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International Women’s Day will be celebrated on March 8 and it is befitting to pay tribute to one of the most notable women race drivers of all time – the larger than life Mariette Hélène Delangle, popularly
known as Hellé Nice.

Born in 1900, in France, Helene soon realised her dream to live life to the fullest, becoming, in quick succession, a model, a cabaret dancer and a grand prix racing driver.

Helene first took the wheel of an Omega-Six in 1929, winning a grand prix in France. A string of racing appointments followed which earned her the nickname ‘Hellish Nice’. In 1931, she was introduced to automobile designer Ettore Bugatti, and quickly mastered driving Bugattis (veritable racetrack thoroughbreds); she drove a blue Type 35C in five races.

Prize money and product endorsements gave her a high income and Helene lived the dolce vita, basking in the admiration of French society. Children were named after her, and her fame spread far and wide.

In 1936, while racing in Brazil, she was involved in a freak accident which sent her car careening into the crowd; four people were killed. Helene was thrown clear and taken for dead. She remained in a coma for three days and spent the next year recovering. In 1937, she was back in the running, teaming up with four French women in a non-stop endurance run, driving for 10 days and nights at the Autodrome de Montlhéry Racetrack, breaking and setting records that still stand.

Helene carried on racing Bugattis and Alfa Romeos until the outbreak of the Second World War, after which she attempted to return to competitive rallying. Then, an unsubstantiated accusation by a rival racing driver of being a German sympathiser effectively ended her career. She spent the last 37 years of her life a recluse, forsaken by friends and family, dying in obscurity in Nice.

Miranda Seymour has written a well researched tribute to Helene, The Bugatti Queen, and it is well worth a read.

– Romano Karim Yousuf

First published in the Adbuzzzz Section of The DAWN National Weekend Advertiser on March 4, 2012.