At the 1975 Spanish Grand Prix, a race shortened by tragedy, Lella Lombardi became the first woman to ever score points in Formula One. She is one of two female drivers to have started a race and one of five to have entered. Today, 45 years later, she still remains the most successful woman to ever contest the series.
Despite being a legend in her own right, Lombardi’s success is often overshadowed by the death of five spectators who were killed at the ‘75 Spanish GP after Rolf Stommelen’s car launched over a barrier. The race was cut short and contestants were awarded half points. Lombardi, who started 24th, finished sixth and took home a mere half a point for securing a place what was the final points-scoring position at the time.
But if you haven’t gone out of your way to learn about her, you probably don’t know much about her. Beyond Driven, a new documentary directed by Riyaana Hartley and Vincent Tran, seeks to rectify that by highlighting the legacy Lombardi left in the sport as told by a slew of contemporary female drivers on the path to F1. These women are Tatiana Calderón, Beitske Visser, Carmen Jorda, Vicky Piria, Alice Powell, and sisters Amna and Hamda al Qubaisi. The film also contains interviews with the last female F1 driver to enter the championship, Giovanna Amati and Lombardi’s niece, Patrizia Lombardi, who is a professor and deputy director at Polytechnic University of Turin.
Lombardi is an interesting subject and one that I was incredibly excited to see. I’ve been researching the history of women in motorsport for years, and despite Lombardi’s successes, she’s still something of an enigma. A private person, all that exists of her are short video clips, a few retrospectives, and a list of her finishing positions in some of her biggest races. I was absolutely stoked to see that someone had undertaken the challenge of exploring Lombardi’s life in a visual format.
But I have to admit that I was a little disappointed. The movie isn’t necessarily marketed as a Lella Lombardi documentary per se, but its Amazon description—“In 1975, Lella Lombardi from Frugarolo, Italy made history as the first and only woman ever to score in Formula One sparking generations of future female leaders in the world’s fastest motorsport”—isn’t particularly clear about the film’s aims and does seem to suggest that Lombardi will play a significant role.
And she does, in some ways. She’s more like a specter throughout the film, the driver whose legacy is the bar that many female drivers looking to enter F1 wish to surpass. As the only woman to score points in F1 hers will be a name tied to whatever woman goes on to better her achievement.
A few stories of her childhood and her entrance to racing are recounted by narrator Riyaana Hartley, accompanied by old photos and animations by Konee Rok. One of those stories was about Lombardi suffering a broken nose, intentionally inflicted by one of her handball competitors. After the match, that competitor rushed Lombardi to the hospital where she had to have surgery. But it was that fast-paced drive—what normally took a half-hour took 10 minutes—that awakened the thirst for speed in Lella Lombardi.
During the course of the documentary, it seemed like Lombardi’s story was merely a catalyst to telling the stories of contemporary female drivers, and it was done in a way that was a little uncomfortable. The way many of the contemporary drivers cite Lombardi as their hero seems to have been more of an editorial decision than a truly passionate understanding of Lombardi as an inspiring figure. At one point, one of the drivers indicates that Lombardi was a hero for finishing tenth to score her point—but in 1975, only the top six positions scored points. That’s not necessarily something that most people would be aware of, but it’s something you’d expect a person to know about their idol.
And there’s a lot of confusion about what qualifies as “Formula One.” She is noted to have secured four fourth-place finishes in F1 in 1974, but it is never clarified that those were non-championship races in the Rothmans 5000 European series. So, when Lombardi is later noted as starting her first race in F1 the following year, it’s baffling. How could Lombardi have several fourth-place finishes in F1 if her best finish in F1 was her half-point scoring sixth? The only reason I was aware of the difference between a championship and non-championship races is that I have an unhealthy 1970s F1 obsession. But modern F1 fans who might not know much about the past and people coming to the documentary just to learn about kick-ass women aren’t going to understand.
Introducing fans to the struggles of women in F1 isn’t a wholly terrible aim for a documentary. The fact that, almost five decades later, Lombardi still remains the only woman to score points in F1 highlights the systemic patriarchal structure that defines motorsport in general and has consistently prevented women from contesting the sport. It’s something that deserves a deep-dive look, and it’s certainly possible to tell the story of modern women with Lombardi’s story as a frame in order to highlight how little has changed. But Beyond Driven was not the film to do it.
Yes, there’s a lot of talk about gendered divides in motorsport. Lombardi’s history is contrasted with that of her successor Giovanna Amati and the stories of female drivers like Tatiana Calderon, Carmen Jorda, and Beitske Visser. These women discuss what it’s like to pursue sponsorship as a woman, how the physical limitations of the female body—the fact that women have 30 percent less lean muscle mass than men—impact their training routine, and the media pressure that accompanies being a woman in a male-dominated environment. There’s a very astute observation that these problems are the same as they have always been, but they aren’t explored in any depth.
And that’s the most unfortunate part of the documentary. It has high hopes but doesn’t quite get there when it comes to achieving them.
I was excited to learn more about contemporary female drivers. Several of them—Calderón, Jorda, and the al Qubaisis—recount stories of getting into motorsport alongside their sisters, which is something I’d never heard of before. Many highlight the way that sponsors often sidestep them, how it seems like they really want to say “women can’t drive” when they pass over female drivers. Alice Powell and Vicky Piria, for example, ran out of funding and had to give up racing for a brief period until the W Series gave them a chance to compete again. Amna al Qubaisi was prepared to give up racing and focus on her education after her karting championship failed to inspire any sponsors; it was only the last-minute sponsorship of Kaspersky Lab that saw her continue to race.
One of the most fascinating interviews, though, was with Giovanna Amati, who failed to qualify during her three F1 attempts. Amati offers some of the most poignant criticism of the male-dominated racing scene: “The truth is that they don’t accept you. They accept you when you are way behind them. When you start to get closer, they don’t even talk to you anymore. In the pit lane, drivers don’t even look at you.”
Amati can come across as a little bitter, but not without reason. She speaks about the demoralizing media coverage, how her failure to qualify would be highlighted on the front page next to Ayrton Senna’s latest pole position. The men who failed to qualify were generally not subjected to the same treatment.
Clips from interviews with Lombardi left me wondering if she wouldn’t have similar criticisms. One brief segment sees one journalist asking Lombardi a series of increasingly sexist questions, such as: “Is F1 a girl’s thing?”; “Physically for a girl like you, is it really tough?”; “What do your colleagues say when they see a woman in this sport?”; “Is Miss Lombardi just a nice doll in this sport?” Lombardi answers them with kind smiles and civil statements, but I had to wonder if she would have something different to say if she’d had an opportunity to reflect on her treatment removed from the culture of the time. In a later interview, she responded to gendered questions with one of my favorite quotes of all time: “The thing I like is the feeling when you pass the checkered flag first. That’s something I don’t have any problem sharing with my male colleagues.”
Lombardi’s career outside of F1 gets a passing mention. She had great success in sports cars, with wins at both the 6 hours of Pergusa and the 6 hours of Vallelunga in 1979. She contested the 24 Hours of Le Mans four times with a best finish of ninth. In 1989, she even founded her own racing team, Lombardi Autosport, one year after her retirement from racing due to an illness that she kept largely under wraps until it eventually took her life. In 1992, at age 50, she died of breast cancer. She was survived by her long term life partner Fiorenza.
The ending of Beyond Driven had to be one of the most disappointing parts of the documentary. Contemporary female drivers were asked to sum up the contributions of Lella Lombardi and then to offer motivational platitudes like “never give up” because Lombardi had proved that success in F1 was possible for women.
It raises a lot of big questions: if F1 is so possible for women, why haven’t any women entered F1 since 1992? Why hasn’t a woman scored points since 1975? These questions can’t be answered in a particularly satisfying way because there’s a constellation of reasons why women have yet to consistently shatter motorsport’s glass ceiling. But the documentary seemed to be leaning toward those questions without actually doing the hard work necessary to answer them. It makes for a very unsatisfying ending.
Amati once again offers one of the better summaries: “If I had to give advice: to never accept compromise or to be satisfied of the small advantages. Because when you settle at the small advantages, you’ll never accomplish greater feats.”