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Special feature

The top 10 female racers of all time

Motorsport’s female talents are growing all the time but over history their feats and exploits haven’t always hit the headlines. On International Women’s Day, here’s a rundown of the top 10 racers of all time and what made them stand out

Jutta Kleinschmidt  ABT CUPRA XE

Colin McMaster / Motorsport Images

My first ideas for the top 10 female race and rally drivers of all time included entries from all over the world, maybe with one or two unsung heroines and some historical pioneers. However, looking at the cold, hard statistics of the best and fastest women of their day gave a different picture. Motorsport has had a far bigger share of female success than we think, and that’s even in the modern era, without trying to draw equivalence between Brooklands races and 1930s rallies and their present-day counterparts.

These drivers were the best, rather than being the first, the most popular or the most significant. This list does skew towards Europe and half of the drivers here were active in the 1970s. In comparison with the youngsters of F1 Academy or W Series, nowhere near far enough into their careers to compare, they are much older, often reaching the peak of their powers in their 30s and beyond and sometimes not even taking up the sport until adulthood.

In common with the latest crop of World Endurance Championship hopefuls, the Iron Dames among them, they were often most successful in sportscars, or working alongside a co-driver in a rally car. Interestingly, all-female teams have proved almost as fruitful as mixed ones.

There are only 10 spots on this list and inevitably, someone will be left out who may well deserve to be one of the ten. A top 20 would have looked very different and had a much bigger spread in terms of time periods and countries of origin. Debate away; it’s the point of this article after all, and just goes to show the strength in depth that the female side of the motorsport world has within it.

10. Anny-Charlotte Verney

Verney made 10 consecutive starts at the Le Mans 24 Hours between 1974-83

Verney made 10 consecutive starts at the Le Mans 24 Hours between 1974-83

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Key success: 6th at Le Mans in 1981

The highest-placed female finisher at Le Mans in the modern era also holds the record for the most starts for a woman driver. Of her 10 appearances between 1974 and 1983, nine of those were in Porsches, usually self-entred, with a 935 K3 shared with Ralph Kent-Cooke and Bob Garretson her ride for 1981. Verney drove equally well in mixed and all-female teams, just missing out on the top 10 in 1975 with Yvette Fontaine and Corinne Tarnaud aboard a Carrera RSR. Her final 24 Hours was in a works Rondeau, as team-mate to Vic Elford and Joel Gouhier, but they did not finish.

Her career encompassed sportscars, touring cars, stage rallies and rally raids and only ended in 1990, with a final run in the Spa 24 Hours. This was in a Nissan Skyline with Japanese drivers Hideo Fukuyama and Naoki Hattori, placing 12th.

During the rally-raid part of her career, Verney managed to live down getting lost in the desert with Mark Thatcher during the 1985 Dakar, going on to compete again for Mitsubishi and Mercedes. She is the only name on this list to have appeared as a character in The Crown.

Le Mans was always her best event and gave her the finest results, although Verney favoured all major endurance tests.

9. Yvette Fontaine

Fontaine took class wins at the Le Mans 24 Hours alongside her Belgian Saloon Car title

Fontaine took class wins at the Le Mans 24 Hours alongside her Belgian Saloon Car title

Photo by: LAT Photographic

Key success: 1969 Belgian Saloon Car champion

At the wheel of a much-copied yellow and green Chevron-Ford Escort, 23-year-old Fontaine won races at Zandvoort and Zolder on her way to the overall Belgian saloon car title. This was a surprise for those who had been observing from the start of the year, when she was shunted out of the team to make way for Jacky Ickx.

This was Fontaine’s only championship, although she won two more races in Belgian saloons in 1970, again in an Escort. Another 1969 highlight was her win in the Division 2 European Touring Car race at Zandvoort. Her sponsorship did not always extend to much international racing, although she tried in a series of Escorts and Capris, sometimes alongside Hannelore Werner in Ford of Germany colours.

Fontaine's sponsorship cash was always stretched thinly, but her relationship with Chevron led to a drive at Le Mans in 1974. A Seiko-sponsored team consisting of Fontaine, Christine Beckers and Marie Laurent finished 17th overall in a Ford-engined Chevron B23, winning their class. Before her professional career ended in 1975, she racked up another class win for an all-female Le Mans team, finishing 11th with Verney and Corinne Tarnaud in a Porsche Carrera.

8. Janet Guthrie

Guthrie was a trailblazer for female racers in the US

Guthrie was a trailblazer for female racers in the US

Photo by: Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Key success: 9th in the 1978 Indianapolis 500

The first woman to start the Indianapolis 500 in 1977 was also its highest female finisher for decades. On her third attempt, Guthrie not only got onto the grid, but held on for 190 laps to finish inside the top 10, ahead of Mario Andretti and Johnny Rutherford. This was against a backdrop of widespread hostility: women were officially barred from even entering the Indianapolis pitlane.

She never got a long enough run in a car to prove herself properly, but Guthrie managed two top 10s during her four-year, 11-race career. Her best finish was fifth at Milwaukee in 1979.

This engineer, nuclear physicist and potential astronaut candidate had a background in sportscar racing, being one of the first women to start the Daytona 24 Hours in 1966, driving a Sunbeam Rapier as part of an all-female “Ring Free Motor Maids” team. After earning her stripes in Indycar, she took on the even more macho arena that was NASCAR, aided by Charlotte promoter Humpy Wheeler and banker Lynda Ferreri, who stood as car entrant despite knowing little about motorsport and just thinking the team was a good idea.

Guthrie raced between 1976 and 1980, with a best finish of sixth at Bristol in 1977. It remains the best result for a female driver, matched by Danica Patrick at Atlanta in 2014.

7. Lilian Bryner

Bryner was an Olympian and airline pilot before she got into racing

Bryner was an Olympian and airline pilot before she got into racing

Photo by: Andre Vor / Sutton Images

Key success: 1st at Spa 24 Hours in 2004

One of the lesser-known names on this list, Bryner always competed as part of a team, so never got to stand solo in the spotlight. This Swiss former Olympic equestrian and airline pilot only began racing in her thirties, initially in Porsches but then in Ferraris, with her partner Enzo Calderari. They campaigned a Ferrari 333SP between 1998 and 2001, accompanied by different co-drivers, under the BMS Scuderia Italia banner. In 2000, they were sixth in the Sports Racing World Cup, winning a race at Spa.

Spa would be the scene for Bryner’s finest on-track moments. The ageing prototype swapped for a 550 Maranello GT car, she and her team-mates were second in the 2003 Spa 24 Hours, beaten only by a smaller GT2 car in the rain. The following year, she won the race outright with Calderari, Fabrizio Gollin and Luca Capellari. They were the only team on the lead lap and had first hit the front before the 12-hour mark.

Driving a series of Porsches, Bryner also raced at Le Mans four times: 1993, 1994, 1995 and 1997. Her ninth place in the 1994 race still remains one of the best female finishes of the modern era.

6. Danica Patrick

Patrick's IndyCar win at Motegi remains an iconic breakthrough

Patrick's IndyCar win at Motegi remains an iconic breakthrough

Photo by: Sutton Images

Key success: 1st at IndyCar Twin Ring Motegi round in 2008

A divisive character away from the track, Patrick is nevertheless the only woman to have won an Indycar race. Her 2009 victory in the Indy Japan 300 at the wheel of an Andretti Green car is often derided as being a lucky win due to a chunk of the grid being at the CART Long Beach race, an unavoidable clash during the IRL/CART reunion year, but she fought off the likes of Helio Castroneves, Dan Wheldon and Scott Dixon through a combination of canny pitstop strategy and wet-track skills.

During her five seasons with Andretti, she scored five more podium finishes, including third in the 2009 Indianapolis 500. In her first attempt at the Indy 500 in 2005, she smashed Janet Guthrie’s record of ninth with a fourth place. Not always a consistent driver, but a capable one, she was not quite among the real Indy legends like Castroneves or Wheldon, but more than held her own.

A move to NASCAR followed in 2012, driving for the Stewart-Haas team. She did manage a handful of top 10s most years, but it was clear that single-seaters were her real forte. Having said that, she did show some promise in sportscars, finishing eighth in the 2009 Daytona 24 Hours in a Pontiac prototype with Andy Wallace, Casey Mears and Rob Finlay.

5. Lella Lombardi

Lombardi remains the only female driver to score a point in F1

Lombardi remains the only female driver to score a point in F1

Key success: 6th in the 1975 Spanish Grand Prix

Italian Lombardi will forever be the answer to a Trivial Pursuit question as the first (and so far only) woman to score a Formula 1 point, although it was technically half a point as the race was shortened following Rolf Stommelen’s terrible accident. Her achievements in an F1 car between 1974 and 1976, usually a March, were modest, although this befitted her limited budget and the lack of preparation this necessitated.

However, the reserved and enigmatic Lombardi was more than a plucky F1 chancer who had had the magic wand of John Webb at Motor Racing Developments waved over her. As well as being the winner of the first Shellsport Ladies’ Escort Challenge racing series, she has three World Sportscar Championship victories to her name. Driving an Osella PA6 with Enrico Grimaldi, she won the Enna-Pergusa 6 Hours in 1979, then won again at Vallelunga with Giorgio Francia, four laps up on her nearest rival.

The Lombardi/Francia pairing won one more race in 1981, the Mugello 6 Hours, in an Osella PA8.
From three Le Mans starts, she peaked in 1977 by finishing 11th with Christine Beckers in an Inaltera prototype. The year before, she had piloted a pink Lancia Stratos run by the all-female Team Aseptogyl to 20th, with Christine Dacremont.

4. Pat Moss

Pat Moss, younger sister to Stirling, may have reached even greater heights if she'd switched horse for cars earlier

Pat Moss, younger sister to Stirling, may have reached even greater heights if she'd switched horse for cars earlier

Key success: 1st in the Liege-Rome-Liege Rally in 1960

Moss’s career included three major international rally wins, but it was the fact that it straddled the measured regularity era and the high-speed rough-stuff era with success in each that makes her stand out. Her drive in the Liege-Rome-Liege was in a works Austin Healey 3000, regarded as a beast of a car, but her other wins came in a nimble Mini Cooper (1962 Baden-Baden Rally) and a more refined Lancia Fulvia (1966 Sestriere Rally).

An equestrian competitor at a very high level from a young age, she would perhaps have won even more had she committed to rallying over horses earlier. Even marriage to the legendary Swedish driver, Erik Carlsson, did not slow her down, and she had been active for over 20 years when she finally bowed out in 1975.

We are going on results here and not popularity, but Moss’s earthy personality and sense of humour endeared her to the press, in contrast to her more refined elder brother, Stirling Moss. When she was driving the Mini, she claimed that she liked it because you could spin it all the way round without hitting anything, although she also admitted to being terrified of it when she wasn’t in it.

3. Desire Wilson

Wilson was on the cusp of an F1 drive in the early 1980s

Wilson was on the cusp of an F1 drive in the early 1980s

Key success: First woman to win a race in F1 machinery at the 1980 Aurora F1 Brands Hatch race

This was never intended to be a list of firsts, but South African Wilson was a class act as well as a pioneer. Strong Aurora F1 finishes as well as her 1980 race win in a Wolf led to a chance at an F1 championship race, but her attempts to qualify a RAM Williams FW07 for the British Grand Prix were severely hampered by a last-minute car adjustment; one qualifying session was not enough to get the hang of ground effect and she did not start.

Ken Tyrrell, openly sceptical of female drivers, saw potential in Wilson and offered her a drive in the 1981 South African Grand Prix, running as a non-championship event due to the FISA-FOCA wars. She ran as high as sixth until a lap 51 altercation with Nigel Mansell dumped her out of the race. Tyrrell offered her a seat for 1982, but she was unable to raise sufficient sponsorship to take it.

Versatile as well as plain quick, she partnered Alain de Cadenet to two World Championship for Makes victories in his De Cadenet-Ford prototype, the Monza 1000km and the Silverstone 6 Hours in 1980. She also tried her hand at Indycar, with a best finish of 10th at Cleveland in 1983.

2. Jutta Kleinschmidt

Kleinschmidt made Dakar Rally history in 2001

Kleinschmidt made Dakar Rally history in 2001

Photo by: Cupra

Key success: 1st in the Dakar Rally in 2001

The last actual Paris-Dakar (run between the two cities) was a gruelling 6600-mile slog through France, Spain and the Sahara desert. Consistency and persistence paid off for Germany’s Kleinschmidt, who won by two minutes and 39 seconds from her Mitsubishi team-mate Hiroshi Masuoka.

Penalties to Masuoka and Jean-Louis Schlesser, a former team-mate and partner and her biggest rival, helped her, but again, this victory was no fluke. She had been third for Mitusbishi in 1999 and was second in 2002, before earning a final podium for Volkswagen in 2005.

Her 2001 win included a stage win and more stage podiums, while in the same year she also won the Baja Deutschland outright. Kleinschmidt got into rally-raids through motorcycles, having first followed the Dakar on her own bike without being an official entry.

She remained competitive in rally raids until 2016, when she was fifth in the Sealine Qatar event in an X-Raid Buggy. Aged 59, she returned to the dunes in 2021, competing in the all-electric Extreme E series, first as a standby championship driver, then for the Abt Cupra XE team.

1. Michele Mouton

Mouton came so close to capturing the 1982 WRC title with Audi

Mouton came so close to capturing the 1982 WRC title with Audi

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Key success: 2nd in thee World Rally Championship in 1982

Four World Rally Championship wins and being in with a shot at a major FIA series is never to be downplayed. Mouton appeared to burst on to the scene in 1981 with her win in the Sanremo Rally, the first for the Audi Quattro which would become even more legendary than her and arguably, the win that ushered in the fabled and ultimately fatal Group B era. Wins in Portugal, Greece and Brazil in 1982 meant that she was able to challenge Opel driver Walter Rohrl for the championship, but a roll in Cote d’Ivoire scuppered her chances and she had to settle for second.

This was no simple case of superior machinery blowing away the competition either: between 1973 and 1981, Mouton won rallies in a Fiat 131 Abarth and a Porsche 911, as well as earning podium finishes in an Alpine-Renault A110. After moving away from the WRC, she won the 1986 German championship in a Peugeot 205 T16. The year before, her Audi swansong was a victory in the Pikes Peak hillclimb, the first for a woman, a European and a driver in a rally car. She preferred the rough stuff, but was also pretty handy in a sportscar, taking a Moynet-Simca to a Le Mans class win in 1975 with Christine Dacremont and Marianne Hoepfner.

Later, she founded the Race of Champions and was a long-serving president for the fledgling FIA Women in Motorsport Commission.

Mouton remains a rallying legend

Mouton remains a rallying legend

Photo by: FIA

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