75 days of hell: F1’s last woman driver has a shocking story to tell

Elizabeth Blackstock
Giovanna Amati sat in the Brabham car.

Giovanna Amati sat in the Brabham car.

Giovanna Amati remains the most recent woman to enter a Formula 1 weekend, but her path to the pinnacle of the sport wasn’t easy — and, shockingly, she credited her own kidnapping as helping her develop the resilience she needed to make it to the top.

Born in Rome to an actress and a movie theatre chain owner in 1959, Amati could perhaps be seen as another example of wealth paving a comfortable path to the motorsport world.

She displayed a deep love of cars and racing as a child, secretly buying a Honda 500cc to experience the thrills of speed away from the watchful eye of her parents, Crispian Besley writes in Driven to Crime: True Stories of Wrongdoing in Motor Racing.

As she grew into her teens and 20s, she befriended a boy named Elio from the equally wealthy de Angelis family; the future Formula 1 star accompanied Amati on her driving test to receive her road license, and the two attended racing schools together.

While de Angelis launched through the ranks, Amati’s success was harder to find; by 1981, de Angelis was competing in Formula 1, while Amati had entered Formula Abarth.

To say she was a natural talent would be an overstatement. Amati struggled through Formula Abarth, Italian Formula 3, and Formula 3000, scoring a handful of wins along the way but ultimately finding herself out of her depth as the cars grew more difficult to drive.

Amati, though, had amassed enough skill to earn a superlicense, which, in the 1990s, relied on experience and not race results. When the more successful Japanese F3000 driver Akihiko Nakaya failed to earn a superlicense, the Brabham Formula 1 team decided to go a much different route…by signing Amati.

The team earned ample publicity for signing a woman for the 1992 season, as it had been over a decade since the last, Desiré Wilson, tried her hand at the sport.

It was not a fruitful partnership. Amati entered the first three Grands Prix of the 1992 season and failed to qualify for all of them. Her lack of experience in high-powered cars saw her spin multiple times and set lap times up to 10 seconds slower than the polesitter.

Brabham realised its bet hadn’t paid off and dropped Amati in favour of Damon Hill. Amati moved to sports car and endurance racing before retiring after the 1999 season.

There were multiple points throughout Amati’s career that perhaps would have encouraged a less motivated person to give up motorsport for good, but it simply didn’t occur to Amati to step back.

But in a 2015 interview with the BBC, Amati shone a light on just where her incredible resilience had come from: When she was 18 years old, she was kidnapped by gangsters and held hostage in a wooden cage for 75 days.

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On February 12, 1978, Amati had spent the evening at a club with her two friends; their evening was over, and the three were sitting in a parked car outside of Amati’s family villa when three masked gangsters broke into the car and shoved Amati into a van.

At the time, kidnappings had become rampant in Italy. It had become a way for disaffected citizens to effectively and terrifyingly show their distaste for the political corruption that had been plaguing top-level officials in Italy.

Wealthy people had become important targets for prospective kidnappers, who knew they could extort rich families for millions of dollars with few repercussions. The wealthy Amati family was a perfect target.

After she was kidnapped, Amati was held hostage in a house near her family’s villa before she was moved to a more remote location as a result of police investigation.

There, Amati went through hell. When she wasn’t wrapped in polythene sheets, she was chained in a small wooden cage roughly the size of a coffin. Amati was beaten, mentally tortured, and allegedly raped.

In the meantime, Amati’s 75-year-old father attempted to negotiate ransom with her captors. Italian officials, unsure of how to battle the kidnapping epidemic, froze the Amati family’s assets to prevent them from paying ransom and further encouraging other kidnappers to try their hand at the crime.

But the Amati family was undeterred. Using box office receipts from their cinemas, which had experienced a massive boost in profits thanks to the Star Wars film, and by selling jewelry and borrowing money from the family servants, they paid almost $1 million to the captors to free Amati.

The trial wasn’t over yet. Heading the kidnapping group was a French gangster named Jean Daniel Nieto; the 31-year-old criminal had developed a fondness for Amati, and after her release, he began to send her red roses and love letters. Amati soon started to return his phone calls; throughout her two months of torture, Nieto had allegedly countered Amati’s pain with kindnesses. He’d hold her when she cried, bring her pasta, and play music for her.

Amati has stringently denied ever maintaining a strong emotional relationship with Nieto, but it would have been entirely understandable for a traumatised woman to experience such complex feelings.

When police learned that Amati was speaking to her captor, they demanded she help them catch her kidnappers — or be prosecuted as an accessory to her own kidnapping.

She arranged a meeting with Nieto, and police were able to catch him — only for him to escape from prison in 1989. He was caught once again in 2010 when a ticket inspector on a train noticed Nieto’s gecko tattoo and alerted authorities.

Sadly, in the aftermath of her release, Amati was subjected to rampant media speculation regarding her relationship with Nieto, and the pain followed her for years.

Perhaps motorsport was able to provide her with the kind of all-encompassing release she needed.

But in her 2015 interview with the BBC, Amati was able to interpret her experiences differently.

“Spending three months in captivity, it makes you stronger,” she said. “Either you go mad, or it makes you stronger — and I got stronger.”

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