If anyone deserves the title of “First Lady of Formula 1” it is Maria Teresa de Filippis. She was the first woman to start a Formula 1 Grand Prix and the first to qualify for, and finish, an F1 world championship race. The statistics say that she entered just five rounds of the world championship in 1958 and 1959, qualifying for three races and finishing only one, but there was so much more to her remarkable career in motor racing’s most perilous period.
De Filippis was born into an aristocratic Neapolitan family on November 11th 1926 and her early sporting exploits were on horseback, the tennis court and ski slopes, but cars were part of family life. Her wealthy father, Count Serino Franz de Filippis, was involved in a number of engineering companies that were responsible for the irrigation and electrification of southern Italy and it was her brothers, Antonio and Giuseppe, who first took to the road, competing in local events.
Maria Teresa began her career behind the wheel aged 22 when her brothers joked that she could never drive as fast as they did. She entered a local 10-kilometre hillclimb in her Fiat 500 Topolino and promptly won her class by only following part of her mother’s advice: “Go slowly, and win.”
Her new-found passion for motor racing was backed by raw talent and over the next few years she competed in several Italian championships for smaller cars with considerable success and the occasional setback.
On the Giro di Sicilia in 1950 she was disqualified after organisers alleged she had been given a push start. The great Tazio Nuvolari, who had retired from the event, jumped to her defence. “You made a girl drive over one thousand kilometres on wet roads only to then disqualify her; this is crazy!” De Filippis and Nuvolari became firm friends.
She took part in all the other Italian endurance classics – the Mille Miglia, the Targa Florio, the Coppa d’Oro delle Dolimiti and the Pescara 12 Hours – and over the years she had graduated from a 750cc Urania-BMW to an 1100cc OSCA and then, on the advice of her boyfriend at the time, Luigi Musso, a fine driver himself who would win the 1956 Argentine Grand Prix for Ferrari, a 2.0-litre Maserati. In 1954 she came second in the Italian Sports Car Championship.
Good results and an expanded racing programme that took her out of Italy drew plenty of attention and soon the 5ft 2in de Filippis, who had been given the nickname “Pilotino”, was approached by Enzo Ferrari.
She was fiercely independent did not relish the idea of being ordered about by the autocratic Commendatore and instead joined the official Maserati team for 1955.
Her stock continued to rise, with victories in Sardinia and the Catania-Etna long-distance hillclimb being the highlights, but there were also accidents. After a crash at Mugello, emergency crews had to remove her from her crumpled car while it dangled over a cliff and her season came to a premature end.
At the start of 1956 she took part in the Buenos Aires 1000km but her race ended against a telegraph pole after she swerved to avoid someone else’s accident. She took several months to recover from her injuries, which included a broken shoulder, but her confidence was unaffected.
In the sports car race that accompanied the non-championship Naples Grand Prix she enhanced her reputation by coming second despite starting from the back of the grid having been forced to miss practice.
It was during this time that she came under the wing of Juan Manuel Fangio, the five-time Formula 1 world champion, who was also driving for Maserati. “He was like a father to me,” she recalled. “He’s the one who taught me to think like a racing driver.” It worried her that she appeared to have no fear and it concerned her rivals too. “You race too hard,” Fangio warned. “You do more than you can.”
It was time to step up to Formula 1 and in 1957 she finished fifth in the non-championship Syracuse Grand Prix after her Musso taught her how to drive the circuit. The following year she entered world championship Formula 1 races for the first time.
At Monaco she failed to qualify her Maserati 250F as only the 16 fastest made the race but she was comfortably faster than a young Englishman who was also making his debut. His name was Bernie Ecclestone. A month later she made history at Spa-Francorchamps, the fastest circuit on the calendar, by qualifying and finishing 10th in the race.
“She had guts, and she was respected by her fellow competitors for that,” said Tony Brooks, who won that day. “She didn’t run at the front, but she was very competent and she played the game.” Not everyone was so enlightened.
The director of the French Grand Prix barred her entry, saying, “The only helmet a woman should wear is at the hairdresser.”
“I wanted to kill him,” recalled de Filippis. Tragically, Musso crashed and was fatally injured in the race.
She took part in both the Portuguese and Italian Grands Prix but retired from both races with mechanical trouble. At Monza she was suffering terribly from the effects of a stomach ulcer but her car gave up before she did.
In 1959 she joined forces with Frenchman Jean Behra’s Porsche team. She again failed to qualify at Monaco but was due to take part in the sports car race that supported the German Grand Prix at Avus in Berlin. Behra himself took the drive but crashed to his death on the high-speed banking. The accident, so soon after the death of Musso, devastated de Filippis and she retired from racing immediately, aged 33.
On a skiing trip to St Anton the following year she met Theodor Huschek, an Austrian chemist, and they were married in 1961. In 1979 she reappeared in racing as secretary of the Club Internationale des Anciens Pilotes de Grand Prix F1 and became its vice president in 1997.
She died on January 9th 2016, aged 89.