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Maria Teresa de Filippis dies aged 89

First female F1 driver raced for Maserati and Porsche, finishing 10th in the Belgian GP in 1958

Maria Teresa de Filippis – the first of only two women to have featured in a Formula One race – passed away at the weekend at the age of 89 following ‘a long and debilitating illness’.

The Italian took part in five races in total, registering a best and albeit only finish of 10th for Maserati in the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa in 1958 having started 19th on the grid.

She quit the sport in 1959 following the death of her Porsche team boss Jean Behra in an F1 support race at the AVUS circuit in Germany. She later explained that she retired because “too many friends had died.”

The late Lella Lombardi remains the only other woman to have raced in Formula One, while Divina Galica, Desire Wilson and Giovanna Amati have all since taken part in qualifying sessions without progressing to the main grid.

Born in Naples in November 1926, De Filippis’ career began on the Amalfi coast when two of her brothers bet that she couldn’t drive quickly. They were wrong. She won her first race – the Salerno-Cava dei Tirreni hill climb – in a Fiat 500 in 1948, later going on to finish second in the Italian sports car championship in 1954.

Although her opportunities in F1 were limited, De Filippis had a knack for turning scepticism into surprise as she continued to compete successfully in motorsport, despite suffering setbacks as a result of her gender.

In an interview with the Observer in 2006, she recounted the time she was prevented from taking part in the French Grand Prix, with the race director allegedly saying: ‘The only helmet a woman should wear is the one at the hairdresser’s.’

It followed her disqualification from the 1950 Giro di Sicilia where she was presented with flowers for her performance in the 1080km race, only to be later disqualified for a dubious infringement on the start line.

However, she wasn’t without allies on the grid. The majority of drivers travelled together and stayed in the same hotels, and were considered good friends as well as colleagues.

Among them was Juan Manuel Fangio, whose car De Filippis drove the year after it had brought the Argentinian his fifth world championship. He once advised her: ‘You go too fast, you take too many risks.’ But, as she recalled, she “wasn’t frightened of speed, you see, and that’s not always a good thing.”

De Filippis largely stayed away from the sport for two decades after her retirement as her marriage and family life began to take priority. However, she accepted an invitation to join the Grand Prix Drivers Club in 1979, later becoming its honorary president.

Speaking in a Maserati ad (above) last October, De Filippis said: “I’m lucky enough to have spent the best part of my life racing and driving what I believe to be the finest cars ever created.

“I’m 88 years old now, old enough to admit that I envy every road ahead that has just opened up before you. So take it from someone who knows – the greatest kilometres are all ahead of you!”

She is survived by her husband Theo K. Huschek and her daughter Carola. De Filippis’ funeral is due to take place today in Scanzorosciate, Italy.

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