Fearless Maria, Formula One Italian Goddess
Written by Kirsten Macdonald
I wonder if Maria Teresa de Filippis smiled and cried out Sfida Ccettata! As she sped passed her brothers, the harmonious purr of the beloved Tolpolina, Fiat 500 rolling beneath her.
Something tells me it wasn’t the just motorsport she was flying in the face of. The 1950s was a time of red-blooded patriarchal dominance. However, Maria Teresa became not only admired by her male counterparts for her skill but adored for her daring and dedication.
When Maria Teresa de Filippis brother’s teased her; taunting that she couldn’t race as fast as them; the challenge was on.
She went one step further and after being told by her mother “Go slowly but win,” Maria took on the hairy roads of the Amalfi Coast.
For those not familiar with the breathtaking Amalfi Costiera Amalfitana coast, this famous stretch of road in Southern Italy features hairpin bends, no barricades, blind corners and steep climbs.
Am I painting you a picture? It is not for the faint of heart. The young Italian completed the Salerno-Cava Dei Tirreni hill climb, in a tiny Fiat 500 in 1948. She indeed followed her mother’s advice and won her class and finished second overall in a Fiat 500.
Not bad for a girl born in Naples Aristocracy with a silver spoon in her mouth. Her father was Count Serino Franz de Filippis, Narcisa, Anselmi, Balaguer, Roca de Togores y Ruco hu Perpignan. Maria-Teresa was the youngest of his children. The Count was an engineer and Maria grew up playing with old cars in the stables.
According to her family one day she went to a fortune-teller in Naples who looked at her palm and told her that within a year she would take part in a motor race and would win it.
“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’,” she explained. “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. So I just kept on going, came out on top – second overall – and thought, ‘Well, this could be a new thing for me’.
Maria moved up to compete in the Italian Sportscar Championship by 1954.
Finishing second overall, Maria was invited to drive for Maserati. She went on to participate in five World Championship Grands Prix. The first woman to race in Formula One, Maria was a pioneer in racing throughout her life. She loved a cigarette and was considered by those who knew her forthright and had a wicked sense of humour.
According to Maria, some men were initially doubtful of her ability.
She was stopped from competing in the 1958 French Grand Prix in Reims; Maria did encounter the patriarchy in full force. Race Director Toto Roche looked her up and down before declaring, “The only helmet a beautiful woman should wear is the one at the hairdressers.” Ouch!
“Apart from that I don’t think I encountered any prejudice – only surprise at my success,” she added. Although there were “difficulties and misunderstandings” she had to overcome, she said, “Many journalists, too, did not always want general news but tried to get me to talk about particular situations as the only woman in the field.”
Maria weighed a mere 49 kilos because she was so small, Medardo Fantuzzi built special padding in the cockpit of her Maserati along with a cushion so that she could reach the pedals.
In 1956 she competed in the Buenos Aires 1000km; the race took a devastating turn when she swerved to avoid another person’s accident and hit a telegraph pole. Maria recovered from her injuries after several months, which included a broken shoulder. Still, according to sources, her confidence was unaffected. Quite fearless, Maria even had to be rescued from a crash where the car was dangling over a cliff. Maria suffered hearing loss in one ear as a result.
In 1958 she entered the Monaco GP, and the future champion qualified 15th. Still, it broke down, but De Filippis failed to qualify her Maserati 250F. De Filippis then qualified for the Belgian GP and finished 10th.
1958 bought tragedy when a close friend and lover Luigi Musso was killed in the French Grand Prix and then in the following August of 1959 her dear friend Jean Behra was killed during the race in which Maria was supposed to compete.
Too many friends had died,” she said. “Then Behra died … that for me was the most tragic because it was in a race that I should have been taking part in. I didn’t go to the circuits any more.”
Maria left the racing industry, and while on holiday in St Anton, Austria, de Filippis fell in love with Theodor Huschek, an Austrian textile chemist. One year later they married and settled in Italy after living in Austria and Switzerland.
But her love for racing did not wane, after encouragement the inspiring pioneer returned in 1979 joining the International Club of Former F1 Grand Prix Drivers, an F1 drivers union, serving as the club’s vice-president and going on to become the honorary president.
A beloved go-getter in a world not quite ready for the fearless woman, we salute Maria Theresa de Filippi. Four other women have since competed in the sport, most recently Giovanna Amati in 1992. But after more than 25 years; it seems we are well overdue for another?
Maria Teresa de Filippis (11 November 1926 – 8 January 2016)
Written by Kirsten Macdonald
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