Elizabeth Junek (1900 - 1994) - The Greatest Female Driver of All Time

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Elizabeth Junek (1900 - 1994) - The Greatest Female Driver of All Time
Elizabeth Junek
ONE OF THE GREAT Bugatti drivers - perhaps the greatest lady driver of all time - was Elizabeth Junek from Czechoslovakia, who, in a few crowded seasons in the mid 1920s, showed that she had the ability to meet and beat the world's racing elite.

Born in 1900, Junek first heard of the Bugatti in Paris, where, at the age of 21, she met her future husband, Cenek Junek, a Prague banker. That was shortly after Bugatti's famous victory in the Circuit di Brescia: Type 13 Bugattis were on show in the Champs-Elysees, and Elizabeth and Cenek determined that they would buy one of these cars, a resolve strengthened by Haimowitch's impressive showing in the Zbraslav-Jiloviste race in 1922.

That year the Juneks were married, and in the autumn they returned to France to buy one of the 2-litre Bugatti team of cars, which had finished second, third and fourth in the French Grand Prix at Strasburg.

Their car was delivered by racing driver Pierre Marco in November 1922, and as soon as it had been rebuilt, after travelling on the atrocious main road to Prague, the Juneks began trials. As a result, Elizabeth drove the car back to Molsheim the following spring to have a new, cigar-shaped body fitted; after the Tours Grand Prix, the Juneks acquired another racing Bugatti, one of the 'Tanks' with aerofoil-section bodywork, but its road-holding proved inferior.

The Juneks complained to Ettore Bugatti, who told them that after the 1924 Lyon GP they could take their pick of any of his new racing cars taking part. That was how the Juneks acquired one of the very first of the legendary Type 35s.

Between 1924 and 1926, Elizabeth competed in a number of Czech events, but thought that she would like to try international racing. So, in 1926, she took part in the Klausen hill-climb in Switzerland, achieving second place in her class. However, she had determined to take part in road racing, and in the following year the Juneks set sail for Sicily, to compete in the Targa Florio.

Their preparation for the event was thorough - for the month preceding the race they practised daily over the course, which they also walked on foot to memorise its many twists and curves. At the end of the first lap, Elizabeth was lying fourth, 34 seconds behind the leader, Minoia, who was closely followed by Dubonnet and Materassi. However, steering trouble developed, and put her out of the race on the second lap.

But her performance had so impressed the organisers that she was awarded a special gold medal as a reward. Later in the season, the Juneks achieved a unique victory in the Moravian Circuit of Praded, in which Cenek finished first and Elizabeth second; then Elizabeth won the 2-litre class in the first Grand Prix of Germany to be held over the newly opened Nurburgring. She also won two ladies' races at Montlhery, and finished second in the Karlova Studanka event despite the fact that two broken conrods were hanging through the side of the crankcase.

The following year, Elizabeth was determined to make an all-out attempt to win the Targa Florio - or at least the Ladies' Cup. She practised relentlessly, even driving the full five-lap, 500 km distance to ensure that she had sufficient stamina for the event. Her performance in the actual race proved a sensation. At the end of the first lap she was lying fourth, then on the next lap her pit signalled that she was in the lead, ahead of drivers such as Divo, Nuvolari, Materassi, Campari, Monoia and Conelli.

She dropped back to second place on the third and fourth laps - then, in the fifth lap, disaster struck. The water pump began to leak violently, and she had to slow down until she could top up the radiator. As a result, Elizabeth Junek finished fifth, behind Divo, Campari, Conelli and Chiron, but she still won the Ladies' Cup, as well as the Izolatti class award. Had the car held up, she might have won the entire event.

That was the climax of Madame Junek's racing career, for in the German GP later that season, her husband crashed and was killed ; she abandoned competitive driving at once, although her infrequent appearances in old-car events in later years showed that she had lost little of her ability behind the wheel of a Bugatti.

Elizabeth Junek pictured in her Bugatti during 1970
Elizabeth Junek pictured in her Bugatti during 1970.
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