A life lived fast and well.
The Spanish Grand Prix of April 1975 was a race marked by tragedy. Disputes over the quality of the barriers meant that many drivers only participated in the race under threat of legal action and their cars being impounded by the Guardia Civil. Then, on lap 26 Rolf Stommelen crashed, his car bouncing off one barrier only to fly over another, killing four people as it landed. The race itself was halted shortly after at 29 laps.
In the midst of the chaos, one woman was making a quiet achievement. Finishing sixth in the race, Lella Lombardi became the first and so far, only woman to score points in Formula One.
From her earliest memory Maria Grazia Lombardi – as she was born - was passionate about one thing - racing. Having made up her mind aged 8 that she would be a racing driver, Lella was single-minded in her focus. There was just one problem, evident to almost everyone except Lella. She was a woman. The village priest tried to warn her of this, explaining why she ‘should be like a girl and what a girl must do’, but Lella could not understand what difference being a girl made to her love of racing. Years later, speaking to the New York Times, she would say ‘I love motor racing and that’s all I want to do. I’m not terribly conscious of there being a difference between male and female in this sort of thing.’
Whether Lella was conscious of a difference or not, sheer passion could not protect her from others’ discrimination, a fact highlighted by the rest of the 1975 season after the Grand Prix. Throughout it she complained to the mechanics that her car wasn’t handling properly. Sceptical of her judgement they ignored it and their relationship soured. Only later when another driver complained of the same problem did the team begin to listen, taking the car apart they discovered a crack. By this point it was too late for Lella, who had left the team.
Maybe to some Lombardi’s career could be seen in this light as a tale of frustrated opportunities. Even her point in the Grand Prix was a half-point; with the race being stopped at 29 laps, only half points were awarded. In the years after 1975 she would suffer mechanical failures, struggle to qualify for Grand Prix’s and even have her car impounded by court injunction.
But this narrative misses the point.
Lella’s half-point doesn’t reflect the story of someone who was half-way to success. Instead, seen through Lella’s eyes, her career was the tale of passion pursued. It wasn’t a passion altered by obstacles, even though it was hard-won, nor was it a passion easily replaced by other things. At a time when other F1 drivers were renowned for their excess, Lella was renowned for her simplicity. F1 wasn’t attractive because of the fame it offered or even the wealth.
It offered Lombardi a chance to race.
Even retirement did not end the love affair, instead she founded her own racing team Lombardi Autosport. In the end, life for Lella Lombardi was simple.
She did what she loved; she went fast, and she went well.