Driver spotlight #3: Maria Teresa de Filippis - Proving herself in a man's world

By Jaap Grolleman
Last updated: Sun, 29 Dec 2013 07:27

With Formula 1 in its off-season, Jaap Grolleman dives into historic data and opinion to highlight a few not-so-famous yet remarkable racing drivers of the past. Second in the series; Frenchman Jean Behra. - See more at:
With Formula 1 in its off-season, Jaap Grolleman dives into historic data and opinion to highlight a few not-so-famous yet remarkable racing drivers of the past. Second in the series; Frenchman Jean Behra. - See more at:

With Formula 1 in its off-season, Jaap Grolleman dives into historic data and opinion to highlight a few not-so-famous yet remarkable racing drivers of the past. Third in the series; Italian Maria Teresa de Filippis.


A bet is what got Maria Teresa de Filippis into motor racing, but her legacy she crafted herself. During her racing career, her biggest competition didn't come from the greats like Moss, Brabham and Fangio, but the prejudice that women weren't supposed to race.

Born and raised in Naples, Maria was keen on riding horses, and showed little to no interest in cars. That changed in 1948, when two of her brothers - Giuseppe and Antonio - mocked her, and bet she wouldn't be fast in a car.

She stepped upto the challenge, and practised on the roads along the Amalfi coast, not far away from her home-town. In a hillclimb event, held in Salerno-Cava dei Tirreni, Maria drove a Fiat 500B, and promptly won her first race.

Over the years, she participated in many races, like the Targa Florio and the Mille Miglia. She kept racing bigger cars with bigger engines; a Lancia Aprilia, a Fiat 1100 Sport, an Urania 750, a Giaur, an Osca 1100, and an Osca MT4.

Maria in 1948, in a Fiat 1100 Sport, at a racing event in Italy.

In these years, motorsport was highly dangerous, and a woman behind the wheel was certainly frowned upon.

In 1954, while driving in the Giro di Sardegna, she was well on her way to the title in the Italian sports car championship. However, some straw, thrown in the air by two cars in front of her, blinded her, and Maria lost control of her Maserati A6GCS, to crash out of the race. She lost her hearing in her left ear that day, and her potential championship.

However, a consolidation for her, was that Maserati had seen enough, and signed her as a works driver. The following years, she tested Maserati's high-performance cars - including Formula 1 material - while participating in more races (and being paid for it).

Filippis in the 1955 Targa Florio, in the #92 Maserati A6GCS.

She had two more accidents. In a 1955 event at Mugello, she slid off the road and crashed into a ravine. A tree prevents her from tumbling all the way down, saving her life. And in 1956, in the 1000 kilometres race of Buenos Aires, she tried to avoid a slower participant, but crashed and was thrown out of the car, breaking her arm and losing her fourth place in the World Sports car championship.

But Maria couldn't be stopped.

In 1958, Maria Teresa de Filippis, became the first woman to enter a Formula 1 race, albeit a non-championship one; the Syracuse Grand Prix. She did well, qualifying in eight on Saturday, and finishing fifth on Sunday.

A month later, she entered the 1958 Monaco Grand Prix, her first championship event. And although her time in qualifying was good for the 23th place, among 30 participants, it wasn't good enough to race, as the Monte Carlo race only allowed 16 participants, per tradition.

1958 Monaco Grand Prix.

Another month later though, she became the first woman to start, and finish a Formula one race, in 10th place, in the Belgian Grand Prix.

De Filippis was prevented from racing at the French Grand Prix, held at Reims-Gueux. The race director, in a case of overt sexism, said: 'The only helmet a woman should wear is the one at the hairdresser's.'

She qualified in the final two races of the seas, the Portuguese Grand Prix, and the Italian Grand Prix', but in both races she retired with a failed Maserati engine. Especially in Italy this was sad, as she was on her way to a fourth place, good for four points.


Mike Hawthorn won the championship that year, while De Filippis was listed but not classified. Nevertheless, she shared the track with the Grand Prix racing elite.

Maria Teresa de Filippis had come a long way. When she started racing, her parents thought it was only a phase, since she never showed any interest in motor racing before the bet. Yet, Maria's instant success changed their minds. Maria's mother however, aware of the dangers, would always tell her: 'Go slow and win.'

Five time world champion, Juan Manuel Fangio, who was like a father to her, gave similar advice; 'You go too fast, you take too many risks.'

Their advice was justified. Many colleagues of Maria lost their lives. In the time after the Second World War, danger was thought of as simply a part of life, and fatalities were accepted.

Filippis was never afraid of speed, but her attitude towards the sport changed in 1959, when she had lost many of her friends: Luigi Musso, Peter Collins, Alfonso de Portago and Mike Hawthorn. But the death of Jean Behra proved to be the turning point.

Behra had signed her for the 1959 season. and fielded her for the Monaco Grand Prix of 1959. Filippis, like the previous year, failed to qualify in the underpowered Behra-Porsche RSK, but was supposed to race in the German Grand Prix at the AVUS circuit. However, Behra, took the Porsche out in a Formula 2 race on Saturday, and crashed at the dangerous AVUS circuit. Behra died on the spot.

With his death, Maria had lost her team-manager, and a very good friend.

She walked away from racing that day, to never return.

However, she proved her brothers - and the world - that this girl can surely race.

Maria Teresa de Filippis.

From her last race on, Maria stayed away from racing, and married in 1960 to start a family. Twenty years after her retirement, she joined the International Club of Former F1 Grand Prix Drivers, going on to take the role of Vice-President in 1997. She was also a founding member of the Maserati Club in 2004 and would go on to become its chairman.

Since Filippis, only four more woman have competed in Formula 1.



Formula One Blog

Formula 1 blog with guest contributers providing analysis, insights and reviews on the sport of Formula One
md-list Sort By
Jaap Grolleman 7 years 295 days ago
Jake, she's still alive yes, and 87 years of age.
RJA vd Star 7 years 295 days ago
Jake Goodhall 7 years 295 days ago
And another good piece of research. Is she still alive? The other two driver you wrote about both died so it would be good to know where the living ones are.
Mark Baker 7 years 296 days ago
Very nice read, thanks.
Ricardo Patrese 7 years 296 days ago
Great article, Jaap, really loved it.
content/misc/comment/ajax/get.php?cpid=42&ccid=74&canComment=&canDelete=&cVoting=1&sorting=1comment-listparseCommentsangle-double-left ios-arrow-back 1 ios-arrow-forward angle-double-right