Contributing to Motor Sport I meet a great many people and some make a big impression. Maria Teresa de Filippis was one of those. There was always that twinkle in the eye, an electricity about her. This is what I wrote after spending time with her in 2012: “She is so spirited, so alive, so passionate, so bright-eyed. We salute the first woman to race a Grand Prix car, now the grand old lady of motor racing.”
She passed away on January 9, aged 89, a feisty pioneer who had the nerve to take on the men in a man’s world. She rewrote the script and paved the way for those that followed.
Born in Naples into one of Italy’s wealthiest families, de Filippis was never one for toeing the line or following convention. A competitive horsewoman in her youth, she was headstrong and knew her own mind. When her three brothers told her she’d never be a racing driver, she took her Fiat 500 to the track and won on her debut.
In 1954 she took a BMW motorcycle-engined Urania to second place in the Italian Sports Car Championship, before progressing to an OSCA built by the Maserati brothers. She would later be taken on by the works Maserati sports car team. At this time she’d become close to rival Luigi Musso, who helped hone her skills but died at Reims in 1958.
In 1956 she established her reputation and delighted her home crowd by coming second in a sports car race supporting the Naples Grand Prix – despite having started from the back after missing practice. Then, in ’58, she turned her attention to single-seaters, buying a Maserati 250F that would be run alongside the factory team.
“I spoke to Enzo Ferrari, told him I didn’t want to drive for his team, to be commanded by him,” she told me, “I preferred Maserati, it was more a family concern, and I could take my own car, make my own decisions. That was important for me.”
What she lacked in physical stature – she was affectionately known as ‘pilotino’ – she made up for with bravery. Juan Manuel Fangio took her under his wing and told her she shouldn’t drive so fast, take so many risks. “I called him my ‘racing father’,
I admired him, he was such a gentle man,” she told me.
De Filippis first appeared in the GP paddock in Monaco 1958, when she failed to qualify. “I was at the limit of my physical stamina,” she told me. “The 250F steering was so heavy. Maybe the limit of my fear was too far away. Fangio said I must find my limit before I went beyond my possibilities.”
At Spa she qualified last and finished 10th, a result followed by retirements in both Portugal and her home race at Monza. In 1959 she joined forces with her friend Jean Behra’s Porsche RSK team, but failed to qualify in Monaco. When Behra was killed at AVUS later in the year she retired, devastated by the loss of too many friends.
This would not end her involvement with the sport she loved. By 1960 she had married Austrian Theo Huschek and from 1979 both worked tirelessly for the Club Internationale des Anciens Pilotes de Grand Prix. She became vice-president in 1997 and was made honorary president on her 85th birthday, in 2011. She was also a founding member and chairman of
the Maserati Club.
Brava, pilotino. Rob Widdows
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