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Maria Teresa de Filippis: history maker, record breaker, industry shaker

Written by Poppy Evans, Edited by Meghana Sree

“The only helmet a woman should wear is the one at the hairdresser’s.” Misogynistic. Sexist. Wrong. These were the prejudiced words of the race director of the 1958 French Grand Prix, as he forbade the first ever woman to compete in Formula One from racing –  Maria Teresa de Filippis. And she most certainly proved him wrong.

De Filippis’ story is one that is little known within the F1 community. It is often the case that you hear how most drivers began their racing journey through being in a family that loves motorsport and is somehow connected to the sport, yet de Filippis started racing as a consequence of a bet fabricated by her brothers, as they teased her that she couldn’t drive fast. 

And so of course, in true de Filippis style, she began training on the Amalfi coast, jumped in a Fiat 500 and won the Salerno-Cava dei Tirreni hillclimb event, which, as the name suggests, was a hillclimb event across 10km, not to mention her very first race!

A modern day segment of the Amalfi coast where Maria Teresa de Filippis used to train; Image Credits: Italy Travel Secrets

As she continued to compete in and win more and more races such as the 12 Hours of Pescara endurance race, de Filippis was scouted by Maserati and became a driver for them in 1958. This was when she became the first woman to compete in the world renowned Formula One World Championship.

Maserati had actually withdrawn from Formula One the previous year, following Juan Manuel Fangio winning his fifth World Championship, so de Filippis entered with Maserati as a privateer.

Driving Fangio’s championship winning car, de Filippis’ first race was the non-championship Syracuse Grand Prix on 13th April 1958. This, as the name implies, is the usual Grand Prix race weekend format except the results don't matter and consequently don't influence the championship standings. 

Qualifying 8th and finishing her debut Formula One race in 5th position is utterly incredible, especially being the first woman to do so in such a male dominated industry. De Filippis had just proven that women can race, and are just as good at it as men.

Round five of the all to play for 1958 World Championship was the Belgium Grand Prix and de Filippis’ second Formula One race saw her race in her first official championship race with all points counting towards the title. 

Competing with the Maserati 250F car and engine, she qualified 19th and finished in 10th position. At present, this 10th place finish would provide a driver with one point. However in the 1950s, Grand Prix points were only awarded to the top five finishers; with eight points awarded to P1, six to P2, four to P3, three to P4 and two to P5.

Maria Teresa de Filippis at the Belgium Grand Prix - the first woman to ever compete in a Formula One Grand Prix!; Image Credits: Formula One

Overall, de Filippis competed in three Formula One championship races: The Portuguese, Belgium, and Italian Grand Prix. 

It would have been four but unfortunately having an overtly sexist and discriminatory race director employed for the French Grand Prix meant that de Filippis wasn’t allowed to compete, simply on the basis of being a woman.

De Filippis’ retirement from her phenomenal career took place in 1959, sadly as a result of the many friends of hers that had passed away due to the beyond dangerous sport. 

Taking this time to start a family, she stepped away from racing altogether until 1979 when she became the Secretary General of the Formula One Grand Prix Drivers’ Club (then called the Club International des Anciens Pilotes de Grand Prix F1.) De Filippis then advanced to Vice President in 1997 and finally became the clubs Honorary President in 2011. 

As well as this, de Filippis became a founding member of the Maserati club in 2004 which today has the aim of enabling Maserati owners and enthusiasts to share their experiences within motorsport.

The incredible Maria Teresa de Filippis; Image Credits:

As mentioned in a 2006 interview by the Observer Sport Monthly, when asked why more women haven’t followed her example, de Filippis suggested that it was down to money: “Many backers don't believe that a woman can compete on equal terms. It's a shame because I think there would be huge interest if a woman was given a chance in Formula One.” 

This is insane because the situation now is still similar to what it was nearly 20 years later! This should not stand, and more progress can and should be made in the sport.

Aged 89, de Filippis sadly died on 8th January 2016, yet her legacy indefinitely lives on. As a history maker, record breaker, and industry shaker, Maria Teresa de Filippis was the very first trailblazer for all women in motorsport, and that certainly won't be forgotten. 

Her legacy will continue to inspire females in motorsport to show them that they too can be a part of the world of racing.

As she herself once said: “The greatest kilometres are ahead of you!”


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