"Fangio told me I drove too fast"

Always feisty and competitive, Maria Teresa de Filippis was the first woman to make a Grand Prix grid. And the determination the Maestro saw then is still evident today
By Rob Widdows

I have recently spent some time with a remarkable woman, so spirited, so passionate, so bright-eyed. And she is 85 years old. We salute the first woman to race in a World Championship Grand Prix, now the grand old lady of motor racing.

On May 18, 1958 Maria Teresa de Filippis drove onto the streets of Monte Carlo in a Maserati 250F, the car that Juan Manuel Fangio had used to win his fifth World Championship the previous year. This was a big moment, not only for Maria Teresa but also for the sport. Women in the 1950s were popular in the pits, but not in the cockpit.

Born in Naples into a wealthy family, de Filippis has never been one for toeing the line. From childhood she was headstrong, knew her own mind. Her aristocratic and competitive father, Conte de Filippis, masterminded the electrification of large parts of rural southern Italy while running many successful companies. He had steered his daughter towards horses, and for a while she was happy in the saddle, and very competitive; keeping up with three brothers had stiffened her resolve.

“My brothers, they had a bet that I could never be a really fast driver,” she says, eyes flashing. “So my father, he gave me a Fiat 500 – I was 22 and I won my first ever race in that car. And that is how it began – after the horses, it was cars. I loved the speed, the thrill of it.”

By 1954, the 28-year-old was winning races across Italy and finished runner-up in the Italian Sports Car Championship, racing her own Urania-BMW, a more powerful Giaur, then an OSCA. The wins kept coming and de Filippis began to think about a move to single-seaters. Eyebrows were raised about a woman who had the nerve to take on the men in a man’s world.

“It never worried me, all of that,” she says. “I just wanted to race. My father helped me, of course; he inspired me to succeed in whatever I chose to do. My mother didn’t object too much either – because I was winning. She liked that, you know. Physically it was not a problem, not in the sports cars anyway – I was fit, riding horses and competing all the time as a teenager.”

There are three of us involved in this chat – Maria Teresa and her husband Theo Huschek chipping in with translation. There is clearly a deep bond between husband and wife, married for half a century and working as a team.

“You have to understand,” Theo dives in, a look of amused admiration in his eyes. “Maria Teresa is a very determined woman, not afraid of anything, and nobody can tell her what to do, or not to do. And she can be intolerant, passionately so, when someone stands in her way or insults her intelligence.”

Earlier in the day de Filippis had given short shrift to a young reporter who wanted to ask her about Formula 1. What had been the problem, I wondered? Theo laughs heartily.

“She was asked how she dealt with sponsors when she was in F1. Sponsors? My God, Maria Teresa is from one of Italy’s richest families. There were no sponsors, no managers. She raced her own cars, made her own decisions, and even at Maserati she took no orders. Just because they were men, that didn’t mean they could tell her what to do.”

De Filippis is smiling, becoming animated. “That is why I went to Maserati,” she says, “and why I never wanted to go to Ferrari. Why would I want to be at Ferrari? Just because I am Italian? No. At that time I did not want to be commanded by Mr Ferrari. I spoke to him and I told him I didn’t want to drive for his team. In those days he would say one word and everybody jumped. That was not for me. Also, I felt there was no real culture, no real depth to it all. At Maserati it was more a family concern, with more real people and they were easier to talk to. And I could take my own car to the team, that was important for me.”

“Let me tell you, Maria Teresa is not at all a normal person,” adds Theo. “She was taught privately, taught the values of the real world at that time – honour, engagement, responsibility, things like that – and they never talked about money. It was not worth speaking about in the family. The attitude was that nobody was going to tell a de Filippis what to do.”

Maria Teresa had built a reputation through the lower formulae for having exceptional courage, even being a little too brave at times. Moving to the Maserati Grand Prix team in 1958 was by far her biggest challenge.

“Fangio told me I drove too fast, that I should try to go a little slower,” she says, her face alive with the memory. “But I was never anxious, I didn’t feel any fear. These men in F1, they were my heroes – Fangio, Ascari, Villoresi – and they were good to me. I never had any problems with the big drivers, only the smaller ones who didn’t like it when I beat them. I admired Fangio, as a person and a driver, because he was a simple man and he worked very hard to achieve all the success he had. Nothing was given to him. On the track I called him my ‘race father’ because he treated me so well, so normally, and I admired him for that. He was a gentle man.”

*

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.”

*

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.”

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.

These days she lives a quiet life near Milan, but her work for the club keeps her in touch with the sport for which she still has a passion.

“I like to go to some events, I like the atmosphere of the historic races, the old cars that I remember,” she says. “But I like not so much the modern racing. Very little remains of the sport we knew when all the drivers were friends and spent time together. I watch some races on television but so much of what the modern drivers say is so predictable. Maybe they are not as free as we were in our time.”

Free she most certainly was, and is. Predictable she is not. These days, when out and about with the Anciens Pilotes, de Filippis is besieged by autograph hunters clutching photographs and copies of her book. She captured the imagination of people inside and outside the sport, was admired for her skill and bravery, and above all for her free spirit.

As Theo and Maria Teresa walk away she takes my arm, flashes me a conspiratorial smile. “You want to know more, maybe you need to read the book, no? Many more stories!”

To this day, the only other women to follow her example and make a World Championship Grand Prix grid were Lella Lombardi and Desiré Wilson (though the latter was in the 1981 South African GP, later stripped of its championship status). One day we will surely see another woman on the Formula 1 grid, but de Filippis will remain the original, feisty pioneer who proved that gender need not be a barrier. Salute La Signorina!