Maria Teresa de Filippis races in Portuguese Grand Prix

Maria Teresa de Filippis–the first woman ever to compete in Formula One racing–drives a Maserati in the Portuguese Grand Prix at Oporto on August 24, 1958.

In Formula One (also known as F1), the highest class of automobile racing sanctioned by the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile, drivers compete in single-seat, open-wheel vehicles capable of speeds above 230 mph and typically built by large automakers, or “constructors” in racing parlance. The F1 season consists of a series of events known as Grand Prix races; since 1950, the circuit has awarded a driver’s world championship title, and since 1958, it has given one for the top constructor. From 1958 to 2009, only five women have ever competed in F1 racing; in 1980, the South African driver Desire Wilson became the only female driver to win a F1 race, at Britain’s Brands Hatch circuit. 

Born in Naples, Italy, in 1926, De Filippis got her start racing small Fiat 500s when she was around 22. As she told the British newspaper The Observer during a 2006 interview, she began her racing career after two of her brothers made a bet with each other that she couldn’t drive fast. De Fillipis won her first race at Salerno-Cava dei Tirreni in a 500. After she finished second in the 1954 Italian sports car championship, the Italian automaker Maserati hired her as a works driver, testing their high-performance cars, and in 1958 she became the first woman to compete in a Formula One world championship race.

De Filippis raced in three Grand Prix events for Maserati that year, posting her best finish–10th place, two laps behind the winner–in her first race, the Belgian Grand Prix. At Oporto that August 24, she was forced to quit the race due to engine troubles. The British driver Stirling Moss, driving a Vanwall, won the event after his countryman Mike Hawthorn (the year’s eventual world champion) spun out and stalled his Ferrari and was forced to push-start it in order to get back in the race.

De Filippis used the same Maserati that the great Argentine driver Juan Manuel Fangio drove when he won his then-record fifth world championship title in 1957. As De Filippis told The Observer, Fangio had warned her of her tendency to drive too fast, to take risks: “I wasn’t frightened of speed, you see, and that’s not always a good thing. He worried I might have an accident.” As it turned out, De Filippis quit the sport the following year and started a family. In 1979, she joined the International Club of Former F1 Grand Prix Drivers; she became its vice president in 1997, and was also president of the Maserati Club.

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