Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Lella Lombardi




Of the five females who have competed in Formula One, Italy's Lella Lombardi was the most successful. She is so far the only woman to have scored World Championship points, even if her sole point for finishing sixth in the 1975 Spanish Grand Prix was reduced to half a point, due to the emergency shortening of the race. There had been safety concerns from the start, and when Rolf Stommelen's car went off the track, killing spectators, the race was halted. This has always overshadowed Lella's achievement.

Maria Grazia Lombardi, as she was then called, developed a fascination for speed after a high-speed mercy dash to the hospital in an Alfa Romeo following a sports accident. Neither of her parents drove and this was her first experience of a fast car. She was hooked. Very soon after passing her driving test, Lella started competing in any car she could, including co-driving a friend's rally car, and racing an Alfa Romeo and a BMW in club saloon events. Italy's Formula Monza was her first destination as a single-seater racer. For several seasons, she moved between Formula Monza, Formula Ford and Formula 3 in Italy. She won the Formula Monza Championship in 1970, having stepped back down from Formula 3 after a couple of unsuccessful seasons in a Branca. Back in Formula 3, she was tenth in the Italian championship in 1972 and 1973, driving for different teams, usually Jolly Club or Scuderia Italia. In 1972, she achieved her first top-five finishes in a Jolly Club Lotus 69: two fifths, at Varano and Imola. She took her first Formula 3 podium the following year, a second at Casale. In addition to this, she qualified for the prestigious Monaco F3 race in 1973, driving a Brabham for Scuderia Italia.

She combined Formula Three with a drive in the Italian Ford Mexico tin-top series and won the championship at her first attempt in 1973.

Lella really announced herself on the scene in 1974 when she came fourth in the UK-based Formula 5000 championship. She had to battle hard against good opposition in the likes of Peter Gethin and Tony Trimmer, especially as she was not the best driver during qualifying and depended on her ability to push hard during the race itself. Her best results were four fourth places at Brands Hatch, Monza, Oulton and Mallory Park. Her car was a Lola T330, sponsored by Radio Luxembourg and Shellsport. Shellsport was the motorsport promotion concern of John Webb, the director of Brands Hatch and a supporter of women racing drivers. Her Shellsport connections led to an invite to take part in two Ladies' and one celebrity Escort race at Brands, which she duly won.

Finances allowed her to enter a couple of non-championship Grands Prix, which she finished, although she was not particularly competitive. She was fourteenth in the Race of Champions at Brands Hatch and thirteenth in the BRDC International Trophy. Apparently, she also raced at Sandown Park in Australia, in a Matich F5000 car.

More power was needed and she got it in the shape of a Ford-engined Brabham BT42 for the British Grand Prix at Brands Hatch. The car was run by Hexagon Racing, and had been rented from Bernie Ecclestone, with the help of Webb and Jackie Epstein, from the Radio Luxembourg team. Unfortunately, it was not competitive, and she failed to qualify for her first Formula One event.

However, in 1975, Lella became a fully-fledged F1 driver at the wheel of a 1974-spec works March. She was supported by Count Zanon, of the Lavazza coffee company, and carried its sponsorship on her car. After missing the Argentine and Brazilian rounds, she joined the championship in South Africa. Her fuel system let her down. For the Spanish race, she was offered that year's model and earned her sixth place. She could not qualify for Monaco, and problems with the cooling and fuel systems meant that she did not finish in Belgium or Sweden. She was fourteenth at Zandvoort, 18th at Paul Ricard and did not finish the British race due to an ignition fault. Her other best result of the year was a seventh at the Nürburgring, showing her preference for the more challenging tracks. She was 17th in Austria, crashed at Monza and did not start in the USA, due to another ignition problem. The car was very unreliable and most of Lella's DNFs resulted from mechanical failures rather than accidents. She was also hindered by some sort of communication barrier with her mechanics, which was apparently nothing to do with language difficulties and more to do with them not taking her seriously. After a crash, the March started handling very badly, and Lella reported this to the team. They asked her team-mate, Vittorio Brambilla, to test the car out, and he reported nothing wrong. It was only during the following season, when Ronnie Peterson drove the car, that it was found that the rear assembly was cracked. Some members of the March team still feel guilty at their role in her poor season and subsequent lack of chances.

She qualified for every race except Monaco and proved herself capable of holding her own most of the time, even if further points finishes were not forthcoming.

For the US GP she had switched to a Williams after her sponsorship money from Lavazza started to dry up.

For the Brazilian GP in 1976, she was back in a March, in fourteenth place, but she was replaced by Ronnie Peterson afterwards. She drove an RAM Racing Brabham for the British, German and Austrian GPs but only finished once, a twelfth place at the Osterreichring. She did not qualify for the British race and her car was impounded prior to the German event, due to Customs problems.

Lella's F1 career finished there, but her motorsport life was certainly not over. She took the traditional path of the underachieving F1 driver and took up sportscar racing. However, this is not an entirely accurate assessment of Lella's sportscar career, as she had begun it earlier, and well. Her first Le Mans was in 1975, when she shared an Alpine with the Frenchwoman Marie-Claude Beaumont, but they retired after eight hours. Next year, Lella and Christine Dacremont finished second in class and 20th overall in a Lancia Stratos. The following year, she teamed up with Christine Beckers in a works Inaltera to finishe eleventh overall, her best ever result.

Lella was active in the World Sportscar Championship from 1974 onwards. That year, she was set to race a Jolly Club Lola T282 Ford in the Brands Hatch 1000km, but the car expired during her team-mate Pino Pica's stint and she did not get to drive.

It was not just at Le Mans that Lella drove an Alpine Renault with Marie-Claude Beaumont. They shared an A441 run by Ecurie Elf Switzerland for most of the 1975 World Championship season. After initially not gelling as a team, they were sixth at Mugello and thirteenth at Dijon, after engine trouble. At Monza they were a strong fourth, and won their class. Unfortunately, broken rear suspension put them out at Pergusa before the race even started, and a camshaft belt drive went early on at Zeltweg.


Lella and Marie-Claude in 1976

Their partnership did not continue in 1976. Lella drove a series of Porsches in the World Championship, for different teams. She started out in Michele di Gioia's Carrera RSR at Mugello, but its engine failed five laps in. At Vallelunga, she was slated to drive a similar RSR for Egon Evertz, but this did not happen. She got to drive for Evertz's team at Silverstone, in a 934. Her co-driver was Heinz Martin and they were fifth, first in the GT class. The same team, plus Evertz himself, were not as successful at the Nürburgring 1000km, crashing out on lap 29.

Later in the year, Lella sampled an Osella PA4 at the Coppa Florio at Pergusa. She and Danilo Tesani did not finish after an accident on lap 41. At Dijon, the same team made the finish, despite engine problems. They did not finish at Salzburg due to a water leak.

1977 was another mixed year. Lella and Christine Beckers drove an Inaltera at the Daytona 24 Hours, finishing 47th after an accident. She then teamed up with with Kenneth Leim in an RSR for part of the season. They failed to finish at Brands Hatch and were fourteenth at Hockenheim, after coming 16th and 18th in the heats. However, at Vallelunga they were fourth, and won the GT class.

An unsuccessful return to the Lola T282 followed at Monza, leading to a DNF for Lella and Giorgio Pianta. The story was similar at the second Vallelunga race. Initially, switching to a works Osella PA5 at the Coppa Florio did not help either, but later, this car gave Lella and Giovanni Anzeloni a third at Imola. A private version of the car was entered at Salzburg, but did not appear.

That year, Lella also tried her hand at NASCAR. She entered the Firecracker 400 at Daytona with Christine Beckers. Lella was 31st and Christine was 37th. Janet Guthrie also took part in the race.

Using a jointly-owned Porsche 934, she returned to the World Sportscar Championship with Kenneth Leim in 1978. They did not make the start at Mugello, but were fifteenth at Silverstone. The Nürburgring race ended early after a crash and the car did not appear at Vallelunga.

In 1979, Lella acquired an Osella PA6 which was to bring her some of her greatest successes. Le Mans brought retirement, but the 1000km event at Mugello won her and Giorgio Francia a fourth place. they entered the Nürburgring round but did not drive. However, at Enna-Pergusa she did better than ever, becoming the first woman ever to win a World Championship race. This time, she was partnered by Enrico Grimaldi. At Vallelunga, later in the year, she won again, dominating the race and finishing four laps up on her nearest rival. Giorgio Francia was once more her team-mate. In between, she drove a 934 to 16th place at Brands Hatch, with Kenneth Leim.

By 1980, Lella was running and driving for her own team, with an Osella PA8. Unfortunately, she did not finish any of the World Championship rounds she entered, after a mixture of accidents and mechanical problems. One of her co-pilots that year was Vittorio Brambilla, a former F1 colleague.

1981 saw Lella and Giorgio Francia win their last race together, the Mugello Six Hours. They were driving a works-supported Osella PA9. They were also second at Monza, fourth at Silverstone, second at Pergusa and fifth at Brands Hatch. It was a fitting swansong to a strong partnership of make and drivers.

The "Tigress from Turin", as she was affectionately known, then turned to touring car racing, in a series of Alfa Romeos, earning many good class positions. In 1982, she drove in the European Championship, mostly with Anna Cambiaghi, in a Jolly Club Alfetta GTV/6. Antonio Palma was her other team-mate. She had a best finish of fourth and ran consistently in the top ten for the first part of the season, before mechanical gremlins set in. She, Antonio and Marcello Gallo were twelfth in the Spa 24 Hours.

In 1983 she drove a similar car in the ETCC with Giancarlo Naddeo. She was somewhat off the pace this year and had a best finish of ninth, at Mugello. In 1984, she used the same car, teaming up once more with Giorgio Francia. They did not fare any better, with a best finish of tenth and a series of DNFs.

She did better in 1985, with Rinaldo Drivandi. They were sixth at Monza and were regulars in the top ten thereafter, barring mechanical failures. They did not compete in the last two rounds. The following year, she and Naddeo drove an Alfa Romeo 75, which was very unreliable to begin with. Driving alongside Rinaldo Drivandi and Roberto Castagna, Lella managed to bring it home in eighth at the Spa 24 Hours, by far her best result all year.

She raced a Ford Sierra RS Cosworth for Jolly Club in some rounds of the 1987 ETCC, but top ten finishes were out of her reach. She pulled out of the last round at Nogaro due to illness. She attempted to return for the first round of the 1988 season, but was not able.

Her story begins and ends with an Alfa. Ill health plagued her towards the end of the 1980s and eventually forced her to retire. She had become aware that she was ill in 1985, but blamed her breast pain on an injury sustained whilst sailing. When unable to race herself, she formed her own Alfa touring car team, but sadly she died of breast cancer shortly afterwards, in 1992. She was fifty.

(Alpine image copyright Jean-Jacques Mancel)

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