Culture /

Women at the Wheel

“Combining the thought of constant danger with a woman behind the wheel is the fragile grip of those who cannot break from old stereotypes.”

Green light. The clutch is released as the engine revs back to life.

The car moves to the front row, with barely enough time before a honk from someone behind in a hurry. That fraction of time might be an actual millisecond. The line restarts and a few hands go up, ruffling the air impatiently. Whether on the wet pavements of Milan, the cobblestones of Rome, or in the shadow of Vesuvius, Italian drivers share one common deep-rooted belief. The slow start at a light, the last second turn made without a turn signal, and erratic pace are the fault of the same type of driver. It doesn’t matter if you are young or middle-aged: if there is a woman behind the wheel, it is best to steer clear.

Beware of women at the wheel. This saying has been repeated for decades, based on the outdated belief that women are not car savvy and therefore don’t know about driving. An untrue statement, even worse than the “old men with hats” stereotype, depicting old men as slow drivers who meander on the roads.

Perhaps the thought is that cars are historically the stuff of men, like many other things. Or that women cannot be independent to go where they want, and must be carted around out of a misplaced sense of chivalry. A jarring belief now, and upon reflection, it also was when today’s elderly men learned from their fathers that one can’t relax with a woman in the driver’s seat.

During the economic boom of the 1950s, an Italian woman gets behind the wheel. Not in the Fiat 500 which families use to go on vacation, although she did win her first race in the iconic Italian car, but the wheel of a single-seater, racing in four Grands Prix of the newborn Formula 1 World Championship. She was affectionately nicknamed “Little Pilot”, showing the regard she enjoyed from the stands. Not surprising given the time. In 1958, at 32, Maria Teresa de Filippis was the first woman to qualify to race in the top racing division. She did so on the glamorous Monaco circuit, before the eventual structural changes that made it less dangerous. She is also the first female driver to complete a race. Not insignificant results considering the achievements of Italian women in the 1950s. Racing on a bomb on four wheels at very high speeds in those years, more than today, required something more than courage. Courage that wasn’t lacking in the one who, ten years earlier, made her debut in the world of professional racing at Targa Florio, the historic competition on the mountainous roads of Madonie in Sicily, where cars raced centimeters away from spectators and houses, all without security barriers. Maria Teresa de Filippis participated there three times and raced the Mille Miglia twice.

It’s not true that there is a gender gap in the thrill for speed. Ada Pace’s parents know this well, and they tried in every way to keep their daughter away from racing. It wasn’t ideal for a single girl to participate in races, a notoriously unrefined environment, frequented by only mechanics and drivers. She started receiving attention by racing a Vespa in the late 1940s, but it was her who won the 1951 Turin-San Remo car race to the surprise of organizers and rivals. Her mother accompanied her to the award ceremony, a bouquet of flowers as a trophy. This marked the first of a series of successes that greatly annoyed her competitors, who in the early 60s refused to even share the podium with her. In turn, Ada Pace put Sayonara on the back of her car, mocking those she passed. Respected by the likes of Enzo Ferrari and the Maserati brothers, she retired in the mid-sixties, with eleven titles behind the wheel and three on two wheels.

During these times  Italy is still discussing the morality of divorce, and the old cliches on the streets don’t match with what’s on the track because there’s yet another woman in Formula 1. These were the ’70s of great champions and incredible rivalries, of the international Circus similar to that of today, the years of battles among Niki Lauda, ​​James Hunt, Emerson Fittipaldi, and Jochen Mass. Lella Lombardi is one of them. Driving since she was a little girl, to reach the circus of the greats she climbed all the minor categories, without shortcuts. In less than ten years she reached Formula 1, earning her stripes in Formula 3, Formula Ford and Formula 850. In 1975 she participated in twelve out of fourteen scheduled races, racing both for Williams and the Lavazza team’s March, forming an amazing Italian driver/sponsor merger. To this day, she is still the first and only woman to have finished a Formula 1 race with points, placing sixth in the Spanish GP at the moment when the race was suspended early. She alternated between F1 and World Sportscar Championship, ending her career with the European Touring Car Championship. Lella Lombardi’s passion was inexhaustible. She founded and managed her own team, Lombardi Autosport, further  and forever invalidating the Italian stereotype of the fragile woman around engines.

Giovanna Amati is the last Italian woman to race Formula 1 for the Brabham team, which by then was coming to the end of its days. The daughter of Giovanni Amati, the “King of Cinema” of Rome, she certainly didn’t need to seek out her fortune, let alone look for it behind the wheel of a race car. Yet, her passion took her far, through all the minor classifications, reaching F1 for the 1992 season. She held that spot into the new millennium until her retirement. She eventually lost her top division spot to Damon Hill, son of racer Graham Hill, who later became world champion in 1996… so not just to anyone.

Combining the thought of constant danger with a woman behind the wheel is the fragile grip of those who cannot break from old stereotypes. Women pilots are just a pretext, albeit a valid one, to debunk an unfounded adage and to remove it from common thought, even if it is now almost exclusively just an old joke. As we bridge the gap, easing the contrast with contemporary culture, there are more and more female and Italian drivers in several different racing classes. Valentina Albanese, winner of the Italian Tourism Endurance Championship in 2015 and motorsport manager; Carlotta Fedeli; Michela Cerruti, the first woman to win the Superstars Series, and the first woman to race in the newly formed Formula E; Vicky Piria and Tamara Molinaro, rally driver; Nives Arvetti and Elena Zaniol, drift specialists; concluding with the “Iron Dame”, Manuela Gostner.

So, when a woman is behind the wheel, the only constant danger for those who stereotype them, is that of being trite.

Green light. The clutch is released as the engine revs back to life.

The car moves to the front, and an Italian woman is driving.