Belgium, June 15, 1958. As the Formula 1 World Championship celebrates its 8th year, Maria Teresa de Filippis wins the 10th place, becoming the first woman to qualify for a Formula 1 Grand Prix. It would be almost 30 years before another driver would find herself on the starting grid. In 1975, Lella Lombardi, another Italian, finished 6th in the Spanish Grand Prix.
Nicknamed “il pilotino” by her peers because of her small stature, di Filippis was only 22 years old when she sat behind the wheel of her Fiat topolino for what would be the first of many races. On the Salerno-Cava dei Tirreni course, where she traversed the winding roads of her native Italy, she placed second, thumbing her nose at Antonio and Guiseppe, her older brothers. The latter had challenged her to a race, convinced that she could not drive as fast as a man.
The victories followed one another and at the Grand Prix of Naples in 1956, she started in last position and sneaked in to finish in second place. This was followed by an invitation to race in Formula 1. She made her debut at the Spa-Francorchamps circuit at the wheel of Manuel Fangio’s Maserati 250F, crowned champion the previous year. The man she considers her big brother denotes her daring “tu vai troppo veloce per le possibilità della tua macchina*” and shows at the same time the courage that this bit of woman possessed unlike her colleagues.
The only prejudice against her status as a woman came at the French GP in 1958 when the race director forbade her to compete, following the death the day before of Frenchwoman Annie Bousquet at the 12 Hours of Reims. Doubting that a woman had the required capacities to drive a single-seater, he declared that “the only helmet a woman should wear is the hairdresser’s helmet.”
That same year Di Filippis hit the tracks of 4 GP. Although she finished only one, she made Formula 1 history with her courage and determination in an era that she described as both beautiful and cruel. The death of her friend and driver Jean Behra, one too many, sounded the death knell for this corsa contro la morte*. She gave up her career as a pilot and devotes herself to her family life. Apart from a few appearances at events as a member of the International Club of Formula 1 Drivers and the Maserati Club, Di Filippo will live away from the public scene until her death on January 8, 2018.
* You’re going too fast for the limits of your car.
* Race against death