Heroines of the motor car - Record-breaking female drivers, from Madame Labrousse to Lella Lombardi

From the end of the 19th century until our own times, speed and cars have been the passion of many women, from Formula One to rallies

Home life Heroines of the motor car - Record-breaking female drivers, from Madame Labrousse to Lella Lombardi
Heroines of the motor car - Record-breaking female drivers, from Madame Labrousse to Lella Lombardi

They love speed, and above all driving. Because their passion for cars ranges from Formula 1 to competitions based on endurance or know-how. These are women who, as drivers, fear no comparison with their male colleagues, and who from the end of the 19th century until today have made their mark in the annals of motor sport.

Heroines of the motor car - Record-breaking female drivers, from Madame Labrousse to Lella Lombardi 01

It all began in 1899 when Madame Labrousse was the first woman to compete in a motor sport race, the Paris-Spa in Belgium, where she finished fifth in the 3-seater car category. Down in Italy the first female racing driver was the countess Elsa D’Albrizzi, in 1900; whereas the first woman driver to compete on an international route was Frenchwoman Camille du Gast, finishing fifteenth in the 1904 Paris-Berlin race. Three years later, however, she came in fourth.

The undisputed female champion of speed was Dorothy Levitt with her record of 146.25 km/h driving a six-cylinder Napier, while the most tenacious was the German countess Anna Maria Borghese: in 1907 she took part, together with her husband, in the first Peking to Paris rally. The 15 thousand kilometre drive was conceived on 31 January 1907 in a concise announcement in the French newspaper Le Matin, challenging the fearless: «What needs to be proved today is that as long as a man has a car, he can do anything and go anywhere. Is there anyone who will undertake to travel this summer from Peking to Paris by automobile?». The route, which remains a difficult challenge today, severely tested the countess Borghese and her husband with its need for enormous ability and an almost inhuman effort, but they both reached the destination. 

The Hungarian Elisabeth von Papp was the first professional co-driver and, in her role of “driving governess”, accompanied many women on long motoring journeys. In 1920 Maria Antonietta d’Avanzo was the first woman to take part in the Targa Florio which, together with the Mille Miglia, is the most famous Italian race in the world, while Elisabeth Junek was the first female professional driver to compete in a Grand Prix. One of her greatest personal triumphs came in the German Grand Prix, where she finished fourth and set a new record on the track. This was her last record however, because, following her husband's early death in an accident on the same circuit, Junek subsequently gave up racing. 

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In 1935 the Canadian Kay Petre made her name as driver of great skill on the British racing circuit of Brooklands, which was regarded as particularly difficult. Being very sporty and competitive, especially in ice skating, Petre had been given her first racing car by her husband as a birthday present, a Wolseley Hornet Daytona Special. After receiving a few lessons from a family friend, her racing career took off immediately with a third and a second place in her first two races. She continued for a couple of seasons with her small Wolseley, although on several occasions she was also able to use other cars on the race track. Charming and likeable, Petre received offers to drive these cars and was given driving tips from other more expert drivers. In 1933, however, she bought her first real racing car: a two-litre Bugatti with which she took on the Brooklands Mountain circuit, a more recent and much trickier layout track than the original oval track. It was on this very circuit, in the F Mountain Class, that Petre was able to set her speed record through the curves.

The Second World War saw an increase in the number of women competing in the Le Mans 24 Hours race. An all-female team also took part, consisting of the British driver Betty Haig and the Frenchwoman Yvonne Simon, who finished in fifteenth place. Driving their Ferrari 166 MM Coupé the two women reached an average speed of over 130 km/h.

In the post Second World War period the Englishwoman Anne Hall became one of Europe’s most famous female drivers, winning a series of races including the “Ladies’ Cup at the London Motor Rally" in the UK, the "Ladies’ Cup in the Dutch Tulip Rally" in the Netherlands, the "Coupe des Dames at Monte Carlo" in Monaco, and also the "Ladies’ Class of the International Viking Rally" in Norway.

In 1958 Maria Teresa de Filippis took part in the Belgian Grand Prix driving a Maserati 250 F, but Italy’s most famous Italian female driver was Lella Lombardi, who competed in the Formula 1 World Championship and was the first woman to win championship points. In 1981 Michèle Mouton and her co-driver Fabrizia Pons became the first women to win a stage in the World Rally Championship, claiming first place in the Rallye Sanremo. Mouton is still regarded as the most successful female driver of all times, boasting the title of the “Queen of Speed”.

Divina Galicia, Desiré Wilson and Giovanna Amati are all women who have made a contribution to the history of speed, and in the third millennium are also joined by Jutta Kleinschmidt, the first woman to win the general classification in the Paris-Dakar rally, Antonia Terzi, an expert in aerodynamics, and Tanja Bauer, the top Formula 1 reporter in Germany. It should be no surprise, therefore, that so many women’s names come up when talking about cars, and that women have never hesitated to put their foot on the accelerator.

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