In those far-off days de Filippis was a glamorous addition to the pitlane, a tough racing driver but also a beautiful young woman – a fact that did not escape her many admirers. But she won’t be drawn into tales of romance, let alone any revelry, in the heady world of Grand Prix racing.
“The relationships within the team were influenced by the older drivers. They were all older than me so they would protect me from anything like that. I could look after myself, you know, and when things became too intense or too vulgar then I would joke with them, make fun of them, and they would go away.”
Tony Brooks, who raced against her in 1957, backs this up: “There must have been a bit of chauvinism around – not much has changed there, Formula 1 is pretty macho – but she was well able to cope. She was an attractive lady, and I believe she was courted by Luigi Musso, but she was admired not only for her beauty but also for her courage in a racing car. She had guts, and was respected by her fellow competitors for that. I thought it was absolutely great she was having a go in Grand Prix racing.”
In her book, La Signorina F1, de Filippis describes the challenge of Monaco in a Maserati 250F. But the book is now out of print, so to hear it from the woman herself is a pleasure.
“Si, si, va bene, I tell you,” she begins, gesticulating for me to listen. “For Monte Carlo, I was aware there was some craziness, something missing in my head. Everybody was encouraging me, they say ‘Maria Teresa, pay attention when you drive in Monte Carlo’. But I had courage, maybe too much, and the limit of my fear was perhaps too far away. I was not frightened of speed and that’s not always a good thing.
“I was at the limit of my physical stamina – the steering on the 250F was so heavy in the slow corners,” she says, moving around in her seat as if perched in the cockpit of the Maserati, leaning her head to one side. “It was OK at speed, but in the bends it was very tiring. That was one of my problems in Monte Carlo, it was man’s work there, and I came to the point where physically it was too much. At somewhere like Spa it was not a problem. But nobody expected me to win in Monaco, so in those circumstances I could do what I wanted with no shame.”
In the end, she failed to qualify for the race, but a point had been made.
As she talks, Theo grins: “She was always known as ‘pilotino’ because she was by far the smallest person racing. The older people, they still call out to her – ‘hey, pilotino’ – but there are less and less of them now.”
At Silverstone for the International Trophy Race in 1959
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De Filippis took part in three more GPs in 1958 with the Scuderia Centro Sud Maserati team, finishing 10th in Belgium and retiring in Portugal and Monza. But she had made an impact on those around her.
“She was a toughie, and full marks to her for having a go,” observes Brooks. “She didn’t run at the front but she was very competent, commanded the respect of the men, and she played the game. I never heard anything negative about Maria Teresa, and remember she’d done very well in sports car racing with her OSCA.”
For 1959 de Filippis joined forces with Jean Behra, only to walk away from racing that August in tragic circumstances.
“For the ’59 season Jean had built the Behra-Porsche in Modena, based on an RSK, and this car was built for me to race,” she explains quietly. “There were many, many delays and the car was ready just in time for second practice in Monte Carlo. The gearbox was from an RSK, so the gears were much too high for the circuit and I could not qualify. So Hans Herrmann had a go, and Wolfgang von Trips, and neither could get the car onto the grid. Stirling Moss advised me not to go any further in the car, there was no way to qualify, and that was that.
“Then, in August, I was supposed to race the car at AVUS. But Behra had had a fight with Ferrari and left the team, so he was without a drive and offered to go to AVUS with me to help run the car. I said ‘no, it’s your car, you must race and I’m not going’. In the sports car race that weekend Behra was killed and that was just too much for me. So tragic, too many friends dying.”
Stirling Moss with de Filippis at Silverstone in 1959
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De Filippis turned her back on the sport, went away to start a family, and it was not until 1978 that she returned to the fold, joining the Club International des Anciens Pilotes de Grand Prix F1 and re-establishing old acquaintances.
“I have got to know Maria Teresa much better since her involvement with the Anciens Pilotes,” says fellow member Brooks. “When we were racing we were all so absorbed in our own teams that we really only met at the dinners we had after the Grands Prix. She’s a remarkable lady, no doubt about that.”
Indeed. She became the club’s vice-president in 1997 and was made honorary president days before celebrating her 85th birthday last October with a party in Modena, hometown of Maserati.