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Irish rallying legend Rosemary Smith dies ages 86

WORDS: DAVID LILLYWHITE | PHOTOGRAPHY: ALAMY, RENAULT

Pioneering Works rally driver Rosemary Smith passed away peacefully on December 5, 2023 at the Beacon Hospital in her home city of Dublin, Ireland. Her death prompted tributes not just from the rallying world, but from the President of Ireland Michael Higgins and Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister) Leo Varadkar.

Born on August 7, 1937, Rosemary always defied societal norms, learning to drive at 11 under her father’s guidance and obtaining her licence at 16. Her initiation into rallying began as a co-driver, but it wasn’t long before she was able to try the driver’s seat. Her skill caught the attention of the Rootes Group’s Competition Department, which offered her a coveted Works drive. She clinched the ladies’ prize at the Circuit of Ireland Rally in 1964, and the following year Rosemary, alongside co-driver Valerie Domleo, won the four-day Dutch Tulip Rally (below), pushing her factory-entered Hillman Imp hard through 1800 miles of challenging terrain.

1965 Tulip Rally: Rosemary Smith (left, Ireland) and Valerie Domleo (GB) with Hillman Imp.

Although she was disqualified from the 1966 Monte Carlo Rally, Rosemary continued her run of successes, including an outright win in the 1969 Cork 20 Rally and multiple victories on renowned stages such as the Scottish Rally, Alpine Rally, Canadian Shell 4000, 1968 London to Sydney Marathon and 1970 London to Mexico World Cup Rally.

She went on to drive for many of the leading motor manufacturers of the time, including Ford, BL, Porsche, Opel, Lancia and Chrysler Talbot among others, showcasing her prowess behind the wheel, but also as a trailblazer for Irish motor sport.

In 1978, Rosemary set a new Land Speed Record in Cork, and in the 1990s she founded a driving school. There was also a foray into fashion design, including setting up a boutique with her mother. However, one of her crowning moments in her latter years came on May 10, 2017 when, at the age of 79, she became the oldest person to drive an 800bhp F1 racing car during a test drive with the Renault F1 team at the Circuit Paul Ricard in France.

In 2018, she released her memoirs in the popular Driven by Rosemary Smith book, and in 2022 she was inducted into the FIVA (Fédération International des Véhicules Anciens) Hall of Fame.

On the day of Rosemary’s passing, President Higgins released the following statement: “Rosemary Smith should be remembered as one of the most fearless and remarkable Irish sportspeople to have graced the international stage. In an extraordinary motor sport career, she defied all expectations of her time in becoming a renowned force in a sport then, as now, so heavily dominated by men. Her remarkable career, including her 1965 victory in the Tulip Rally, where Rosemary remains the only woman ever to win the race, and so many more victories and achievements besides, stands as a shining example of the great impact which women can have in every area of sport.

“Rosemary’s achievements continued up to very recent years, when in 2017 she became, at the age of 79, the oldest person ever to drive a Formula 1 car. Rosemary Smith’s induction into the FIVA Heritage Hall of Fame in 2022, the first Irish person to be honoured in this way, was a fitting recognition of a truly distinguished contribution to Irish and global sporting life.

I was pleased, as President of Ireland, to write to her upon that occasion, and to pay tribute to the invaluable and generous contribution which Rosemary made to the life and reputation of Irish motor sport. May I extend my deepest sympathies to Rosemary’s family, colleagues and friends on her passing.

“Síochán siorraí le a h-anam crógach lámhach.”

The Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister) Leo Varadkar wrote on X (formerly Twitter): “Rest in peace Rosemary Smith – a trailblazer of Irish motor sport with an impressive list of achievements to her name. May her legacy continue to inspire generations.

“My sincere condolences to Rosemary’s family and friends. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a hanam.”

At Magneto, we’ll remember her as being deeply talented, but modest and fun-loving, always laughing and telling the best stories. Our condolences to her family. Rest in peace Rosemary Smith.