• Top ten ... grand prix women

Queens of speed

Martin Williamson April 4, 2011
Maria Teresa de Filippis has a pre-race cigarette behind the wheel of her Maserati © Press Association
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Maria Teresa de Filippis
She started racing at the age of 22 when her brothers taunted her she could not drive fast. Within six years she was a works driver for Maserati and in 1958, driving the Maserati Juan Manuel Fangio had won his fifth world title with the previous year, became the first women to compete in a Formula One grand prix. After four races she was offered a drive for Jean Behra's Porsche team in 1959, but Behra was killed in August 1958 and de Filippis quit. "Too many friends had died," she said. "Then Behra died … that for me was the most tragic because it was in a race that I should have been taking part in. I didn't go to the circuits any more. The following year I got married, then my daughter was born and family life became more important."

Helle Nice
One of motor racing's most colourful and ultimately tragic figures. Nice started as a dancer and sometime nude model, who rose up the social ladder aided by a string of admirers. After an injury prevented her from skiing, she took up motor racing and in 1929 won an all-women race and in so doing set the world land-speed record for a woman. Allied to her professional reputation, she toured the USA the following year racing. After Ettore Bugatti lent her one of his cars, she drove in the French and Italian Grand Prix, thrilling the crowds and reaping the rewards of huge commercial spin-offs. While she did not win, she finished ahead of a number of her (male) rivals. She survived a huge crash in Brazil in 1937 and thereafter her career stalled. After the war she was - wrongly - accused of having worked for the Gestapo and was ruined. Within a few years she was living on a meagre income from a Parisian charity for down-on-their-luck theatre performers. She took an assumed name, abandoned even by her family and all but forgotten. Her funeral was paid for by the charity and the final insult came when her sister refused to allow her to be buried in the family grave.

Lella Lombardi
Forever remembered as the first woman to secure a point in Formula One - well, half a point, actually, when the 1975 Spanish Grand Prix was stopped early after a series of accidents. In all she competed in 17 grands prix - another record for a woman. Legend has it she started showing an interest in racing after being driven to hospital at speed after an accident playing sport. That was fuelled when she got a job working as a gofer for a racing driver, and she graduated to his co-driver and then after persuading him to let her have a solo drive, won her first race. For a while she drove touring cars before switching to single seaters, and in 1974 she competed in the British Formula 5000 Championship as well as trying - and failing - to qualify for the British Grand Prix in an old Brabham. In 1975 she persuaded Count Vittorio Zanon to fund her entry into F1 and in a March she became the first woman to qualify for a grand prix when she made the grid in South Africa. This gained her sponsorship, and the headlines followed with her half point in Spain although it is only fair to say she was two laps off the lead when the race was stopped in the 26th lap. It was no one-off as later in the season she took a seventh at the German Grand Prix. After one race in 1976 she was replaced by Ronnie Petersen and after a short spell with an old Brabham for the RAM team, she dropped out of F1 but continued her career in sports cars. She died of cancer in 1992.

Divina Galica at the wheel of her Hesketh © Sutton Images
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Divina Galica
Galica was a well-known Olympic skier before she started racing, competing in the downhill and slalom at the 1964 Games and again in 1968 and 1972 as the British women's captain. She twice finished on the podium in World Cup events and at one time held the British downhill speed record. After her foray into motorsports she returned to the slopes and represented Britain in a fourth Olympics in 1992. As a driver she began when invited to a celebrity race, surprising onlookers with her natural talent. From there she moved to karts, Formula Two, Formula One and finally sports cars and trucks. In 1976 she was entered for the British Shellsport International Group 8 series and after some promising performances, Nick Whiting decided to enter her for the British Grand Prix. It was the first time in 13 years a car with the No. 13 had been seen at a race. Galica failed to qualify. In 1977 she drove an underperforming and underfunded Surtess in the British series, nevertheless managing a couple of podiums. In 1978 she signed for Hesketh Racing but again struggled with a poor car and failed to qualify for either of the Formula One races she entered; she immediately returned to the British Shellsport Championship, now a fully-F1 series. She moved on to the Thundersports S2000 sports car class, taking a number of top ten finishes, and truck racing. Galica became an instructor with Skip Barber Racing Schools, rising to become senior vice president.

Dorothy Levitt
An early motor racing pioneer and the first flag bearer for women when she competed in a race in 1903. In 1906 she broke the Ladies Land Speed Record, and several years before the invention of the rear-view mirror she advocated women should "carry a little hand-mirror in a convenient place when driving" so they may "hold the mirror aloft from time to time in order to see behind while driving in traffic". She also won speedboat races and was one of the first women to qualify as a pilot - and in 1903 was one of the first to be fined for speeding when pulled over by police in London's Hyde Park. She was briefly banned from Brooklands when it opened in 1907, officials arguing that as there were no female jockeys it would be wrong to have female drivers.

Desiré Wilson
The daughter of a South African motorbike champion, Wilson drove once in the Formula One World Championship, failing to qualify at the 1980 British Grand Prix. On what she recalled was "most disappointing weekend of my life" she was given a dreadful car to drive, describing the whole event as "a con". A year later she drove a Tyrell in the South African Grand Prix climbing through the field from last off the grid to ninth before she spun off. Although this was deemed a championship race at the time, a few weeks later it was downgraded because of the political situation in the country. Nevertheless, she holds a place in the record books as the first (and, to date, only) woman to win an F1 race of any kind when she was victorious at Brands Hatch in the British Aurora F1 series in 1980. That year she also won World Endurance Races with Alain De Cadenet at Monza and Silverstone. She entered the 1982 Indianapolis 500 but once again failed to qualify.

Kay Petre
Canadian by birth, she moved to England in her 20s and got involved in driving through her husband. In 1933 she bought her first racing car - a two-litre Bugatti - and was soon making her mark at Brooklands, as well as taking part in hillclimbs and in 1934 she competed in, and finished, the Le Mans 24 Hour race partnered by Dorothy Champney. She was also keen on speed for its own sake, chasing records. In a massive 10.5-litre Delage, the diminutive Petre was almost swamped - years later it emerged she had wooden blocks attached to the pedals to enable her to reach them. In 1934 she set a circuit record when she clocked 129.58mph on a lap; ten months later her rival Gwenda Stewart broke it. Petre, looking on, immediately went out and smashed Stewart's time. Three days after that Stewart again drove faster, and this time Petre admitted defeat. She took part in the 1937 South African Grand Prix, and back at home continued to turn in steadily impressive performances. But at Brooklands in 1937 she crashed, suffering serious head injuries and was left in a coma. In 1938 she made a final appearance at her beloved Brooklands, cheered to the rafters by the crowd, but by her own admission her nerve had gone. She never raced again, but did take up rallying, initially as a navigator but later as a driver.

Giovanna Amati eventually lost her seat at Brabham to Damon Hill © Sutton Images
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Giovanna Amati
Unlike many of the female drivers who raced at the top level before her, Amati probably owed her opportunities to the fact she was a woman. While she raced regularly in Formula Three, winning a race in 1986, her record was very average and there were more than a few surprised faces when she was invited to drive for Brabham at the start of the 1992 season. With the team on the verge of collapse, it was seen as a move to attract sponsors more than anything else. In fairness to her, the Brabham was a poor car, in terms of build and a lack of testing, and she failed to qualify in three attempts at Kyalami, Mexico City and Interlagos. When she made way for a young Damon Hill - again a financial decision as the hoped-for sponsors had not materialised - he too failed to qualify six times out of eight. She continued to race, and in 1999 finished third in the SportsRacing World Cup SR2 class championship. She also moved into journalism and TV commentary. As a child she was kidnapped by gangsters in an attempt to extract a ransom out of her wealthy parents.

Elizabeth Junek
A remarkable career which centred on her husband, a driver for Bugatti in the 1920s. Initially his mechanic, when he found gear changes a struggle because of a war injury, she took over and made her professional debut in 1923. By 1926, she was racing men on equal terms and attracting a high level of publicity. At the gruelling Targa Florio in Sicily she was fourth when she crashed out, but her skills and stamina earned her the respect of her contemporaries. Later in the year she won a two-litre sports-car class at the Nurburgring, becoming the only woman in history to win a grand prix. At the 1928 Targa Florio she actually led until near the end, finally finishing fifth but beating many of the leading drivers of the time. But at that year's German Grand Prix tragedy struck. She was sharing the drive with her husband and he had just taken over when he crashed and was killed. The devastated Junková retired immediately, sold all her cars, and went travelling. Ettore Bugatti gave her a new touring car for her journey, cannily employing her as an agent for his business in Asia.

Janet Guthrie
An aerospace engineer by profession, Guthrie started racing in her 30s and in 1976 became the first woman to compete in a NASCAR Winston Cup race; the following year she took part in the Daytona 500 and also qualified for and competed in the Indianapolis 500, again the first woman to do so. In 1978 she finished ninth in the Indy 500, and in a total of 11 IndyCar events she once managed a fifth-place finish. She was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 2006. "I think she's done a hell of a job," Mario Andretti said at the 1977 Indy 500. "She's got a good head on her shoulders. I've seen many guys who had much more trouble with Indy than she has had, from the standpoint of belonging on the course. Anyone who says she doesn't belong, just feels threatened."

Martin Williamson is managing editor of digital media ESPN EMEA

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Martin Williamson is managing editor of digital media ESPN EMEA Martin Williamson, who grew up in the era of James Hunt, Niki Lauda and sideburns, became managing editor of ESPN EMEA Digital Group in 2007 after spells with Sky Sports, Sportal and Cricinfo