de Filippis talking

The first woman to race in Formula One – Maria Teresa de Filippis

Cars People

Ninety years ago, on November 11, 1926, the first woman to compete in a Formula 1 Grand Prix was born.

Maria Teresa De Filippis, a beautiful woman of noble birth, was born in Naples on November 11th, 1926.

The daughter of an automotive engineer breathed in the smell of racing in her childhood, with her older brothers, Antonio and Giovanni, competing in some local events.

Taking up a challenge issued by her two brothers, in 1948 Countess De Filippis, then aged 22, participated in her first car race behind the wheels of a tiny Fiat Topolino. In Salerno-Cava de ‘Tirreni, in southern Italy, she obtained a class victory, while in the following months, she raced in a hillclimb, where she finished second overall, saying “I was alone against the males.”

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The passion for motor competition was now running through her veins, fuelled by a great talent in driving. 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, losing the record by a whisker because of a serious accident that caused the loss of hearing in her left ear.

The adrenaline from the engines, however, was stronger than fear in Maria Teresa, and in 1955 she returned to the track, this time with the works Maserati team. Driving a Barchetta Sport A6GCS/53, she classified second in the Italian Drivers’ Championship Drivers’ Sports category.

Known for walking in the paddocks with her inseparable wolf dog – “to ward off pesky people” – she made her Formula 1 debut after two intense seasons with Maserati behind the wheel of her own Maserati 250F, one of the most fascinating F1 cars ever designed. On May 18, 1958, Maria Teresa De Filippis 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.

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But she did not give up. She participated in the Belgian Grand Prix, ranking tenth (her career-best) and had to withdraw from the Grands Prix of Portugal and Italy with yet another engine failure.

In 1959 she joined a friend’s team, Behra-Porsche. She took part in qualifying for the Monaco Grand Prix, but wasn’t classified to start.

In the next race, in Germany on the Avus circuit, she witnessed a fatal accident involving her team principal, as well as great friend, according to some, lover too, Jean Behra.

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The pain of the terrible loss, along with the death of her ex-boyfriend, the racer Luigi Musso, in French Grand Prix, was too great for Maria Teresa, who decided to retire from racing. It was a sad goodbye, but she never abandoned her passion for engines.

She was later married, and over the years 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.

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“I’ve been lucky enough to have spent the best of my life racing,” she said.

Maria Teresa De Filippis died in early 2016, leaving a large void in the racing world, a timeless elegance, and smile of a woman in a male-dominated club that had nicknamed her “little pilot”.

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