The fast life of De Filippis, the first woman to race in Formula One

PUBLISHED: 15:46 09 January 2020 | UPDATED: 15:59 09 January 2020

Italian racing driver Maria Teresa de Filippis, the first female to compete in Formula One, in her Maserati at the 11th Annual International Trophy Race at Silverstone, 3rd May 1959. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Italian racing driver Maria Teresa de Filippis, the first female to compete in Formula One, in her Maserati at the 11th Annual International Trophy Race at Silverstone, 3rd May 1959. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

2011 Getty Images

Privilege can have drawbacks, as one member of the Italian aristocracy who wanted to carve out her own legacy found. CHARLIE CONNELLY reports on the life of Maria Teresa de Filippis.

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Maria Teresa de Filippis was the youngest of five siblings, the daughter of an Italian count who had made a fortune in engineering. She grew up at the sumptuous 16th century Palazzo Marigliano at the heart of a vast estate on the outskirts of Naples and enjoyed a childhood befitting her aristocratic status: Riding horses, playing tennis, attending balls and wintering in the most exclusive Alpine ski resorts. On the face of it that seemed to be the way she'd spend her life, the only interruptions being a strategically astute match to a well-groomed but dim minor member of the nobility and a few years of popping out his children.

But there was something in Maria Teresa de Filippis that meant this kind of quiet, pre-ordained life of groundhog luxury would never be for her.

The crucial moment came in her early twenties when two of her brothers teased her about her horse-riding, saying she'd never know real speed until she got behind the wheel of a sports car. Horses were girls' stuff, they insisted, and their little sister was far too timid to know the genuine thrill of danger they felt behind the wheel of a car with a powerful engine.

Within weeks de Filippis had entered her first race, a 10km dash from Salerno to Cava di Tirreni that she won driving a souped-up Fiat 500. From there she became a regular fixture on Italian racing circuits, competing in everything from hill climbs to physically and mentally draining endurance races and even finishing second in the Italian national sports car championship in 1954.

Her talent and achievements soon brought her to the attention of Maserati who took her on as their test driver, spending her days throwing new Formula One cars around the company's works track in preparation for use by the team's talismanic driver Juan Manuel Fangio.

Fangio saw something in the lightning reflexes and daredevil attitude of the diminutive de Filippis - just 5ft 2in tall and nicknamed 'Pilotino', her driver's seat required extra padding to help her reach the pedals - and went out of his way to advise and encourage her.

"He was like a father to me," she recalled, "the one who taught me to think like a racing driver."

The considered advice of a man who was arguably the greatest Grand Prix driver of all time didn't always register, however. "'You go too fast,' he always told me. 'You take too many risks'."

He had a point. De Filippis could never be accused of lacking courage and she had the scars to prove it. She broke her shoulder after hitting a telegraph pole during a race in Argentina and once in Tuscany had to be rescued when she span off the course leaving her car teetering over a sheer drop. She suffered permanent hearing damage as a result of a crash in Sardinia, yet her enthusiasm remained undimmed.

Her passion for speed meant that by the mid-1950s she had built a formidable reputation through some remarkable driving. In 1956, for example, de Filippis competed in a sports car race ahead of the Grand Prix in her home city of Naples, the course passing through the familiar narrow streets around the seafront. Driving a Maserati 200S she was placed at the rear of the grid but somehow, on a winding course with few overtaking opportunities, made her way through the field to finish second.

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When Fangio withdrew from the sport after winning his fifth Formula One title in 1957 Maserati also retired its racing team from competition. Its drivers continued to race as individuals using the company's cars, however, and in 1958 de Filippis was considered worthy of a crack at qualifying for the Monaco Grand Prix. She missed the cut by a shade under six seconds but a few weeks later qualified for the Belgian Grand Prix, becoming the first woman ever to compete in a Formula One race. Driving a Maserati 250F, the model that had served Fangio so well, she finished last but it was still a highly creditable achievement for a debutante when almost half the cars on the starting grid failed to finish at all. She took it in her stride, however.

"It was a fantastic experience but it didn't feel like a big step up," she said later. "I'd been driving cars with progressively bigger and bigger engines and in those days the top drivers took part in other events like hill climbing and endurance races, so I'd been competing against Formula One drivers right from the start."

She missed out on the next Grand Prix in France, recalling that the French race director Toto Roche had scratched her from the list of entrants with the comment, "the only helmet such a beautiful woman should be wearing is found at the hairdresser's", but this was a surprisingly rare example of overt sexism faced by de Filippis during her career. Certainly the other drivers respected her obvious talent behind the wheel and the spectators adored her. When she'd finished second in that Naples race the crowd reacted as if she'd won.

She entered the Portuguese and Italian Grands Prix that season but failed to make the qualifying time for either, and the following season, 1959, entered the Monaco Grand Prix in a Porsche owned by her friend Jean Behra, narrowly missing the cut. She didn't know it at the time but this would be her last appearance on a Grand Prix circuit.

Shortly after Monaco, de Filippis had been due to race at a sports car event in Berlin. Behra had just been fired by Ferrari when an argument with the team manager ended up with punches thrown so she gave her place to Behra in an effort to cheer him up. A few laps into the race on a rain-soaked track, Behra's car skidded over the lip of a steep bank, threw the driver from the cockpit and slammed him into a flagpole, killing him instantly.

Coming less than a year after the death of her former fiancé Luigi Musso during the French Grand Prix, Behra's death invoked a period of deep introspection for de Filippis. At 33 she was old enough to have lost that youthful sense of immortality and realised that it only took one patch of spilled oil or one split-second misjudgment to spell the end. She thought back to Fangio's warnings, comments she'd taken as compliments at the time but in the light of recent tragedy took on a whole new meaning.

"I wasn't frightened of speed and that's not always a good thing," she said. "I thought to myself, if I have no fear where do I end up? If I do not feel fear driving at 200kph where do I go from there?"

She spent that winter skiing and considering her future. Also on the slopes was Theodor Huschek, an Austrian chemical engineer with whom she fell immediately in love. De Filippis quit the track, married Huschek and for the next two decades concentrated on raising their daughter, not even visiting a race track.

"Too many friends had died," she said in a 2006 interview. "There was a succession of them, Luigi Musso, Peter Collins, Alfonso de Portago, Mike Hawthorn, then Behra was killed in Berlin. That was the most tragic for me because it was in a race I should have been taking part in. So I didn't go to the circuits any more. The following year I got married, then my daughter was born and family life became more important."

Since de Filippis, only one woman has made it to the starting grid at a Formula One Grand Prix: her compatriot Lella Lombardi who drove in a dozen races in the mid-1970s. Three others, Divina Galica, Desire Wilson and Giovanna Amati, have made it as far as the qualifying heats but so far only de Filippis and Lombardi have actually raced.

Interviewed shortly before her death de Filippis was asked whether she thought any other women might follow the pioneering trail she blazed.

"Yes, though there will always be only very few of them," she said. "The physical strength needed in Formula One is not a feminine characteristic. Those bull necks, for instance. Not a pretty sight."

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