• Hellé Nice

The Queen of Speed

Martin Williamson March 8, 2011
Hellé Nice pictured in her Bugatti on the day of her first attempt to set the land-speed record for women in December 1929 © Getty Images
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Shortly before the start of the 2010 season Sir Richard Branson said he was hunting for a female driver for his Virgin team. "I would have loved to have had a looker … drive," he explained. His comment suggested his reasons were not entirely built on a belief women made good racing drivers.

His then team principal, Alex Tai, all but confirmed this when he added: "There isn't really a female out there right now who could do it … this is a really physical and exhausting sport and they would find it hard to cope."

Historically, grand prix racing has been an almost exclusively-male domain. A few women have briefly featured. Only one - Lella Lombardi in 1975 - has ever scored a championship point (actually half a point in a shortened Spanish Grand Prix).

And yet in the 1930s there was a female driver who not only raced the men, but also beat quite a few of them, and did so often. Her name was Hellé Nice. She was French, glamorous and rich. But she has all but been airbrushed out of history.

Nice was born Mariette Delangle in 1900 in a small provincial village, the daughter of the local postman. When she was 16 she headed to Paris where she found work as a dancer, adopting the stage name Hélène Nice which eventually became Nice. It was written that "her smile was joyous and sensual, her skin a creamy bisque, her eyes heavy-lidded and her features smoothly sharp".

Within a few years her dancing and acrobatics made her famous. She was also not averse to naked modeling which ensured notoriety and helped her attract a series of rich socialite lovers. She did so well touring Europe that she was able to buy a yacht and fund a succession of hobbies to keep her amused.

An accident in the late 1920s ended her dancing career and also prevented her from skiing, another past-time she loved. Looking for alternatives, she started racing cars. She was introduced to Ettore Bugatti by Philippe de Rothschild, at the time her lover, and he lent her a vehicle which she eventually bought for US$1600 (it was sold in 1997 for US$486,500).

She wanted nothing more than to take on the men on equal terms - "All I ever ask," she said, "is to show what I can do, without a handicap, against men." Her bright blue Bugatti gave her the opportunity.

In 1929 she tried and failed to set a record as the fastest woman. She told an adoring press how she loved having a ''great roaring racecar in your hands that wants only to go faster.'' The following summer she toured the USA where she demonstrated her skills at a number of East Coast dirt-track meetings.

In late 1930 she won an all-female race, in which she set the world land-speed record for a woman and earned the nickname the Queen of Speed.

In 1931 she drove her Bugatti in the French and Italian Grand Prix, thrilling the crowds and reaping the rewards of huge commercial spin-offs. She did not win, but finished ahead of a number of her (male) rivals and earned a reputation of being a safe rather than a fast driver. In the years that followed she raced regularly, not only in grands prix but also hillclimbs and rallies across Europe, more than holding her own and surviving her share of crashes.

She courted attention, driving in short-sleeved shirts with bows sewn on the sleeves, occasionally in a swimsuit, and always drove with her mouth open. In Bugatti Queen, Miranda Seymour wrote "the list of lovers, aristocratic and otherwise, who became involved with Nice during the 1930's is almost as long as the list of races in which she took part".

Nice in her Alfa Romeo Monza, the car which replaced her Bugatti, and the one in which she crashed in Brazil © Getty Images
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In 1936, by now driving a blue Alfa Romeo, she was involved in a major crash in Brazil when she piled into a straw bale at speed after trying to avoid spectators who had spilled onto the road. Her vehicle cartwheeled through the air and plunged into the crowd, killing four. Nice was thrown clear and landed on a soldier who cushioned the impact and quite probably saved her life; he died, she was in a coma for two days and in hospital for two months.

She briefly retired from major racing, but when she looked to race in Italy in 1937 she was unable to raise the required backing. She continued to drive against other women right through to the outbreak of war, while all the time trying to get back into the big time. After spending the war years in a house on the French Riviera living off compensation from the Brazilian government, she resumed driving.

But in 1949 on the eve of an appearance in the Monte Carlo Rally she was publicly accused at a pre-race reception by French racing legend Louis Chiron of having worked for the Gestapo. Stunned, she was unable to answer. Her silence was read as an admission of guilt, and although she subsequently protested her innocence, the damage was done. Her sponsors quit, her friends followed soon after, and then her lover, after squandering her fortune, also deserted her.

She tried to resurrect her career but the stigma was there and she was shunned. With her money gone, within a few years she was living in a squalid room in Nice on a meagre income from a Parisian charity for down-on-their-luck theatre performers, occasionally earning a few centimes selling tickets for shows by the seaside. She reportedly carried round a loaded pistol in case she ever ran into her former lover.

Nice took an assumed name, abandoned even by her family and all but forgotten. When she died aged 83, her funeral was paid for by the charity and her few belongings sold off by her landlord. The final insult came when her sister refused to allow her ashes to be buried in the family grave.

The allegations against her were never proved. In fact, there was never a shred of evidence to back Chiron's claims and they were never repeated. But such was his reputation in France that he never needed to. Subsequent investigations failed to turn up anything, and years later even the Germans denied she had been on their payroll.

Nice's wild and flamboyant lifestyle had made her famous but extremely unpopular with other drivers. One of them, Simone des Forest, said almost 60 years after racing against Nice: "I don't believe she ever thought about anything but sex and showing off." Ultimately that kind of jealousy probably cost her dearly.

Had she lived in today's world, she would have been a marketing dream. But not only did she die alone and penniless, her feats are now almost completely unknown. Such was the stigma of collaboration in post-war France, nobody was prepared to forgive but everyone wanted to forget.

The Hellé Nice Foundation was launched in 2008 to provide financial aid for young women with a passion to race. It is described as "a non-profit organisation dedicated to honoring the 'Fastest Women in the World' and promoting global gender equality in racing through education and funding to women in motorsports". Email hellenicefoundation@gmail.com.

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