Pit-lane pioneers: Women in Formula One

Story highlights

Britain's Divina Galica is one of only five women to have entered an F1 grand prix

Prior to moving into motorsport, Galica was a Winter Olympic skier

Galica made her F1 bow at the 1976 British GP, but never qualified for a race

Italy's Lella Lombardi is the only one woman to have scored a Formula One point

CNN  — 

“I’d never been near a race track in my life,” explains Divina Galica, a former Olympic skier who belongs to an exclusive band of Formula One drivers. There are only five members – and they are all female.

“For many years I lived near Thruxton (a race track in southern England) and could hear the cars going round, but I never had any interest in going over there.”

Galica was captain of the British women’s ski team and competed at three Winter Olympics from 1964 to 1972, but it was not until she hung up her poles that her story took a remarkable twist.

Just under a month shy of her 32nd birthday, she became only the third woman to enter an F1 race at the 1976 British Grand Prix, completing an incredible career change.

“When I stopped ski racing I started a shop in London selling ski wear,” Galica told CNN. “It was a complete change of pace to me and I got a little restless.

“One day the telephone rang and a gentleman asked me if I’d like to go in for a celebrity race for sports people. I came second in the race and a lot of people were surprised that in my first race I had come second.

“John Webb (formerly in charge of the UK’s Brands Hatch circuit) invited me to race against the women drivers who were racing and again I came second. That sort of started my career.”

It was a career which propelled Galica into the male-dominated world of F1, where only five women have entered a grand prix in its 61-year history and only two have successfully qualified for a race.

“I think I was quite well known because a lot of publicity followed me around and most people seemed to think I was qualified to race at that level,” said Galica, who entered two further grands prix with the Hesketh team at the start of the 1978 season.

“The downside was the car I was driving, not the team because they were top notch – they had run (1976 world champion) James Hunt. But the car was old and not particularly competitive.”

The first woman to test herself against the men was Italy’s Maria Teresa de Filippis, who made history at the 1958 Monaco Grand Prix – a race which also saw the sport’s future supremo Bernie Ecclestone make his bow.

De Filippis failed to qualify in Monte Carlo, but a month later in Belgium, in a race with no cut-off time for qualification, she started in last position on the grid.

In a contest which saw nine of the 19-strong field retire, De Filippis guided her Maserati around the Spa track but finished right at the back.

Her compatriot Lella Lombardi is the most successful female driver so far. In a three-year spell, Lombardi entered 17 grands prix for March, RAM and Williams, competing in 12 races.

She became the first and only woman to score in the elite division of motorsport, when a fifth-place finish at the 1975 Spanish Grand Prix while racing for March earned her half a point instead of the usual one because the race distance was shortened.

Hot on the heels of Lombardi was Galica, who, inspired by her Italian forerunners, entered the sport in 1976.

“Like everything, motorsport was male-dominated for many years but there were many, many women who raced … Lella Lombardi was extremely good,” the 67-year-old said.

“She was extremely strong as well, she had a good car and she did very well in it. So there have been good women drivers in Formula One.”

Galica believes strength is essential if women are to deal with the physical rigors of a grand prix and the media attention which comes with their unique status.

“To drive in my day you had to be fit,” she said. “Luckily I came off a skiing career and I was massively fit, I was built like a tank. Nowadays, I’ve seen a lot of women drivers who are extremely good, but as they move up the formula, they’re not quite strong enough.

“Often they make some mistakes because they get fatigued. Of course, men get tired in those cars too, it’s not just women.

“Especially the modern F1 car, it creates enormous G-force, and the tracks nowadays don’t have many straights so you’re always turning and there is a lot of work to do.”

Constantly dealing with the world’s media is also difficult, according to Galica.

“It’s tiring enough to drive an F1 car, but when you get out and are pounced on by thousands of journalists from all over the world you really get pretty exhausted. I think that’s something that women don’t understand,” she said.

“You’re not just driving the car and getting out of it and disappearing into your motor home, you actually are then at the mercy of the world’s press.”

South Africa’s Desire Wilson was the next woman to enter a race in 1980, and it has been almost 20 years since Giovanna Amati drove for Brabham in 1992, but recently there have been reports claiming that Renault will sign Maria de Villota as the team’s third driver.

The Spaniard has previously raced in the World Touring Car championship and tested for Renault earlier this year.

Galica said the 31-year-old must ready for the physical challenge if she is to drive in F1.

“My concern for her is not that she would be an ambassador, which she would be, and I’m sure she would do a wonderful job,” Galica said of De Villota. “But when she actually gets in the car I’m wondering if she’ll be fit enough.

“I would be in the gym most of this winter trying to lift heavy weights and get my neck muscles going and just make sure I’m strong enough. I don’t know her, but I think that would be my advice.”