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A tribute to F1's first female racer

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Jan 11, 2016
Kate Walker
Writer for ESPN F1

It was my first season in Formula One. I had about eight or nine races under my belt, which is the F1 equivalent of being able to put the round peg in the round hole but still needing to ask teacher to tie up one's shoelaces before heading out to recess. Slightly more than a baby, but far from being a child.

One afternoon over the course of the Italian Grand Prix weekend I was sitting with a couple of colleagues in the McLaren motorhome, finishing up lunch. I'm a notoriously slow eater, and often end up having the final mouthfuls on my own as others rush off to interviews or deadlines.

That day, as I sat alone in the Brand Centre, an older couple asked if they could share my table for their own lunches. Immersed in whatever deep thoughts I was having at the time, I said yes without applying my brain to the faces before me. When I did look up and engage, it was clear that my breakfast companion was none other the Maria Teresa de Filippis, the first female F1 driver, and her husband Theo Huschek.

At the time I was the F1 correspondent for girlracer, a website devoted to promoting women in motorsport. Maria Teresa was a woman of both personal and professional interest, and I would have been an idiot to pass up the opportunity to speak to her, no matter how crippling my typically British social embarrassment over engaging people who have yet to be formally introduced.

So I took a deep breath, reminded myself that I was a grown-up with a job to do and not a squealing fangirl, and introduced myself to my new breakfast buddies. My Italian is basic at best, and on a par with Maria Teresa's English, so it fell to her husband Theo to translate our conversation.

However awkward a multi-lingual conversation conducted in translation, there are some subjects that transcend language itself. In F1, names like Juan-Manuel Fangio and Jean Behra can comfortably cross any language barrier, and it was Maria Teresa's reminiscences of learning the F1 ropes under the watchful eyes of her colleagues that went on to form the underpinnings of the interview we did later that day.

For a newbie journalist who was still introducing herself to the same team principals week in and week out, simply to have five minutes with the woman who had shared grids with legends we still speak of in bated breath was like having all of my Christmases come in at once.

One of the strange things about a life in the paddock is the way in which things that should be extraordinary quickly become part of the routine. Speaking to world champions and drivers past and present is not a special occasion, but part of the job. Objectively you know it should be a special occasion, but realistically it's just what one does during a race weekend.

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But when someone turns up who's not normally a part of the paddock furniture -- Sir Stirling Moss, for example, or Emerson Fittipaldi -- the excitement is palpable. For a girl whose interest in motorsport was piqued not by Piquet and Villeneuve but by Petre and Junek, my random afternoon with Maria Teresa de Filippis was one I will never forget.

Our interview, reprinted below, originally appeared in Grand Prix + magazine in September 2010.


Part of the magic of Monza is in the random paddock meetings.

On Saturday afternoon I ran down to the McLaren hospitality suite for a quick lunch before qualifying. Half-way through my meal, a couple asked if they could take two of the empty seats at my table. That couple? Maria Teresa de Filippis and her husband.

F1 history buffs know Maria Teresa de Filippis to be the first female Formula One driver, a contemporary of Fangio and Ascari, and the woman for whom Jean Behra designed an F1 car. But to the vast majority of the people in the paddock that afternoon, she was an 84-year-old woman of no distinction.

Until they saw her teasing Damon Hill, that is, and trying to pluck out his goatee strand by strand. But then, she was a contemporary of his father, and knew the 1996 Formula One World Champion when he was but a twinkle in Graham's eye...

Born in Naples in 1926, Maria Teresa de Filippis was a keen rider who spent her childhood and teenaged years learning to wrestle with the demands of a single horsepower. Known for both bravery and speed, her brothers bet their sister that she couldn't drive a car as fearlessly as she could ride a horse, and she set out to prove them wrong.

At the age of 22, de Filippis entered her first race, the Salerno-Cava dei Tirreni, after weeks of practicing on the Amalfi Coast. It was a success. Behind the wheel of her Fiat 500, de Filippis won her class and finished second overall.

The Salerno-Cava race marked the beginning of a motorsport career. Having proved her brothers wrong, de Filippis had so much fun in the process that there was no question of pursuing a more conventional life.

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"I started racing because of a 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 anxious, 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'.

"It could sound ridiculous [coming second overall in a Fiat 500], but in this period there were lots of drivers out there in the same car.

"The win of the first race in a 500, of course this was sort of an exploit. But it opened me, and I said 'okay, let's carry on'. So what I did was what -- at that time -- most of the racers did. I started racing in one category, and then climbed into the next, and the next, and the next, until I came up in Formula One."

By 1954, Maria Teresa de Filippis was competing in the Italian Sportscar Championship. A second-place finish in that year's standings led to the offer of a works drive with the Maserati team, but it would be 1958 before the Italian marque decided to test the F1 waters with their female star.

A 250F was prepared for her Formula One debut, scheduled to take place at the Monaco Grand Prix. But de Filippis was unable to qualify on that occasion, and her F1 debut was put on hold until the 1958 Belgian Grand Prix, which she finished in tenth place.

Formula One was a very different world in those days, she says.

"I had colleague competitors with the names Fangio, Ascari, Moss, Behra, Salvatore, Brooks... These people, this is quite different to what it is now. In the end, the car was important. But the racer was much more important than what it is today. I loved this period, because I loved to race with these guys.

"We're all friends today. All the survivors, we're all friends.

"Racing drivers at that period, the guys around me, they were all friends. We were competitors when we were on the racetrack, but outside we were friends who stayed in the same hotels, who travelled in the same place. Sometimes we went from one race to another race in the same car. Four of us, sharing the driving. It doesn't exist any more here."

But the camaraderie extended beyond the journeys to the circuit. Fangio took the young Italian under his wing, and passed on his words of wisdom.

"All our lives we spent together, as a group. A big, big family. It just doesn't exist today." With a sweep of her arms, de Filippis takes in the Monza paddock, the multi-storey travelling hospitality suites, and the legions of celebrity hangers-on that were nowhere to be seen in the late 1950s.

"The relationships between us, we helped each other. I got tips from Luigi Musso, from Jean-Manuel Fangio.

"The first time I raced at Monza, Fangio took me around the circuit. We got to Parabolica, and he said 'you see the 300 sign? Do not brake. Do you see the 200 sign? Don't brake. When it comes to the 100 sign? Don't brake.' At this point I asked 'do you want me dead?' He laughed. 'You brake as you start to turn in,' he said."

Talking about Fangio triggers another motorsport memory from her pre-F1 days.

"The main memory I have, the most impressive one, is after the first races with the sportscar category. I realised I had no fear. I thought to myself, 'if I have no fear, where do I finish up?'. I do not feel fear at 200kph, so what then?

"After one of these races, Fangio came up to me. 'Maria Teresa,' he said. 'You race too hard. You do more than you can.' And that was one of those moments where I thought 'well, if he says that'..." She broke off to stare into the middle distance with a smile.

One of de Filippis' most important motorsport relationships was the one she had with Jean Behra. The two friends -- and colleagues -- met on the racing circuit, but their friendship soon spilled over into the outside world and encompassed regular double dates with their respective spouses.

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"The thing with Jean Behra was that he built a racecar -- a Formula One racecar -- for me for the '59 season. He took the basis of a Porsche, and in Italy -- in Modena -- they built up a Formula One car, Behra's famous Porsche. This car was built for me. It came in very late. It came in to Monaco not on the first practice day, but on the second. It was not even varnished; it was the raw colour of the metal. And it had the wrong gearbox.

"I tried to qualify this car -- at that time there were 16 only who started the race, not 24 -- and there was Hans Hermann who tried to qualify this car. Lars von Tripps said 'I wouldn't be able to qualify this car. The car has the wrong gear ratio.' But by this time it was too late. Two of us tried to qualify, and we could not qualify this car."

De Filippis retired from motorsport in 1959, following Behra's death at AVUS. Too many of her friends had given their lives to the racetrack, but Behra's accident was all the more potent because he died behind the wheel of the car that de Filippis should have been driving that weekend.

"I knew that I was part of the family. And when I stopped racing, that was because Jean Behra had died in a race where I was supposed to race, not him. He went to the race without a drive, and I said 'it is ridiculous that I should race in your car when you stay on the floor. You go and race your car. 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."

Following Behra's death, Maria Teresa de Filippis retreated from the world of motorsport and turned her attention to raising a family. It took twenty years before she would be ready to re-enter the paddock, but in 1979 she joined the Grand Prix Drivers' Club and reconnected with the world she had left decades earlier.

"When I came back, the other guys had this club and they said 'join us'. It was the same as it had been twenty years before. Only the ones who died were not there. The start was more or less a continuation of what had been -- twenty years disappeared."

The interview took place in a combination of English, French, and Italian, and with translation help from Theo K. Huschek.
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post #2 of 2 (permalink) Old 02-08-2016, 08:19 PM Thread Starter
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Maria Teresa de Filippis, Pioneer of Auto Racing, Dies at 89

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