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 Stirling Moss, Jack Brabham or Juan Manuel Fangio, but the prejudice that women weren’t supposed to race.
Maria was born and raised in 1926 in Naples, Italy. In her youth she was keen on riding horses and showed little to no interest in cars, let alone racing them. That all changed after the war, when in 1948 her two brothers – Giuseppe and Antonio – mocked her, and bet she wouldn’t be fast in a car since she was a girl.
She stepped up to the challenge, and practiced on the narrow and twisty Italian roads along the Amalfi coast, not far away from her hometown. She made her debut in a hillclimb event, held near Naples, in Salerno-Cava dei Tirreni. Maria drove a Fiat 500B to its full potential and promptly won the race.
While she had won the bet, she was keen to prove herself even more, mostly to herself. Over the year, she participated in many races, including big events like the Targa Florio and the Mille Miglia. She kept racing heavier cars with bigger engines, such as a Lancia Aprilia, a Fiat 1100 Sport, an Urania 750, a Giaur, an Osca 1100, and an Osca MT4.
In these years, motorsport was highly dangerous, and a woman behind the wheel was certainly frowned upon. Maria also experienced her fair share of danger. In 1954, while driving in the Giro di Sardegna, she was well on her way to the title in the Italian sports car championship, until she was blinded by straw thrown in the air by two cars in front of her. Maria lost control of her Maserati A6GCS and crashed out of the race. She lost all hearing in her left ear that day, along with her potential championship.
But a consolidation was that Maserati signed her as a works driver, albeit it mostly for testing. She tested Maserati’s high-performance cars – including Formula 1 material – while participating in some races (and actually being paid for it).
She had two more huge accidents. In a 1955 event at Mugello she slid off the road and crashed into a ravine. A tree prevented 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 could not be stopped.
In 1958, Maria Teresa de Filippis entered the headlines, became the first woman to enter a Formula 1 race, albeit a non-championship one; the Syracuse Grand Prix. She did well, qualifying with her Maserati in eight on Saturday, and finishing fifth on Sunday, leaving some of her male rivals confused and perhaps slightly embarrassed – for all that they had mocked her, now she had beaten them. Meanwhile, Juan Manuel Fangio, who was like a father to her, gave advice; ‘You go too fast, you take too many risks.’ It was similar to what her proud yet worried mother always told her: ‘Go slow and win.’
A month later, she entered the 1958 Monaco Grand Prix, her first official 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 as per tradition.
But Maria became the first woman to start and finish an official Grand Prix, one month later, when she finished the 1958 Belgian Grand Prix in tenth place. This high was followed by a new low, at the French Grand Prix held at Reims-Gueux. The race director, in a case of overt sexism, refused Maria to enter the race, stating ‘The only helmet a woman should wear is the one at the hairdresser’s.”
Maria accepted her fate and tried her best in the final two races of the season, the Portuguese and Italian Grand Prix, in which she both qualified but also retired with a failed Maserati engine. The failure at her home race in Italy was particularly galling, as she was on her way to a fourth place in what would be an historic point-scoring finish.
And so while Mike Hawthorn won the 1958 season, De Filippis was listed but not classified. Maria joined the Behra-Porsche team for 1959, which was headed by her good friend Jean Behra. She entered the opening round in Monaco, but again failed to qualify for the small grid in the principality in the underpowered Porsche.
For the rest of the year 1959 she only joined non-F1 events, since the Behra-Porsche team ran mostly on Formula 2 specifications. That year, her attitude towards the sport started to change. While she was never afraid of speed, she had lost many of her friends – Luigi Musso, Peter Collins, Alfonso de Portago and Mike Hawthorn. Then, when Jean Behra died during F2 race at AVUS during the weekend of the German Grand Prix, she had seen enough.
She walked away from racing that day, never to return. She married in 1960 to start a family, and unlike many compatriots against which she raced those days, Maria died a long, rich life later, in 2016 aged 89.
It’s worth retelling that when Maria started racing her parents thought it was only a phase, since she never showed any interest in motor racing before the bet. Yet when they saw her success, and that Maria could not be stopped, they approved of her new career – but not without telling her to proceed with caution. This made sense. as along with all the perils the sport offered to all competitors, Maria alone also had to fight off constant prejudices and mockeries.
Yet in the end of it all, Maria had shared the roads with the world’s racing elite, and she proved her brothers – but mostly herself – that girls can surely race.