Action Replay: Life in the Fast Lane

Maria Teresa de Filippis has died at the age of 89. She was the first woman to drive in Formula 1 and competed against such giants as Giuseppe Farina, Alberto Ascari and serial Grand Prix winner Juan Manuel Fangio, the sport’s first three world champions.

She was regarded as an independent and sometimes bloody-minded character. Born in Naples in 1926, her early years were marked by a passion for horse riding. Her conversion to four wheels arose after her brothers challenged her to prove she could drive a car as well as she could ride a horse. Aged just 22, Maria made her first racing debut in the 1948 Salerno Cavi dei Tirreni, where she finished second overall in a Fiat 500. In 1954 she contested the Italian Sportscar Championship and finished second overall and was invited to drive for Maserati. In 1958, she was entered for the Monaco GP but failed to qualify. Graham Hill, one of her opponents and future world champion, finished 15th. Undaunted, Maria qualified for the Belgian GP and finished 10th.

Recalling the names of her male competitors such as Fangio, Moss and Behra, she remarked ‘in the end the car was important. But the racer was more important than they are today. I loved this period because I loved to race these guys.’ Racing against them, Maria realised she had no fear. After one of the races, Fangio came up to her and said, ‘Maria Teresa, you race too hard. You do more than you can.’

During this time, Maria Teresa had grown close to French driver Jean Behra, who had assembled a hybrid racer based on a Porsche design, for her to race in 1959. Behra was sacked by Ferrari for assaulting team manager Romolo Taverni, leaving him without a ride. Maria insisted that Jean drive the car instead of her and didn’t attend the race. Later listening to the radio she heard that Behra was dead. Immediately, she decided to stop racing, realising that too many of her friends had gone.

De Filippis retired to raise a family. Later she visited grand prix paddocks around the world with her husband Theo, who ran the International Club of Former F1 Grand Prix Drivers.

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