June 11th 2017 marks the 120th anniversary of the female racing driver. In 1897, eight intrepid French women climbed aboard motorised tricycles and took part in the world’s first recorded ladies’ race.
The event was run around the Longchamps horse-racing track in Paris. The “Championnat des Chauffeuses” consisted of three heats of a single lap. The winners of each heat then took each other on over two laps. Léa Lemoine was the winner, from “De Grandval” and “Bossu”. Lemoine was crowned the first female motor racing champion and won a bracelet.
The eight “chauffeuses” had an unlikely origin; they were all theatrical ladies from Paris. At least two of them were music-hall performers. Léa Lemoine stood apart as a costume designer. The races were held as part of the “Course des Artistes”, a public sporting contest for celebrities.
They were mainly actors and theatre people, although a race for painters was held at least once. The ladies on their tricycles were an innovation for 1897. Previously, bicycle races were the event’s main attraction.
The tricycles were powered by De Dion engines between the rear wheels. Pedals were also included for starting the tricycle and for driving uphill. Little information about the tricycles used by the chauffeuses survives, but contemporary racing models had about 1 to 1 ¾ bhp. They were quite light and simple to drive. Léa Lemoine’s had a frame by Clément, one of the leading manufacturers.
The Championnat des Chauffeuses ran for another two years. Léa Lemoine was the winner of all three editions. By the time it ended in 1899 at least three other French women had raced tricycles or small cars in open competition. Léa Lemoine herself finished fifth in the 1897 Coupe des Motocycles. In 1898, another French women raced a De Dion tricycle. Madame Laumaillé was 27th in the Marseille-Nice Trial. She was the only female entrant.
The idea of female racing drivers quickly spread from France. Belgian Madame Labrousse was fifth in the three-seater class of the Brussels-Spa-Namur race in 1899. Her car was an 8hp Panhard. In Italy, Countess Elsa d’Albrizzi was ninth in the Padua-Vicenza-Thiene-Bassano-Trevisio-Padua Trail, driving a Benz.
Ladies’ races began in the UK and the USA in 1900. By the time the First World War came round, women had also raced as far afield as Germany, Russia and Canada. Women drivers have taken to the track every year since then.
Brooklands, Montlhéry, the Nürburgring and the great European rally stages all had their stars in the inter-war period. The first woman (Maria Teresa de Filippis) started a Formula One race in 1958. In the 1970s and ‘80s, both Lella Lombardi and Desiré Wilson won international sportscar races. On the rally side, Michele Mouton came close to winning the 1982 World Rally Championship. Danica Patrick won the Motegi Indycar race in 2008.
Women have competed at the highest levels and continue to do so. On this day, remember those intrepid showgirls on their tricycles, who started it all off.