have felt the same, because you cannot drive fast and compete at the highest level if you are scared.
There were only a few people around Lella’s car before the race – imagine the swathes that would surround the car of a female driver on an F1 grid now! Even though it was strange to see that, I’m glad Lella wasn’t considered a novelty. But, compared to the juggernaut it has become, F1 was a relatively small sport back then. The 1976 Austrian Grand Prix wasn’t on television in the UK, even though championship-contender Hunt was on pole and Watson won the race. People in attendance were motorsport purists who cared little for the showbiz side of things.
Lella would undoubtedly have had more recognition as F1 became more mainstream, but she would also have found it more difficult to get a seat at all. Indeed, as motorsport has become more open in terms of audience, it has also become more of a closed shop for drivers because of the money required to race. That’s one of the reasons why W Series is so ground-breaking. It doesn’t cost us a penny to race in the series and that has reinvigorated the careers of so many female drivers who, like me, felt as though they were running out of road.
Thanks to W Series there is now a much clearer route to the top of motorsport for young female drivers. When I was karting, I had no idea where to go and what to do because there were no examples. Now, I am confident we will see another female driver in F1 soon and when it happens I will feel like part of that success because you need more than one fast female driver to prove we can do it. A W Series grid of 18 or 20 female racing drivers is such a powerful example to young female drivers, just like Lella continues to be.
I’m so proud of Lella. When I talk to someone who doesn’t know much about the history of our sport, she is the example I use when asked whether women could compete in F1. It makes a difference because every athlete in every sport needs those examples. If we can see others have made it, we have that belief and motivation to make it too. I can say to that journalist or prospective sponsor: “This is Lella Lombardi and look at what she achieved.”
But 44 years is a long time. The footage of Lella’s races is grainy and the memories of her are fading. It’s time to end the wait and change the face of motorsport.
To learn more about Lella’s story read our Women with Drive article.