Eight years after the first Formula 1 World Championship in 1950, at a time when the race cars were capable of 175 mph, a courageous and fearless woman with a nickname of la diavola (she-devil) landed a position on the starting grid of the Belgian Grand Prix at the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps. Though it was actually her second Formula 1 race, as her first was the non-championship event at the 1958 Gran Premio di Siracusa, where she finished fifth. She is one of only two women to have ever qualified for a position on an F1 starting grid.
That woman was Maria Teresa de Filippis. Born into a wealthy family on November 11, 1926, in Naples, Italy, she was the youngest of five kids. Her father, Conte de Filippis, ran many successful companies and was behind the electrification of large areas of rural southern Italy. Her family also owned the 16th century Palazzo Marigliano of Naples and the Palazzo Bianco near Caserta. De Filippis was an avid horsewoman as a teenager and also played tennis and skied.
At the age of 22, in 1948, two of de Filippis’s brothers, Antonio and Giuseppe, made a bet that she couldn’t drive fast. So, she entered a hillclimb event in a Fiat 500. “I trained in Amalfi and won my first race, the Salerno-Cava dei Tirreni event,” she said. “I loved the speed, the thrill of it.” Not only did de Filippis win her class, but she finished second overall at the event.
Both of her parents were supportive of her new adventures in motor racing, as she competed in various hillclimbs and endurance events. Her mother didn’t object as she was winning, and her father inspired her to succeed in whatever she chose to do.
In 1949, de Filippis competed in the Stella Alpina Rally in Trento, Italy, in her own Urania-BMW sports car. The following year at the Giro di Sicilia, a 1080-km race, she was presented with flowers after crossing the finish line—but was then disqualified. The race organizers said she had been push-started at the beginning of the race when her mechanic had pushed her into position after she had stopped a few inches short of the starting line. De Filippis’s fellow competitors were not pleased with the decision. Legendary Italian racer Tazio Nuvolari protested: “You made a girl drive over one thousand kilometers on wet roads only to then disqualify her. This is crazy.”
By 1954, de Filippis was winning races all across Italy. While racing her Urania-BMW Giaur and a Maserati brothers’ OSCA MT4, she finished second in the Italian Sports Car Championship. Maserati soon saw her worth and hired her onto Scuderia Centro Sud Maserati as a works driver. De Filippis didn’t want to drive for Ferrari and actually rejected an invitation to drive for them.
While racing the OSCA, she met and fell in love with rival driver Luigi Musso, who raced for both Maserati and Ferrari in Formula 1 between 1953 and 1958. She and Musso traveled to races together, and Musso helped her perfect her driving technique. The couple would even place bets on who would finish higher in a race. At one point they were engaged, but they never married.
In 1956, de Filippis finished second in a Maserati 200S in a support race for the Naples Grand Prix, a non-championship F1 race through the streets of the seafront district of Posillipo. She had started at the back of the field after she missed the practice session. Two years later, she began driving Juan Manuel Fangio’s 1957 championship car. The Maserati had to have special padding inside to help her reach the pedals, as she was five feet, two inches tall. Fangio told her, “You go too fast, you take too many risks.” At the Monaco Grand Prix, she failed to make the grid, claiming that the slow and twisting street circuit proved to be too much physical stress for her in the Maserati 250F. It was the same race as Graham Hill’s debut, and Bernie Ecclestone also failed to qualify in his Connaught.
De Filippis competed in a total of five Formula 1 events in 1958 and 1959. Her best finish was 10th, after starting 19th, at her debut championship race at the 1958 Belgian Grand Prix at the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps—two laps behind the winner. During the same year, she was banned from the French Grand Prix after a race director reportedly said, “The only helmet that a woman should use is the one at the hairdresser’s.” It was the only time de Filippis was ever prevented from racing. She retired early in the Portuguese and Italian grands prix.
After the 1959 Belgian Grand Prix, de Filippis retired from motor racing. Her friend, Porsche team boss Jean Behra, had lost his drive after punching Ferrari team manager Romolo Tavoni at the French Grand Prix. De Filippis was supposed to drive the Behra’s car, a Behra-Porsche based on the RSK, at the AVUS speedway in Germany, but she allowed him to get behind the wheel instead. He died after going off the 40-degree banking at the northern end of the track. Behra was thrown out of his cockpit and hit a flagpole.
“When I stopped racing, that was because Jean had died in a race where I was supposed to race, not him,” she said. “He went to the race without a drive, and I said: ‘It’s ridiculous that I should race in your car when you stay on the floor. You go and race it. It’s your car.’ I didn’t even go to the race. Then, on the radio, I heard that he was dead. I decided, on the spot, to stop racing. Too many friends had gone.”
After retiring, de Filippis met Theodor Huschek, an Australian textile chemist, while skiing in St. Anton, Austria. The two married in 1960 and had a daughter, and her marriage and family life took priority. The family resided in Austria, moved to Switzerland, and finally settled down in Italy.
De Filippis stayed away from motorsport until 1979, when she joined the International Club of Former F1 Grand Prix Drivers. In 1997, she served as vice president of the group and became its honorary president just days before her 85th birthday. She would occasionally visit grand prix race paddocks around the world, and she was also a founder and the president of the Maserati Club.
Maria Teresa de Filippis passed away on January 9, 2016, at the age of 89 years old in Scanzorosciate, Italy.