Setting the pace

Riyaana Hartley on Lella Lombardi, Beyond Driven and women in Formula One

by Jennie Kermode

Beyond Driven
Beyond Driven Photo: Love Entertainment

Telling the story of Lella Lombardi, the first (and so far only) woman ever to score a point in Formula One racing, Riyaana Hartley and Vincent Tran’s documentary Beyond Driven has a lot to say more widely about women in the sport and about women pursuing opportunities they have traditionally been denied. As it’s now available to watch online, I spoke to Riyaana about how it came together.

One point stands out first and foremost: she does not look old enough to remember the 1975 Spanish Grand Prix in which Lella’s historic success occurred.

Lella Lombardi
Lella Lombardi Photo: Love Entertainment

“That is a correct assessment, yes,” she laughs. “My directing partner Vincent Tran and I first became aware of Lella Lombardi in 2018. We discovered her story while investigating iconic women from history. We were doing some research into who would be, essentially, our next protagonist, and our history up until that point had really been around female superhero characters, which then transitioned into us creating our own female superhero characters in sci-fi, and then we started to discover these real life women in history who definitely showed up on that level of unprecedented, groundbreaking grit, determination and accomplishment

“ So Lella’s story jumped off the page because she was the first and only woman to accomplish something, and what really cemented this idea for us was actually a question, and it was a question that dragged on for months: wait a minute, how come no other woman has since duplicated this? How has it been 45 plus years and we’re supposed to be advancing when it comes to gender parity and yet no-one has come close to accomplishing what this Italian woman did? So that question really drove us to dig deeper and then we discovered all the other lady racers.”

I remark that I am – just – old enough to remember that race, and my father almost certainly sat me down in front of it, yet I have no recollection of Lella. I didn’t actually know, before seeing this film, that women are allowed to compete in Formula One. Is that something she wanted to raise awareness of?

Lella with family
Lella with family Photo: Love Entertainment

“Absolutely,” she says. “Although we love to elevate the women in our stories to the level of superhero it’s always been with the intention of awakening that awareness in our audience that, you know, ‘If she can do it, I can do it.’ And to make them viscerally aware of what may be laying dormant within themselves. With documentary we can really clearly connect those dots because it’s true, you know? This is real life story. As we know in film, representation is everything. I mean, this is the most powerful medium that we have for storytelling in visual media. And to let the world know not only can women race in Formula One but they can make it to the highest level and be competitive, it is groundbreaking.

“We’ve come across that response many times where people have said ‘Oh, I didn’t even realise that was an option!’ It can feel a bit alarming, like ‘Oh my gosh, you didn’t even know?’ but it just reinforces how important this story is. It’s really our intention not to just to inspire young girls to explore karting and motorsports but really to inspire anybody who’s been marginalised and been told ‘This isn’t for you,’ that really, if you feel something is your passion, your purpose, then it’s kind of your obligation to not quit, because what we found is you never know. If Lella Lombardi hadn’t pursued her dream despite these crazy odds and obstacles then we may not have had Beitske Visser, Vicky Piria, Alice Powell and Tatiana Calderon – who knows? So I think it’s on of the most important things that we can communicate in story and film is stories of people who persevere, because it makes all the difference not only to their life but oftentimes for generations to come. It’s a game changer.”

Lella getting ready to race
Lella getting ready to race Photo: Love Entertainment

There’s some egregious sexism in the film, especially in the language used by commentators to describe Lella, which, because it seems so out of touch now, reminds us of how much progress women have made.

“Yes. It’s really nice that you pick up on that. We had the opportunity to make many distinct choices with this film. How did we want to portray these women? Was it to make them a victim of misogyny and sexism not just back then but today? I don’t think that would have really served anyone. We had a choice where we could have really exploited the men who were the perpetrators behind those awful moments but that wasn’t the point either. More than anything, we really wanted to put a spotlight on the women’s character. To show that these ladies have the same level of commitment, determination and passion as their male colleagues. At times even more so because they had to prove themselves a little bit more or jump through more hoops.

“We wanted to exemplify their qualities and their strengths as athletes, as racers, as pilots, and not really focus too much on what we all already know, which is yes, it can be unfair out there, and yes there are a lot of men who make this exceptionally difficult. There are men who ended Lella Lombardi’s career in Formula racing. Literally. They are the reason why she wasn’t brought back for her next season. But we didn’t want to go down that rabbit hole because ultimately we found it to be more impactful to tell the story of their relentlessness and their self-confidence – and also, Lella and the young women we interviewed today, they have an awareness of what it means for them to be doing this as women. They understand the significance and that yes, of course this is their personal pursuit and passion in life, but none of them are oblivious to the fact that what they do matters to other women and girls, and just for the general perception of what we are capable of.”

Lella in her time off
Lella in her time off Photo: Love Entertainment

How did she and Vincent get so many of the world’s current top female drivers on board to participate?

“We were in development on this project for quite some time and initially we thought we were going to try to raise funds to tell Lella’s story more like a traditional Hollywood film. A fictional narrative, a re-enactment, so to speak. While in the research phase and connecting with these drivers, even old colleagues of Lella’s who were still alive today, we soon realised that we had all of the elements for a documentary and that there might be more power in telling this story as a documentary so that people would realise that everything in there is fact, is real.

“When that clicked, we had a small window of time to make it happen. From our lengthy list of the young women active today that were really making waves and showing promise, we looked at who was available, who was receptive and communicative – we didn’t have time to wait six weeks to hear back from an agent – and it turned into something like herding cats. So we wound up with eight women in the film in the end – it probably started with 16 or so – and it was coordinating travel schedules, training schedules. Many of them were about to go into the very first qualifiers for W Series. This is the inaugural year of W Series.

“Some of them were in this weird little holding pattern themselves because they were wanting to hear, but we knew we had a window and we knew we had engagement and they were listening and they were intrigued and they wanted to honour Lella’s story, so we just kind of went for it. we started booking tickets. whoever was first in the gate with a ‘Yes’ and ‘I’m available,’ that’s where we would begin, and on the very last day of filming overseas we were still coordinating. Our final interviewee was Tatiana Calderon and we didn’t have conformation until, like, 12:30am the night before. She was potentially getting on a plane to go and train in the Alps and she had just a few hours left in Madrid and thankfully we were able to make it happen.

On the track
On the track Photo: Love Entertainment

“We did our bet to identify the women who had some wins on their track record because we wanted to show that not only are there women competing but they’re actually formidable.”

The story is told using a variety of techniques, from interviews to animation to archive material. How much of the latter did Riyaana have available to choose from?

“Not enough,” she says emphatically. “It was a separate journey in and of itself, telling Lella’s story.” Aside from an old colleague who was Lella’s co-pilot in a few races, they couldn’t find anyone who knew the driver personally, she explains. “It wasn’t enough. There was a moment when we thought that was the end of the road. Right before we threw in the towel I told Vincent ‘You know what, let’s just give it one more go. There’s got to be someone on Facebook, an old relative, someone – you know, maybe a mechanic or an engineer.’ And that very next day he found Lella’s niece, and she was the lynchpin, she was the piece that brought it all together. She, believe it or not, had been waiting her whole adult life for someone to come forward and honour her aunt. so she was quite grateful and enthusiastic about finally divulging to the rest of the world who this woman really was, aside from a footnote in history.

“So we got to go to northern Italy and spend time with Patrizia Lombardi, the niece. She was really gracious. She took us to this tiny little village where the family grew up. it’s kind of like the family home. In the cemetery there’s this beautiful mausoleum and statue dedicated to Lella, and these inscriptions and photos, and you ca feel how special it was not just to the family of Lella but to the whole community. We went to their old home where Lella’s very first car is still there. You kind of get chills just thinking about it. And even though the property has been turned over and sold, they kept it, everybody being aware of what that meant and the significance of this vehicle.

Lella at the wheel
Lella at the wheel Photo: Love Entertainment

“The niece was the key. She connected us to people who helped us with some of those archival footage pieces as well as some of the beautiful black and white photographs of Lella back in the day and some special things that I don’t think made it into the final cut. we saw a postcard from Niki Lauda. He sent this postcard to Lella – they were friends – and he said ‘Lella, we’re waiting for you. Keep training. You’ve always got a spot on my team.’ And it was just, Niki Lauda, holy moly, he’s as iconic as they come; and to know that he was whispering in her ear and cheering her on, it gave us so much more fuel for our journey and finishing telling the story and making sure that we did right by her.”

Riyaana and Vincent’ production company, Love Entertainment, has made it its mission to tell women’s stories – so what’s coming next?

“Next is another documentary – it’s in production already – and it does have a sort of female narrative, a sort of female spin to it, but we are in the works on something that is really centred around the culture of youth climate change activism. It’s specifically centred around young women that come from indigenous backgrounds or marginalised communities, because these young women exemplify the central theme of why it is important to fight for environmental justice. Our relationship with the planet and our relationship with each other is drastically out of balance.

“That comes back to why we focus on female driven stories, because it’s not that there aren’t enough women onscreen, it’s because the kind of stories that we are telling matter. The more stories that we can have that come from a female perspective, a.k.a. come from a perspective that’s a little bit more rooted in love or compassion or fairness, the traits that we would associate with – I’m not going to say women, but more of a feminine energy and a feminine perspective, those are lacking. There is a correlation between the kind of stories that we tell about women and how we treat women and how we’re currently disregarding our plundering of the Earth.

Beyond Driven poster
Beyond Driven poster

In lockstep with that is social justice and social equity. They go hand in hand because the people that are affected by mindless, greed-driven policy and actions, oftentimes they’re women or communities that are very much on the fringe. If we want to see more of humanity as a whole uplifted, given more access to health, to opportunity, to education – to even basic things like safety and clean water and clean air – you can’t do one without the other. And our preferred vehicle for telling these stories is the young women who are on the forefront of this movement.”

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