The daughter of a butcher, the Italian started driving at the age of 13 and at 24 she was already running secretly from her family. She was sixth in the 1975 Spanish Grand Prix, the scene of a tragedy.
Half a century ago, in times when no one dared to question the binary sex-generic system of sport, there was a woman who not only knocked down prejudices of motorsport and reached Formula 1. She was the driver who participated in the most Grand Prix (17) and became the only one who managed to score. The landmark is from the Italian Maria Grazia “Lella” Lombardi and the appointment, the tragic Spanish Grand Prix in 1975.
Born in the Italy of Benito Mussolini and raised in the midst of the postwar economic and social crisis, the fourth daughter of a butcher from the town of Frugarolo, in the Piedmont region, she met and fell in love with speed when she was taken to a nearby hospital for a blow to the nose. The story differs depending on who is telling it: some say that she was driven in an Alfa Romeo after being injured in a handball match and others that it was a woman who was driving.
While Formula 1 was born, a 9-year-old Lella touched a steering wheel for the first time and rehearsed the maneuvers that she finally did at 13, when he started driving. At 18 he began to take charge of the meat and salami deliveries in the family van, while at 24 – after some go-kart testing – he launched himself into motor racing with a rental vehicle.
Without his father knowing and keeping it a secret until the news reached the Frugarolo newspapers, with some savings and the support of the Automobile Club rented a Fiat for 42,000 lira a month to race in Formula Monza. According to Cristina Falco’s book “Better by force: Stories of women and sport from the twentieth century to today”, Lombardi launched into the practice of motorsport with a team made up of Franco, the town blacksmith who understood some locomotive mechanics, and for Pino, his great childhood friend.
Although when he discovered that his daughter was a pilot he never publicly supported her, Lella’s father proudly showed his friends the stories that the newspapers of the time made about that intrepid girl who soon left the town and moved to Monza. In Italian Formula 3 it became known as “La Tigre di Torino” (“The Tigress of Turin”) and in 1970, with four victories in ten races, she became champion of the Italian Formula 850 series.
Like many drivers of the time, pursuing his dream of Formula 1, he went to London, where most of the teams were concentrated. And until she made it happen in 1974, she brought her talent to the other side of the Atlantic Ocean: she was the ShellSport Celebrity Series champion in Mexico and competed in two races of the Formula 5000 European Championship in California. She was also invited to several tests in the United States, including one in Daytona, after which, according to a childhood friend, she bought an apartment at the Limone Piemonte ski resort.
“She was the first driver who seriously impressed me. The F5000s weren’t easy to drive, but they managed to ride faster and faster throughout the season. If it had been a bit more glamorous, it might have attracted more people’s attention, ”said Ian Ashley, his teammate on the SuperSHELL Luxembourg team.
Formula 1 called her for the Great Britain Grand Prix 1974, but with a Brabham BT42 from the previous year he failed to qualify. After that attempt, he had the support he needed to make a team. An Italian nobleman, the count Vittorio Zanon, made a contribution of £ 50,000 so that March would have two compatriots in his ranks: Lella and Vittorio Brambilla.
Finally, she fulfilled her dream on March 1, 1975 in South Africa, where 17 years after she did it for the last time Maria Teresa de Filippis, a woman started a Grand Prix.
“It is true that at first they considered me a white blackbird (NdR: something weird). ‘What does this one intend?’, they asked themselves. I don’t want to remember the looks of surprise and even anger they gave me when I passed them. Then, after a certain number of competitions, his attitude has changed. From two years to this part, I am like one of them: there is no difference “, said the Italian who had 34 years when it became the only woman to score in F1.
It was in the fourth test of that season, on April 27, in Catalonia. Just in the previous one, he told the newspaper ABC: “Fear? No. I live a tremendous tension during the hours before departure, but once in the car I forget everything. I feel like empty, absent, free. I have nothing left, I do not experience any sensation. Only the car and the track exist for me. An absolute concentration that only lets me think about one thing: how to overtake the opponent in front of me ”.
He showed it in that race on the dangerous street circuit of Montjuic, which did not return to F1. Lella started 24th and reached an amazing 6th place, the product of overtaking and also the quick abandonments of several riders, including Niki Lauda, in addition to the boycott of champion Emerson Fittipaldi, who refused to start after he warned about the danger of the rails. He was right.
On lap 25, the German Rolf Stonmelen, surprising test leader with her Lola Ford, lost her rear wing and hit the guardrail, causing her car rise and fall on the audience, killing the spectator Andrés Ruiz Villanova, the journalists Mario de Roia and Antonio Font Bayarri and the Fire Commissioner Joakuin Morera and injuring ten people, including the pilot, who suffered multiple broken legs.
Shortly after, the race stopped and the end of the test was decreed, despite the fact that Jochen Mass, winner with the McLaren ahead of Jacky Ickx (Lotus) and the Argentine Carlos Reutemann (Brabham), had only covered 29 laps.
Without having completed 75% of its route, the organization only delivered half of the score, so Lombardi received half a point instead of the point for finishing sixth, the best location for a woman in Formula 1.
Those who had alleged that Lombardi had achieved that sixth place thanks to the abandonments had to keep quiet when the Italian was seventh in the difficult path of Nürburgring, on August 3, at a German GP that Reutemann won.