Throughout a lot of its history, car racing has been seen as a male dominated sport. But there have been a number of women who’ve challenged the perception of what makes a champion. Trail blazers like Pat Moss proved why females belong on the racing circuit.
Women Racers is a series that shines a light on the people who earned their place in racing history. Maria Teresa de Filippis is part of the group, as she was the first woman to race in Formula One.
De Filippis was born in Naples on the 11th November 1926. She came from a wealthy family, as her father, Conte de Filippis, was a businessman who oversaw the electrification of rural southern Italy. One of her earliest passions was horse riding, which she pursued for several years until beginning her racing career.
De Filippis began her racing career at the age of 22 because she made a bet with two of her brothers. They said she wouldn’t be able to go fast and de Filippis accepted the challenge. She’s quoted as saying “I started racing because of that bet with my two brothers, but immediately – when I discovered I liked it – I thought, ‘I’ll just carry on racing. I remember that when I went there, I felt that I would be anxious. But then I discovered that I wasn’t, that I had no fear at all.”
She drove a Fiat 500 and won her first race on a 10km drive between Salerno and Cava de’ Tirreni. Car manufacturers Maserati noticed her and gave her a factory car in 1955. This opened the door for her to race in high-profile contests like the Monaco Grand Prix and Belgian Grand Prix.
De Filippis was known for her lack of fear and tenacity whenever she was behind a wheel. She became good friends with Jean Behra, a Frenchman who built a hybrid racer Porsche for De Filippis to drive in 1959. Behra drove the car himself on the Avus track in Berlin and was killed in an accident. When she heard about the accident, De Filippis retired from racing at the age of 33.
De Filippis got married in 1960 and started a family. She stayed away from the automotive world until joining the International Club of Former FI Grand Prix Drivers. De Filippis became a founding member of the Maserati Club in 2004, eventually becoming chairman.
De Filippis died in January 2016 at the age of 89, leaving behind a legacy that’s made her a racing pioneer. She made it acceptable for women to drive in F1, giving fellow Italian Lella Lombardi the chance to compete between 1974 and 1976.