Formula 1’s ‘first lady’, Maria Teresa de Filippis, has died at the age of 89. The Italian was the first woman to race in the Formula 1 World Championship and is considered by many as one of the greatest pioneers in the sport’s history.

Born in November 1926 in Naples, de Filippis was a keen horse rider during her teenage years before switching to four-wheeled racing at the age of 22. Her introduction came by dint of a bet with two of her brothers, who believed she would be too slow to be competitive. She defied them by winning her very first race, driving a Fiat 500 on a 10-kilometre run between Salerno and Cava de’ Tirreni.

She subsequently competed for a number of years in Italian national sports car championships, finishing second overall in 1954 in a little OSCA.

Maserati was impressed with her performances and brought her on as a works driver – a highlight was finishing second in a Maserati 200S in a sports car race supporting the 1956 Naples Grand Prix.

After the great Juan Manuel Fangio claimed his fifth and final World Championship crown in a Maswerati 250F, the Italian carmaker withdrew its factory involvement from Grand Prix racing, although a number of its cars would continue to run in a privateer capacity.

Both Fangio and Luigi Musso would serve as her mentors, and in May 1958, de Filippis was given the opportunity to make her World Championship debut at the season’s second round, the Monaco Grand Prix.

In a field of 31 entrants, just 16 drivers posted a lap-time quick enough to make the starting grid, and she – along with future Formula 1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone! – failed to make the cut. Her time of 1:50.8 was 5.8 seconds off pole position in a highly competitive field featuring future World Champions Mike Hawthorn, Jack Brabham and Graham Hill (the ‘Monaco Master’ made his debut that weekend).

Her next appearance came in Belgium at the daunting 14.12-kilometre Spa-Francorchamps circuit, and this time she made the grid, starting from the back row of a 20-car field with a time some 44 seconds off Tony Brooks’ pole position. She registered her sole Grand Prix finish in tenth and last place in the 24-lap race, two laps adrift.

She was entered for the French Grand Prix at Reims-Gueux, but was barred from competing by race officials. She later claimed in a 2006 interview that the event’s race director told her: “The only helmet a woman should wear is the one at the hairdresser’s.”

Beck for the Portuguese Grand Prix in Oporto, she again qualified slowest in a 15-car field and lasted just 6 laps of the race before her engine blew.

Her final hit-out of the year came on home soil at the Italian Grand Prix in Monza. Again she was the slowest qualifier, completing 57 of the race’s 70 laps before engine trouble struck again.

She was then taken under the wing of French driver Jean Behra, and attempted to qualify one of his Porsches at the 1959 Monaco Grand Prix. She failed to make the cut.

Tragically, Behra would be killed just a few months later in a sports car accident at the AVUS circuit in Germany. De Filippis was also supposed to drive at that event, but was devastated by her friend’s death – on top of a number of other recent fatalities – that she immediately left the circuit and turned her back on motorsport for the next twenty years.

It would be another 15 years before a woman, fellow Italian Lella Lombardi, raced in Formula 1.

De Filippis married in 1960 and started a family, and eventually returned to motorsport in 1979 when she joined the Société des Anciens Pilotes (International Club of Former F1 Grand Prix Drivers). She assumed the role of its Vice-President in 1997. She was also a founding member of the Maserati Club and later became its president.

Image via Via Retro

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Richard Bailey

Founder & Chief Editor at MotorsportM8
Hasn't missed a Grand Prix since 1989. Has a soft spot for Minardi. Tattooed with 35+ Grand Prix circuits.