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First Female F1 Racer Dies Aged 89

Maria Teresa de Filippis started three F1 races in the 1950s and was also an ace sportscar driver.
January 11, 2016, 2:49pm

Maria Teresa de Filippis, the first woman to start a Formula 1 race, died last Friday (8 January) at the age of 89.

Born in Naples in 1926, she began racing aged 22 after a challenge from her brothers. Discovering both an affinity and a passion for the sport, she was supported in her early exploits by her wealthy father and spent the 1950s competing in a variety of sportscars. Her performances were impressive enough to earn her a contract with Maserati.

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She garnered press attention, too. A race report from 1956 said: 'Maria Teresa de Filippis, who started in the back row of the grid due to missing practice, sailed through into second place within a few laps, driving with remarkable determination.'

She made her F1 bow in 1958, driving a Maserati 250F, when she failed to qualify first time out at the Monaco Grand Prix. She was not alone, however: the combination of Monaco's large entry list and tight circuit meant half the field did not progress past qualifying. De Filippis was joined by a young Bernie Ecclestone in not making the main event, placing nine spots ahead of the Briton.

She was on the grid at her next race in Belgium, eventually bringing the car home in 10th spot. She also competed in Portugal - despite a heavy practice crash - and at her home race in Italy, but on each occasion failed to make the chequered flag.

She attempted to qualify at Monaco again in 1959, this time driving a Porsche, but failed to make the cut once more.

She walked away from the sport later that year following a spate of deaths, including the legendary French driver Jean Behra, who had fielded the Porsche she drove at Monaco. Her mentor at Maserati, Luigi Musso, had lost his life the previous year. De Filippis started a family and distanced herself from the sport for almost two decades.

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She returned in 1979, joining the International Club of Former F1 Grand Prix Drivers and later becoming its vice-president. But she did not race again following her retirement in 1959.

Though most famous for her F1 efforts, the real mark of De Filippis' ability came in sportscars. She contested some of Italy's most famous races, including the Mille Miglia and Targa Florio, and was regularly a class winner.

De Filippis place in motorsport history is significant. As the first woman to compete in Formula 1, she blazed a trail for other female racers looking to break into the sport, battling the perception that women weren't up to the challenge of grand prix racing.

Yet despite her early arrival on the scene, few women have been able to crack F1 since. It would be 15 years before the next woman started an F1 race, and since 1976 only three have tried to qualify for a grand prix, with each attempt ending in failure.