The first woman to compete in Formula 1, Italian driver Maria Teresa de Filippis made her racing debut in 1948. Maria’s career started at the age of 21 as the result of a bet with two of her brothers who challenged her to prove she could drive fast enough. She won her first race, driving a Fiat 500 on a 10 km drive between Salerno and Cava de’ Tirreni. Filippis went on to participate in the Italian Sportscar Championship, finishing second in the 1954 season. Having recognized her potential, the Maserati team invited Maria to drive for them.

She tried to qualify for five Grand Prix (GP) races, four for Maserati and one for Porsche, and had managed to made it to three of them. She showed her best performance in her second race at the Belgian GP in 1958, where she started off 15th and finished 10th, a position that, at the time, didn’t earn her any championship points. At the French GP of the same year, despite having trained hard, she was banned from participating for being a woman. At a news conference, race director Toto Roche held up a photo of Maria and said, “The only helmet a woman should wear is the one at the hairdresser’s.” Maria was infuriated.

Despite all the prejudice, the pilot did not give up and went on to qualify for two other GPs, one in Portugal and another in Italy, her native country. Unfortunately, due to mechanical problems, Maria Teresa failed to complete either of the tests. In 1959, she tried for the last time to enter a race, this time at Circuit de  Monaco, but failed to qualify. The same year, at the age of 23, after a tragic racing accident that took life of her close friend, Jean Behra, at the AVUS track in Germany, she decided to retire from Formula 1. She got married, and had a baby daughter in 1960.

In 1979, she joined the International Club of Former F1 Grand Prix Drivers. The Club’s vice-president since 1997 and president of the Maserati club, many decades after, at the age of 85, Maria was named the honorary chairman of the Former F1 Drivers’ Club. Having spent most of her life in Milan, she passed away on January 9, 2016, at the age of 89, survived by her husband, daughter and two grandchildren.

Although admired for her courage by her racemates, Maria Teresa suffered from the chauvinism and stigma that a woman’s place was not on the race track, holding a steering wheel and wearing a helmet, but in the beauty salon. However, her determination helped pave the way for women to racing, a universe that until then had been exclusively masculine. Maria Teresa de Filippis was and still is an inspiration for many women who dream of becoming autopilots.

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