Saturday 10 December 2016

Obituary: Maria Teresa de Filippis

Italian aristocrat who was the first woman driver to enter a Formula One world championship race

Published 14/02/2016 | 02:30

UP TO SPEED: Maria Teresa de Filippis, nicknamed diavola (‘she-devil’) Photo: Rex Features
UP TO SPEED: Maria Teresa de Filippis, nicknamed diavola (‘she-devil’) Photo: Rex Features

Maria Teresa de Filippis, who has died aged 89, was the first woman to enter a Formula One world championship race and one of only two to have qualified and made it to the starting grid.

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The gamine daughter of an Italian count, in 1958 and 1959 de Filippis raced in three grands prix in a Maserati 250F and failed to reach the qualifying time for two other races, including her first, the 1958 Monaco Grand Prix.

"You go too fast, you take too many risks," her friend, the Argentine F1 legend Juan Manuel Fangio (who had driven the same car to his fifth world championship the previous year) told her.

In the same year, 14 men also failed to make the grade - including one Bernie Ecclestone.

Maria Teresa de Filippis posted a best finish of 10th on her debut world championship race at the 1958 Belgian Grand Prix at Spa, but was banned from the French Grand Prix the same year after the race director reportedly said: "The only helmet that a woman should use is the one at the hairdressers."

What made her achievement all the more remarkable was that, at 5ft 2ins, she was so small that her Maserati had to be adapted with special padding so that she could reach the pedals.

Her distinction did little to change attitudes, however (as recently as 2013 the former British Formula One driver Stirling Moss opined that women lacked the mental strength to "race hard, wheel-to-wheel"), and it took nearly two decades for another woman to sit behind the F1 steering wheel.

Lella Lombardi entered the 1974 season, finishing sixth in only her third race - the greatest achievement by any woman F1 driver to this day. Three other women, Britain's Divina Galica, South Africa's Desire Wilson, and Italy's Giovanna Amati have entered, but none has managed to reach a place on the final grid.

The youngest of five children, Maria Teresa de Filippis was born on November 11, 1926, in Naples into an aristocratic family that owned the city's 16th-century Palazzo Marigliano and the Palazzo Bianco near Caserta. A keen horsewoman as a teenager, she entered her first car race at the age of 22. "Two of my brothers bet. . . that I couldn't drive fast," she recalled. "I trained in Amalfi and won my first race - the Salerno-Cava dei Tirreni event - in a Fiat 500."

She went on take part in various motor racing events, including hillclimbing and endurance racing. She drove a Urania-BMW in the 1949 Stella Alpina event, but was disqualified after the finish of the 1950 Giro di Sicilia, the organisers claiming she had been push-started (before the start she had rolled up and stopped a few inches short of the line, so her mechanic had pushed her into position).

"You made a girl drive over one thousand kilometres on wet roads only to then disqualify her," protested her outraged compatriot Tazio Nuvolari. "This is crazy."

By 1954 she was winning races across Italy and finished runner-up in the Italian Sports Car Championship that year, racing her own Urania-BMW, a Giaur, then a Maserati brothers' OSCA MT4, earning the nickname diavola ('she-devil').

Seeing her potential, Maserati brought her in as a works driver and in 1956 she weaved her way forward from the back of the grid to finish second in a sportscar race supporting the Naples Grand Prix, driving a Maserati 200S.

The Belgian Grand Prix was not her first F1 race, as she had made her debut in the Maserati 250F a few weeks earlier in the non-championship Gran Premio di Siracusa, finishing fifth.

Watching her performance, Denis Jenkinson, sports editor of Motor Sport magazine, wrote: "An interesting sight at the Gran Premio Siracusa was to see a 26-year-old Italian girl driving a grand prix Maserati and not teetering round at the back of the field in an effeminate way, but having a real go 'up with the boys'."

The Belgian event was her only grand prix race finish, however, and in 1959 she retired from the circuit after the death of her friend, Jean Behra, who was killed after going over the lip of banking at the Avus speedway in Berlin.

In 1960 she married Theodor Huschek, an Austrian textile chemist, with whom she had a daughter, and subsequently kept away from motor racing until 1979 when she joined the International Club of Former F1 Grand Prix Drivers, serving as vice-president in 1997.

Maria Teresa de Filippis who died on January 9, is survived by her husband and daughter, Carola.

© Telegraph

Telegraph.co.uk

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