Maria Teresa de Filippis, 1926-2016

by Rob Widdows on 11th January 2016

All at Motor Sport were sad to hear of the death of Maria Teresa de Filippis on Friday. While there had been female race and rally drivers before her, de Filippis was the first to break into Formula 1. In a sport where women still have to fight for acceptance 60 years later, she was a true trailblazer who earned the respect of her peers.

Rob Widdows went to visit her in 2012 and found out what life was like for a woman in motor racing in the 1950s.

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.

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