The stories of the handful of women who have attempted a break into Formula One have all been fraught with some kind of disaster. Many of them didn’t qualify. Many of them didn’t finish a race. But no woman’s tale is quite as strange as that of Giovanna Amati, the last woman to have entered a Formula One World Championship race.
Amati’s path to racing was, uh, a strange one. She was born to a wealthy Italian family, the daughter of actress Anna Maria Pancani and movie theater chain owner Giovanni Amati. Giovanna herself was often in the papers as she grew up—but not because she was an ambitious sportswoman from day one.
No. In 1978, at the age of eighteen, Amati was kidnapped. Forced into a waiting van outside of her family’s villa by a gang led by Jean Daniel Nieto, Amati was held for ransom. Apparently that was just a fact of life for wealthy Italian families back then, and the Amatis were just one of the unfortunate victims.
Giovanna was held captive for 74 days in a coffin-sized wooden box while negotiations were made—and subsequently fell in love with Nieto, the only one of the gang who showed her kindness. Despite the Amati family’s assets being seized by the police, they managed to scrounge up what would today be the equivalent of over $3,000,000 from a variety of unlikely places—box office receipts for Star Wars, the pawning of fancy jewelry, and their servants’ life savings.
Amati was released in April, but the strange kidnapping story didn’t end there. See, seven kidnappers were arrested, but not Nieto—he started sending Amati love letters. Giovanna cooperated with the police by arranging a meeting with him where they subsequently arrested him, despite the fact that she apparently immediately regretted it, weeping in the police station and refusing to leave in hopes of catching sight of him.
So, Amati’s name was a familiar one, and even after losing a hefty sum to the kidnappers, the family was still well equipped with money. So, when Giovanna decided she’d like to start getting into racing, it was pretty easy to do so.
Close friends with driver Elio de Angelis, the two entered motor racing school together in 1981 and graduated to Formula Abarth. Amati was a promising candidate in the lower categories. She spent four years there, scoring multiple wins and slowly improving.
By 1985, she was ready to move up. On to Italian Formula 3 she went, churning out two seasons of consistent performances behind the wheel of a Ravarotto Ralt RT30, including a handful of wins. Stirrings were in the air—maybe, just maybe, we might have a woman on her way up to the ranks of Formula One.
But as she moved into Formula 3000, things… stopped looking so good. She only managed to qualify for a single race in her first season, and her best finishes the following year were a pair of tenth places.
Amati nailed a Formula One seat in 1992 almost by accident. Brabham had initially signed F3000 race winner Akihiko Nakaya for the season, but his application for a Superlicense was refused by the FIA. He’d come through the ranks to F1 through touring cars, and the Japanese F3000 series wasn’t considered competitive enough to earn a license.
Somehow, though, Amati was granted her license, and Brabham, left without a driver for the season, scooped her up instead.
But by ‘92, Brabham wasn’t the competitive marque it once was—and paired with Amati, a driver who was becoming more and more known as a wealthy driver as opposed to a talented one, wasn’t able to make anything of the car. She was entered in three Grands Prix and failed to qualify in every single one of them, which saw her quickly replaced by Damon Hill. In her defense, her teammate Eric van de Poele also failed to qualify in two of those races. But Amati’s lack of a respected reputation failed to see her through.
After that, she moved on to become the women’s champion in the 1993 Porsche Supercup season and was a frequent participant in the Ferrari Challenge series. But being dropped from F1 for failure to qualify is arguably a pretty tough blow to one’s career. She faded away from the racing scene soon after. After Susie Wolff’s retirement, she spoke out about the sexism she faced in her career to the BBC.
It’s important to look at a career like this one through a critical lens—especially considering that Amati was F1’s last female entrant in a GP weekend. It is likely that Amati faced some sexism in her career. It’s a complicated interplay—we know it’s far easier to ascend to F1 if you have the money to do so, which Amati certainly did. But it’s also important to recognize that, as a woman, she was likely given less leeway when it came to performance.
And it’s also likely that Amati’s inability to perform cast a dark shadow over any other potential women looking to make it into F1. Amati, the fifth and final woman to enter a GP weekend, was just one of several attempts to prove feminine capability that didn’t pan out. Only Maria Teresa de Filippis and Lella Lombardi actually started a race—and Lombardi was the only woman to score anything, a mere half-point amassed during a race cut short. Desiré Wilson and Divina Galica both entered races, but neither were able to qualify.
Amati was, admittedly, the least qualified sportsman of the five, but her position as most recent female driver has likely done nothing but reinforce the idea that women should not be able to compete in F1 alongside men—a frustrating but inevitable result of her last-minute signing to an underfunded team. Her career, while strange and seemingly unnoteworthy, displays a larger theme that comes up when women in racing are considered. There are plenty of wealthy male drivers who show up to the Grand Prix circuit each weekend to put in a mediocre performance and go home, and no one considers it a black mark on his gender. But change that man for a woman, and it becomes a cautionary tale about the incapability of an entire sex.
Amati’s life is a strange one, but her career unfortunately didn’t reflect that with a positive momentum. Over two decades later, she still remains Formula One’s most recent female entrant—a distinction that we can only hope will change soon.