Divina Galica: female F1 drivers who took the sport by storm
Charlotte Birchall

Charlotte Birchall

Charlotte is a marketing specialist and a writing genius. She has a distinct and hilarious way with words and a fine eye for the best topics to cover. In Charlotte's hands we know you'll be both entertained and informed.

Famously a male-dominated sport, these 5 women broke the mould in the world of Formula 1

With over 433 million viewers worldwide, there’s no denying that Formula 1 is a popular sport. It has its origins in the European Championship of Grand Prix which took place in the 1920s and 30s, before becoming the F1 we know and love in 1946, with the standardization of rules.

The first race was the Turin Grand Prix in the same year, but owing to suspension during World War 2, the very first World Championship for drivers didn’t actually take place until 1950, with Giuseppe Farina taking the podium at Silverstone.

The triumphs and tragedies of F1 over the proceeding years have been well documented and the sport has gained a strong and invested fan base, with many famous drivers becoming role models for budding enthusiasts.

But what part have women played over the years? Most people will be aware of the controversial removal of Grid Girls in 2018 – a decision made by the new owners on account of the practice being inappropriate and outdated. Instead of scantily clad models at opening ceremonies, it is now normal to honour the young people involved in the youth version of the sport.

Perhaps surprisingly though, female representation in Formula 1 has historically run deeper than just ‘looking pretty’. In fact, there have been a total of five women drivers involved since the very first race in 1950.

Granted, five out of a total of 770 drivers is a fairly paltry number – it’s certainly fair to say women are underrepresented – but we think those pioneering drivers are worth celebrating. 

So settle down and get to know Formula 1’s favourite females!

Maria Teresa de Filippis

1.     Maria Teresa de Filippis

Born on 11th November 1926 in Naples, Italy, Maria Teresa de Filippis was the original F1 female driver who set the precedent for those who followed. She began her racing career at the age of 22, goaded by her brothers who had made a bet that she would be too slow to amount to anything.

Undeterred, she took to the mean streets of Italy in a Fiat 500 (what else?) and set out to prove them wrong, triumphing in a 10km race between Salerno and Cava de’ Tirreni. The victory prompted her to enter the Italian Sports Car Championship in 1954, in which she finished a very respectable second.

Unbeknownst to her, F1 giants Maserati had been keeping an eye on her. 

Seeing her potential, Maserati brought her on board as the works driver. In the following years, she took part in many endurance and hill-climbing races. Her most notable result was winning second place in a sports car race supporting the 1956 Naples Grand Prix driving a Maserati 200S.

De Filippis made her Formula 1 debut on 18th May 1958 at the Monaco Grand Prix. Of the thirty-one entrants, only half achieved a good enough time to qualify, with Maria narrowly missing out on a qualifying spot alongside F1 legend Bernie Ecclestone.

The year turned out to be a mixed bag for De Filippis, with her qualifying in nineteenth place for the Belgian Grand Prix but finishing in 10th – and last - place. This would turn out to be her only race finish.

When the French Grand Prix came around that same year, she declined to compete allegedly because race officials denied her the opportunity. In a later interview, she claimed that the race director told her “The only helmet a woman should wear is one at a hairdresser”.

She went on the qualify in last place for the Portuguese Grand Prix and managed just six laps before her engine failed. The year also saw multiple deaths in the sport, which had a profound impact on Maria. In 1959, she joined Behra-Porsche RSK but failed to qualify for the Monaco Grand Prix. 

Disillusioned and grieving, she walked away from the sport for over twenty years.

Fast forward to 1979 and - after marriage and children -  De Filippis elected to join the International Club of Former F1 Drivers eventually becoming president in 1997. She was one of the founding members of the Maserati Club in 2004.

Maria Teresa de Filippis passed away in 2016 at the age of 89 but her legacy remains. 

She truly was a trailblazer for women in the world of F1.

Lella Lombardi

1.     Lella Lombardi

It would be almost twenty years before another woman followed in Maria’s footsteps but the wait was most definitely worth it. 

Continuing to fly the flag for the Italians, Lella Lombardi is the most successful female F1 driver to date, clocking up an impressive seventeen entries and twelve finishes. She remains the only woman in the history of the sport to have scored points.

Born in Fugarola on 26th March 1941, Lombardi began her life behind the wheel as a delivery driver for her father’s butcher’s shop. She notched up some experience in the karting world before buying her first car in 1965 and entering Formula Monza.

In 1968, she moved to Italian Formula Three and had a cracking season - ultimately ending it as runner-up to Franco Bernabei. 

1970 saw Lombardi racing a Biraghi in the Italian Formula 850 series in which she won four of the ten races, leading her to claim the championship title. The following year, she moved to London and took part in the Formula Ford Mexico Championship, which she also won.

Lella made her Formula 1 debut in 1975, having been invited to join Vittorio Brambilla and Hans-Joachim Stuck in March. 

It was an exceptional year that saw Lombardi race for the full season. At the opening race of the campaign in South Africa, she became the first woman to successfully qualify since De Filippis. She completed twenty-three laps before an issue with the fuel system of her car forced her to retire.

She scored a point in the Spanish Grand Prix and finished in sixth place but the race was blighted by tragedy. With five spectators killed, it was halted prematurely and only half points were awarded. The German Grand Prix saw Lombardi finish at a respectable 7th and she went on to qualify for the American Grand Prix in a one-off drive for Williams, but couldn’t start due to ignition problems.

Lella Lombardi continued her racing career up until 1988, competing in the 24 Hours Le Mans race several times, her best result being 9th place in 1976 in a Porsche Carrera. She also tried her hand at NASCAR, driving in the Firecracker 400, and at the infamous Daytona International Speedway in 1977.

Following her retirement she founded Lombardi Autosport, her own racing team which remains active today despite the sad death of Lombardi herself in 1992 aged just 50.

Divina Galica

1.     Divina Galica

Bringing home the bacon for the British contingent is sportswoman extraordinaire Divina Galica, who was born in Bushey Heath near Watford on 13th August 1944. Amazingly, she started her sporting career not in driving but as a skier – and a blooming brilliant one at that.

By 1964, aged just 19, Galica competed in her first Olympic Games at Innsbruck. She went on to Captain the British Women’s Olympic Ski Team in two subsequent Olympic Games in 1968 and 1972, as well as notching up two World Cup podium finishes and setting the women’s downhill skiing speed record at 125mph.

Her driving career began totally by chance when she was asked to participate in a celebrity auto race and - surprise, surprise – it turned out she was pretty talented at that too! 

Noticing this, Nick Whiting took her under his wing and entered her into the British Shellsport International Group 8 in 1976 driving a Surtees TS16 F1 car. After some promising races, she entered the British Grand Prix the same year, electing to use the same Surtees.

For the first time in thirteen years of F1, Galica entered under number thirteen. Sadly, it turned out to really be the unlucky number for her as she failed to qualify. It's not all bad news though as she became one of only seven F1 drivers to also have competed in the Olympics.

Buoyed by her promise, Divina and Whiting acquired a second-hand Surtees TS19 for her to drive in the 1977 British series. 

They pitted themselves against rival Tony Trimmer, who also opted to drive a Surtees. Despite their gumption, unfortunately the Whiting team lacked technical expertise so Galica was hindered by poorly tuned machinery. In spite of this, she managed a third at Brands Hatch and a second at Donnington Park. 

It wasn’t quite enough in the face of Trimmer’s superior engineering knowledge, though, and he snatched the title.

When 1978 rolled around, Hesketh driver Rupert Keegan offered Galica the chance to take his place in a Hesketh 308E for the upcoming season. She failed to qualify and returned to her roots at the British Shellsport Championships – now a fully-fledged F1 series.

Back in the TS19, she secured second place at Zandvoort and later in the season secured overall seventh. Galica turned her hand to Thundersports S2000 car classes shortly after, clocking up a considerable number of top ten finishes before switching to truck racing.

She returned to skiing in the 1992 Olympics, and then focused on instructing other drivers for Skip Barber Racing until 2005 when she became director of iRacing.com. She maintains her instructing, however, and since 2018 has been doing so at Bertil Roos Racing School.

That is one highly talented lady!

Desire Wilson

1.     Desire Wilson

Short and sweet is probably the most accurate way to describe Wilson’s Formula 1 driving career. 

Born in Brakpan, South Africa on 26th November 1953 she made a name for herself on the South African racing scene but took the steps to move to Britain in the late 1970s, when a sponsorship deal went sour.

She began working at Brands Hatch, where circuit owner John Webb spotted her driving potential and took her under his wing. He fielded her in the short-lived British Aurora F1 Championship where she completed her first full season in 1979, notching up four podium finishes and an overall finishing place of seventh.

But it was 1980 that proved to be the most successful year for Wilson. 

She entered the Formula 1 World Championship Grand Prix in a RAM Racing prepared Williams FW07 but failed to qualify. Despite the disappointing start, her fortunes changed dramatically later in the season when she went on to win at Brands Hatch, making her the only woman in F1 history to have won a race of any kind.

Her remarkable performance in a four-year-old red Wolf WR4 was seminal, winning over some who had previously questioned the place of women in Formula 1 and earning her a grandstand at the circuit named after her.

Not everyone accepted her as a credible driver however, with Wilson claiming in her autobiography that she regularly experienced male drivers trying to force her off the track.

She had some pleasing successes in that year’s World Endurance Championship, sharing victories at Monza and Silverstone with Alain de Cadenet but getting a foothold in F1 remained tricky for Wilson. She was offered a seat at Tyrell, who were keen to see her succeed on the F1 circuit.

In the opening race, she made a promising start, pacing teammate Eddie Cheever and F1 legend Nigel Mansell. But her progress was halted when she moved off line to allow leader Nelson Piquet to lap her, when she accidentally spun and hit a wall.

An additional blow came when an ongoing row between Ecclestone’s Formula 1 Constructor’s Association and the FIA meant that one race was stripped of its world championship status. Devastatingly for Desire, it was her winning race at Brands Hatch that was affected.

Later in her career, she moved into other disciplines such as sports car racing and CART as well as the infamous Indianapolis 500 with varying successes.

Giovanna Amati

1.     Giovanna Amati

It was to be twelve years before a woman made waves in Formula 1 again, in the form of Italian Amati. 

Born in Rome on 20th July 1959 to actress Anna Maria Pancani and cinema chain owner Giovanni Amati, Giovanna’s start in life was comfortable, to say the least. Her desire to enter the world of motorsports was evident at an early age and her wealthy background allowed her to enroll in a motor racing school to hone her driving skills.

The family wealth was not without its problems, though, which Amati found out to her cost at the tender age of 19, when she was, rather sensationally, kidnapped. In actual fact, she was taken from her car on 12th February 1978 and held in a wooden cage for a traumatizing 75 days, until her family paid the 800 million lira ransom her captors asked.

Undeterred or perhaps spurred on by the horrific experience, in which she suffered physical and mental abuse, Amati focused her mind on her driving and in 1981, entered Formula Abarth. She tenaciously drove for four years, winning several races before moving to Italian Formula Three for the 1985/6 season.

By 1987, she had moved up to Formula 3000, racing three times but only managed to qualify once. Her fortunes changed in January 1992, when she was signed with formidable F1 giants Brabham. It was a shrewd move by the team, who gained a lot of publicity by signing a woman. 

Amati’s inexperience with the mechanics of Formula 1 machinery, however, was not improved by a lack of time to familiarize herself with her car.

In the opening round of the championship in South Africa, she spun six times during practice, leaving her nine seconds behind pole holder Mansell and stopping her from qualifying. In the next round in Mexico she finished 10 seconds behind, and a disappointing 11 seconds behind in Brazil. As a result, she was sacked by Brabham and replaced with Damon Hill.

Throughout the 1990s she had more tangible successes in races such as the Porsche Super Cup and Ferrari Challenge before moving into sports commentary and broadcasting at the turn of the millennium.