Brought to you by TJ13 contributor Danilo Schöneberg
After the first part that – I admit – was a bit more hotly contested than I had expected, we’ll now look at what the female contingent has shown so far in motorsport, which I believe is fairly substantial.
The early pioneers
One would think that at a time when women weren’t even allowed to vote in many parts of the world and needed their husband’s written consent to open a bank account, there wasn’t a cat’s chance in hell they could have taken part in motor races. But, just like in the early days of aviation, a few strong women cast all social prejudice aside and went for it … and they weren’t also-rans either.
There was Spanish Lady Elia Maria González-Álvarez y López-Chicheri (later Comtess de Valdene), who won the Campeonato de Cataluna de Automovilismo in 1914, aged 19. She also was an Olympic tennis finalist in the 1924 summer games and was ranked #2 in the world at the time. Imagine Maria Sharapova taking part in motor races. Obviously, still not being quite satisfied with her racing and tennis exploits, “the Senorita“, as she was called, also competed in alpine skiing, ice skating and equestrian. What a lady!
Then, there was The Honourable Mrs. Victor Bruce, who finished sixth in in the 1927 Monte Carlo Rally, driving an AC Six car. Using the same model, she established several world records, endurance speed records, a rather peculiar single-handed 24h driving world record in a Bentley 4.5litre, and another record by planting a Union Jack 250 miles north of the Arctic circle. Nobody would ever drive a motorcar further northward until well into the 21st century (for instance when two middle-aged, mildly buzzed blokes from Her Majesty’s Empire reached the magnetic north pole in a Toyota Hilux).
These are all remarkable achievements, but the story of Frenchwoman Violette Morris just boggles the mind. She was – let’s say – of robust build, smoked two to three packets of cigarettes a day and had a habit of cussing a blue-streak on occasion, but behind what sounds like a description of a movie-stereotype trucker was a remarkable individual. She was the first French woman to excel at shot putting and discus throwing, played for two different Paris based football teams and was a national player for France in both football and water polo. She was also the French national boxing champion in 1923, often fighting and defeating men. As if that weren’t enough, she also competed in bicycle racing, motorcycle racing, archery, airplane racing, tennis, diving, greco-roman wrestling, and – of course – motor racing.
In 1927 she won the Bol d’Or 24h race, driving a B.N.C (Bollack, Netter & Co.). Since racing cars were not exactly made for comfort back then, she had her breasts surgically removed in 1928 to better fit into the cramped cockpits of racing cars.
Her demise, however, was rather less glorious. Collaborating with the Nazi occupation forces in France, she became a target of the resisténce and was killed by members of a french partisan group in April 1944.
While the exploits of women in the early 20th century had proven that they could take the fight to their male counterparts, women remained a minority in international motorsport, though that didn’t stop the ladies from trying.
The first pioneer was Maria Theresa de Fillipis, who, in 1958, entered several F1 races in a year-old Maserati. Unfortunately, the ageing machinery was hopelessly outgunned by the opposition and tenth and last place at the 1958 Belgian GP remained her only F1 race finish.
It would take another 15 years until F1 saw another lady racer, and again it was an Italian woman – Lella Lombardi, who is the first and only woman ever to score a points finish in F1. Finishing sixth in the 1975 Spanish GP, she scored half a point, because the race was red-flagged before the mandatory 75% distance was covered. Lombardi was the second and last woman so far ever to qualify for a Formula One Grand Prix.
Meanwhile in America
When you see religious lunatics on TV and Senators and Congressmen lobbying to forbid legal abortion for female rape victims, you wouldn’t really peg the US of A for the home of liberal and progressive thinking, but nowhere in the world the chances of a female driver to make it to the top of the motorsports food chain are as good as it is in the land of the free.
When Lella Lombardi attempted to find her place in Formula One, Janet Guthrie set off to conquer Indy and NASCAR. The numbers and facts aren’t bad either. She is the first woman to compete in the Daytona 500 and the Indy 500. Her ninth place finish at Indianapolis stood for 30 years as the best finish of a woman and with Lynn St. James, Sarah Fisher, Shawna Robinson, Danica Patrick, Milka Duno, Ana Beatriz, Kathrin Legge, and Pippa Mann there were and are enough names to continue the legacy that started with Janet Guthrie.
Danica Patrick would finally topple most of the milestones set by Janet Guthrie. She was the first woman to lead at Indy, recorded the best ever female finish with a fourth place, and in 2008 became the first Lady to win in America’s premier open-wheel division, when she won at Twinring Motegi. Switching to NASCAR, a rather strange move since open-wheel racers have traditionally struggled in the ten-ton ox carts, she created a bit of a splash by taking pole position for the legendary Daytona 500 and posting a top ten finish in 2013.
If the picture looks bleak in F1, our friends on the other side of the pond are showing us the way in other areas of motorsports. Women in American drag racing have been a common sight for the last twenty years. Pioneer driver Shirley Muldowney paved the way by winning three championships in the scary-as-hell Top Fuel division in 1977, 1980 and 1982. And if those dragsters aren’t scary enough for you – how about doing the same cannonball ride on a motorbike? Angelle Sampey did and she did it fast enough to score three consecutive championships in 2000-2002. At 41 race wins Sampey is likely to be the most successful female driver in history.
What about “Old Europe“?
In Europe, the chances the women in open-wheel racing are less than stellar, but that does not mean they haven’t found a way to make a name for themselves in other forms of Motorsport.
Audi raised more than a few eyebrows when they signed up Michelle Mouton as a factory driver for the 1981 World Rally Championship. Four wins and 4 further podium positions between 1981 and 1984 show it wasn’t a mere publicity stunt either.
Probably the best ever shot at making it to the higher levels in open-wheel racing had Claudia Hürtgen in the early nineties. After becoming karting champion in 1988 she ran successful campaigns in the German Formula Ford, yielding 7 podiums and one win, before being promoted to the German Formula Three.
Being a consistent front to upper-midfield runner there, she was invited to run in the F3 invitational race at Monaco in 1993, a support race of the Formula 1 Grand Prix. Having qualified for the second row, her car barrel rolled after she was punted off by a competitor. Hürtgen suffered severe hand injuries that would effectively end her openwheel career.
It would take all of 1994 for her to recover and she returned in 1995, becoming Austrian Touring Car champion. For the last 18 years she has been active in GT and Endurance racing with several class wins in the Le Mans 24h, Nürburgring 24h and Daytona 24h.
Touring Cars would see another fine effort by Ellen Lohr. She was signed as a driver for the de-facto Mercedes-Benz works team, AMG Mercedes, for the 1992 DTM season, as team mate of Keke Rosberg. In May 1992 she became the first woman to win a DTM race, winning the weekend’s first race at Hockenheim after a race-long brutal dogfight with her famous team mate.
To make sure of not being beaten like that again, Keke cynically rammed her off the track at the start of the second race. Lohr later switched to truck racing.
Even in the manly world of Rally Raid racing, namely the Paris-Dakar Rally, which traditionally opens the motorsport year, the Ladies have shown to be competitive. German racer Jutta Kleinschmidt started competing in the Dakar in 1988 driving motorcycles before switching to cars in the mid-90s. In 1997 she became the first female stage-winner of the Paris-Dakar, scored the first ever podium position for a girl in 1998 and won the whole thing in 2001. Despite a plethora of German teams and manufacturers running the Dakar every year, she’s still the only German, who has actually won the event.
Women have been active in almost all forms of motorsport, and Formula One remains one of the very few series where the ladies haven’t had a serious shot yet. Ellen Lohr, Danica Patrick, Jutta Kleinschmidt, Claudia Hürtgen, Ashley Force, Shirley Muldowney, and Angelle Sampey have proven that, given competitive material, womanfolk are every bit as good as their male competitors.
Now all we need is an F1 team willing to take a lead and sign up one of the many prospects currently available. The candidates will be the topic of part 3 in this series on women in motorsport.