Giovanna Amati

How F1’s last female racer stood little chance in a once-great team close to collapse

F1 history

Posted on

| Written by

Three full decades have now passed since the last occasion a female racing driver was hired to race for a Formula 1 team.

But Giovanna Amati’s time at Brabham proved brief, and never saw her start a race. She was widely considered to have been promoted beyond a level she was prepared for. She also had the misfortune to arrive at a team which was on its last legs, and would collapse just four months after Amati’s final appearance for them.

Having taken Nelson Piquet to the drivers championship in 1983, Brabham’s descent was startlingly swift. Just five years later it disappeared from the grid – owner Bernie Ecclestone having steadily lost interest in a team which had won just three races in the interim, and become increasingly preoccupied with building his F1 empire.

He sold the team to Joachim Luthi, who returned it to F1 in 1989, but was subsequently arrested on fraud charges. Nonetheless, Brabham’s season did have its bright spots – particularly at slower tracks which favoured its Pirelli tyres over the Goodyears used by quicker rivals. This helped Stefano Modena to a podium finish at that year’s Monaco Grand Prix.

Mark Blundell, Brabham-Yamaha BT60Y, Adelaide, 1991
Brabham’s BT60Y was prone to alarming breakages
Brabham was sold to Formula 3000 team Middlebridge on the eve of the 1990 season, and its future looked brighter after it secured a three-year deal to run Yamaha’s V12 engines beginning the following year. However, due to the global economic climate at the time, a string of F1 teams went to the wall, and Brabham was not to be spared.

As its financial problems worsened in 1991, designer Sergio Rinland left planned innovations – such as a semi-automatic gearbox and ride height controller – on the drawing board. But this was the least of the team’s troubles.

“On two occasions during the year in 1991 I sat in the Brabham factory waiting for my cheque to be reissued because my salary cheque bounced,” recalled Mark Blundell, one of the team’s drivers that year, in an interview for RaceFans. The rest of the team were also kept waiting for their pay cheques.

The team had already compromised the rigidity of its BT60Y chassis while rectifying a design error, Blundell explained. He and team mate Martin Brundle also suffered a spate of alarming suspension breakages, prompting speculation that important suspension parts were not being refreshed as often as they needed to be in order to save money.

Advert | Become a RaceFans supporter and go ad-free

The team turned to Yamaha to help find Japanese sponsors, with some success, but the manufacturer was not impressed with the situation and cut short their deal, agreeing terms with the impressive new Jordan team for 1992. In September Brabham agreed a deal to run Judd engines as a customer. That meant paying drivers would be needed.

Brundle was already on his way to Benetton and Blundell was shown the door too. Brabham announced that Eric van de Poele – who had spent 1991 largely failing to coax his Modena onto the grid – would take one of their seats, bringing sponsorship from LeasePlan.

His team mate was to be Akihiko Nakaya, the 1988 Japanese Formula 3 champion who had recently taken his first win in the country’s Formula 3000 series, and brought a reported $8 million in sponsorship. But that plan hit a snag as the weeks to the 1992 season ticked down.

Unfortunately for Brabham and Nakaya, the FIA rejected Nakaya’s application for a superlicence less than a month before the season was due to start, ruling he lacked the necessary experience to drive in grands prix. In desperate need of a driver, Brabham found one who the FIA judged did have suitable experience – and who the team swiftly realised would bring them plenty of useful publicity.

Amati raced in Italian F3 before reaching F3000
As a teenager, Giovanna Amati had gone to the Vallelunga circuit near her home town of Rome to watch Elio de Angelis (who, in a tragic coincidence, later died testing a Brabham in 1986). Following his encouragement, Amati enlisted in the track’s Henry Morrogh racing drivers school and began a career single-seater racing, entering Formula Abarth and the Italian F3 series. Despite only collecting a handful of points in the latter over three years, she made the step up to F3000 in 1987.

Here too the pickings were slim, though by 1991 she had become a regular qualifier and mustered a best finish of seventh. Her results may not have shown the promise of Nakaya’s, but the FIA rubber-stamped her superlicence and Brabham had their woman. On this day, February 5th, 30 years ago, she signed the deal with Brabham director Dennis Nursey.

Amati achieved her goal of reaching F1 against massive odds. No team had entered a woman for a round of the world championship since Desire Wilson was given a customer Williams to drive at the 1980 British Grand Prix.

It also marked the accomplishment of a goal she had pursued for over a decade, since a dark chapter of her life in the late seventies. Amati came from a family which owned a lucrative chain of cinemas in Rome, and in 1978 it was targeted by kidnappers.

Advert | Become a RaceFans supporter and go ad-free

After being bundled into a van outside the family home, Amati was held captive for 74 days until a ransom of 800 million Lire – just over half a million pounds at the time – was paid. She later rubbished various lurid claims which were made in contemporary reports, including that the then-18-year-old had fallen in love with her captor.

Brazil was Amati’s third and final appearance in the Brabham
Amati’s Formula 1 debut, aided by a reported $3 million in sponsorship, thrust her back into the public spotlight. At the season-opening round in South Africa the only drivers who commanded greater interest from the media were Ayrton Senna, recently crowned champion for a third time, and Nigel Mansell, whose pre-season form indicated the title was finally within his grasp. For Amati, the attention became increasingly unwelcome, however, from photographers demanding she smile for their cameras, and from journalists asking what sort of career motor racing was for a woman.

Brabham’s shortage of funds meant no pre-season testing had been possible. Amati’s only F1 experience was a brief run in a Benetton a few years earlier. While the others headed out to learn the remodelled Kyalami circuit on Thursday, Amati was also getting to grips with her Brabham for the first time.

The car’s shortcomings had not been improved by its conversion to accept a Judd engine, nor by a required switch to Goodyear rubber following Pirelli’s departure from F1. A loss of fuel pressure forced her into the spare car on Saturday. Many drivers spun on the slippery surface throughout the build-up to the race, and Amati contributed several spins of her own.

It was therefore to no-one’s surprise that Amati failed to qualify, and by a wide margin – almost four seconds. To some considerable surprise, Van de Poele did make the cut, by a mere nine-hundredths of a second, thanks to the misfortune of Modena whose Jordan-Yamaha encountered technical problems.

It would be the only race he started for Brabham, despite having prior knowledge of the upcoming tracks, something his team mate lacked. In Mexico both Brabhams failed to qualify, for the first time in the team’s 31-year history. Amati again missed the cut by four seconds and was 2.9s off Van de Poele.

Amati suffered a litany of woes in Brazil including a water leak, loss of oil pressure, cracked exhaust and gearshift problems. The upshot was she failed to qualify by almost six seconds; Van de Poele was out again too.

Hill fared better in the dismal Brabham BT60B
Meanwhile, Brabham’s financial situation was growing ever more precarious. As a required payment from Amati failed to materialise, the team’s owners Alolique (previously known as Middlebridge) chose to replace her with Damon Hill, who had raced for them in F3000.

But the Brabham story did not have much further to run. En route to the Circuit de Catalunya its transporters were halted at Le Perthus on the border between France and Spain, and not released until the team had left one of its spare cars behind as security against an outstanding loan.

Though Van de Poele never got the car on the grid again, Hill did, at Silverstone and the Hungaroring. He was the team’s sole entrant at the latter, and it marked the final appearance for a Brabham in a grand prix, following which the team finally fell into receivership.

Amati went on to race in sportscars in various series throughout the nineties. However, she is invariably known first to motorsport fans as the last woman to have tackled a grand prix weekend as a competitor. And while it’s hard to refute the claim she wasn’t up to scratch, she had neither the preparation nor the equipment necessary to make a decent attempt at her three-race opportunity.

The points-based FIA superlicence system of today is not without its faults and arguably remains weighted too far in favour of European series. But it does ensure newcomers to F1 have a greater level of experience than Amati did.

In recent years, W Series and the FIA’s Girls on Track programme have emerged to give young female racers much-needed promotion. The next woman to reach F1 should therefore have a better chance of success than Amati did, and will hopefully do so before the 40th anniversary of her debut.

F1 history

Browse all history articles

Author information

Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

Got a potential story, tip or enquiry? Find out more about RaceFans and contact us here.

15 comments on “How F1’s last female racer stood little chance in a once-great team close to collapse”

  1. I do enjoy these history articles, thank you Keith

  2. That was a great read.

    Years ago I was convinced Simona Silvestro and Susie Wolff would both be racing in F1. Silvestro in particular was quick, and looked set to gain a seat at Sauber. But it was obviously not to be.

    The sport should be deeply embarrassed that if this continues it will soon be 50 years since we last saw a woman race in an F1 championship event.

  3. I do hope we have to wait a lot less than 40 years.

    Too much chat, not enough action over women racers in the past 5-10 years. Lots of glowing documentaries about Susie Wolff and her ilk, token split-gender teams in Extreme E and a F3-level series with no graduation path.

    Time to acknowledge that women cannot compete with men in elite level sport. That doesn’t mean that no woman will be good enough for F1 (Mazepin is not setting much of a standard), but it does mean that a woman in F1 will be a once-in-a-lifetime exception.

    Either that or we split the sport into gendered competition and turn the W-series into a world championship and be done with the debate once and for all.

    1. The biggest barrier I see is still parents telling their girls that cars and go karts are for boys. There’s no doubt plenty of potentially talented females out there who simply don’t get the opportunity due to ridiculous ideas about gender.

      1. I agree Tommy C, in theory women have a natural advantage when it comes to driving a modern F1 car, being usually lighter and smaller than men means car designers have more freedom. Also there is no longer the need to be ridiculously strong to be able to drive one (beyond some neck strength training). One thing I’ve noticed is that whenever a female driver shows up they immediately get compared to the best female driver ever, e.g. the she’s no Michelle Mouton/Lella Lombardi criticism. This isn’t exactly fair, imagine if every male driver getting compared to Hamilton upon starting in the sport, they’d all look terrible.

      2. @tommy-c from the feedback that female drivers in IndyCar and sportscar racing give, sponsorship is often another major issue. The perception often is that female drivers have an easier job of finding sponsors because there is more media attention, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.

        The example of Heinricher Racing in the USA shows that quite a few companies only wanted to sponsor a female team if they were the first to do something (i.e. they want a quick headline and then often leave shortly afterwards). In 2019, Jackie Heinricher set up her own team with the intention of running an all female driver line up, as well as having the distinction of being the only female run racing team in the IMSA’s endurance racing series.

        For 2019, she was sponsored by Caterpillar for that season, and she was an applicant to participate in the 2019 24 Hours of Le Mans. However, her entry was rejected in favour of the Kessel Racing entry, with Michelle Mouton later saying that she’d been told that only one all-female team was going to be allowed to compete at Le Mans. At the end of the season, when Heinricher tried to negotiate an extension of her contract with Caterpillar, they replied “An all-female team has been invited and raced in the Le Mans, so now it is not a first that we can promote” and they promptly cancelled their sponsorship deal.

        A number of female racers have also said that quite a few companies were also fairly keen on asking them to carry out visits or provide presentations, but often refused to pay them for the time and costs of attendance – i.e. that those companies wanted to look good and get publicity for themselves, but didn’t want to put any money forward to pay for it.

        Female drivers and the agents representing them have also recounted that some sponsors would flat out reject them by telling them that, because the perception is that motorsport is mostly enjoyed by men, they don’t want to be associated with a female driver – they want a male driver because their marketing strategy is to offer a product for men that is advertised by a man, and that association doesn’t work if they switched to having a female driver.

        It’s why some IndyCar drivers, such as Hinchcliffe, have said that, when it comes down to getting a long term sponsor, they think it’s often quite a bit harder for a female driver to secure that sponsorship than a male driver – and, with the cost of motorsport, the difficulty in securing that long term sponsorship is going to hurt.

      3. @tommy-c

        Your comment would make sense if motor sports would be the only sports where women cannot compete with men on equal footing. However, in reality, that is true for pretty much all sports. Hence the widespread adoption of a separate women’s competition, so they can still win prizes.

        Your comment perfectly fits an ideology that consistently ignores basic fact, in favor of things that its adherents want to be true.

        1. In most sport, physical strength (muscles etc) is critical for performance. Not in (modern) F1. Endurance is but well train women are more than capable of getting to the level.

          So what do you imply ? Women have lesser reflexes ? Are afraid of speed or of the danger ?

          I doubt so and I think some women have showed that (Mouton, Di silvestro, Patricks, Legge).

          I think the main difference is still that very few girls start early in karting (ie at 5-6 year old). And those few who get high in motorsport have a hard time ro get credibilty and are seen as a marketing product (ala Danica, even thoug she did embrace that side a bit too much).

          1. @HAL

            What I’m arguing is that we can’t assume that women are equally capable when this is not true for other sports. If one wants to favor one explanation, then assuming that this situation is an exception, doesn’t seem the most rational.

            Also, physicality is definitely a factor in F1.

        2. This kind of reinforces my point. Of course females can meet the physical requirements of modern Formula 1. Attitudes like this are incredibly stifling. It’s basically telling girls not to bother because they can’t do it before they’ve even tried…

          1. @tommy-c

            If you are wrong, you are deceiving women into believing that they are capable of something they cannot.

            Is it actually good to lie to people?

          2. @aapje

            If you are wrong

            And if he’s right?

          3. @x303

            Then those people made those choices themselves and they get the consequences of their choices.

            That is way better than forcing people to do your will.

  4. Great read!

  5. It is quite clear that the FIA was biased against Japanese Akihiko Nakaya, someone who had solid results to show for his talent. Did the FIA assume the competition in Japanese racing series wasn’t strong enough? Total crap! If Hill could qualify the car, and he wasn’t a champion in F3 or a race winner in F3000, am sure Nakaya would have done something close.

Comments are closed.