Maria Teresa de Filippis

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If like me, you enjoy watching Formula 1 you may have noticed a lack of female racing drivers on the track. In 2018, W series a ground-breaking racing championship for women launched to show what female racing drivers have to offer. On their website they say- 

It is more than 40 years since a female driver last started a Formula 1 race and, unless a positive intervention is made, it could be another 40 years before a woman has the experience and qualifications to take part in a Formula 1 race again.

In the 70-year history of Formula 1 there have been more than 1,000 races with about 900 drivers.  All but two of the drivers have been male (a few more women have taken part in Grand Prix weekends but not competed). In this post we are going to look at Maria Teresa de Filippis, the first woman to race in Formula 1.

Maria was born in Naples on November 11th, 1926 and was lucky enough to be born into an aristocratic family. From childhood she was headstrong, knew her own mind. Her father, Conte de Filippis, masterminded the electrification of large parts of rural southern Italy while running many successful companies and while he had steered his daughter towards horses, keeping up with three brothers had stiffened her resolve.

“My brothers, they had a bet that I could never be a really fast driver, 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.”

Maria’s first race was in 1948 in Salerno-Cava de ‘Tirreni, in southern Italy, she obtained a class victory, while in the following months, she raced in a hill climb, where she finished second overall. Following her first race she then began to run in minor Italian car championships, in small cars such as Giaur and Urania in the 750 class, up to 1954 when she ranked second in the Italian Drivers’ Championship, narrowly losing the record by a because of a serious accident that caused the loss of hearing in her left ear.

She returned to the racetrack in 1955 now with the Maserati team, driving a Barchetta Sport A6GCS/53 and she classified second in the Italian Drivers’ Championship Drivers’ Sports category.

On May 18, 1958, Maria began her F1 career in the Monaco Grand Prix, qualifying 16th, while on the second day due to an engine failure and the lack of parts for the repair, was stuck there. She then  participated in the Belgian Grand Prix, ranking tenth (her career-best) and had to withdraw from the Races in Portugal and Italy with yet another engine failure. In 1959 she joined a friend’s team, Behra-Porsche. The same year she took part in qualifying for the Monaco Grand Prix, but wasn’t classified to start. Not too long after the death of Luigi Musso in the French Grand Prix Maria made the decision to retire from racing. She was later married and throughout her retirement she served as vice president of the Société des Anciens Pilotes, the official association of former Formula 1 drivers and was actively involved in setting up the Maserati Club, an official partnership with the company that has often used her in promotional videos of its latest cars.

File:Maria Teresa de Filippis Monza 1958.jpg
 Maria Teresa de Filippis at the 39th Italian Gran Prix, tenth race of the 1958 Formula One World Championship. Image from wiki commons

One reporter asked her how she dealt with sponsors when she was racing and her husband replied –

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.”

To this day, the only two other women to follow her example and make a World Championship Grand Prix grid were Lella Lombardi and Desiré Wilson. And while we hope to see more women compete in Formula 1, Maria will always remain the original, feisty pioneer.

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