By Darrel Burnett, Executive Director – The Automobile Gallery & Event Center
One of the true joys of sharing with you every month is being able to shine a light on incredible people whose lives and stories have otherwise disappeared into darkness.
One such person was a trailblazing 5’ 2” package of courage and charisma named Maria Teresa de Filippis.
It was exactly 64 years ago today, August 1st, 1959, that Maria Teresa made a decision that would change the trajectory of her life and dramatically affect the lives of women around the world. In an instant, Maria Teresa walked away from a soaring career in Formula One racing never to return.
It happened on a rain drenched day in Berlin at the German Grand Prix. Maria Teresa’s close friend Jean Behra lost his life in a Porsche RSK that she was supposed to be driving.
Just a year before, August 24th, 1958, Maria Teresa had pierced the impenetrable wall of the male dominated world of Formula One racing where women weren’t allowed much less welcome.
As a 22-year-old 8 years before, Maria Teresa won the first race she entered and never stopped.
Armed with a resume full of wins at every level, Maria Teresa ignored insurmountable obstacles and had such immense talent that she turned down an offer to drive for Enzo Ferrari choosing to drive for rival Maserati instead. She was so petite that special padding had to be added to her seat just to reach the pedals.
Behind the wheel, Maria Teresa went from being 5’ 2” to being larger than life!
She qualified 16th at the Belgian Grand Prix in her Maserati 250F and finished 10th in her first Grand Prix race. Only Taylor Swift could appreciate the level of fame that was waiting around the corner for Maria Teresa.
In sharp contrast to Maria Teresa’s engaging personality, Frenchman Jean Behra, her dear friend, was a complex combination of talent and temper.
Driving for the revered Ferrari team, an argument at a restaurant between Behra and Ferrari team manager Romolo Tavoni escalated to the point that Behra punched out Tavoni. He was fired instantly. Having lost his ride with Ferrari, Behra took his own Porsche RSK to the German Grand Prix with Maria Teresa as his driver.
Later, she remembered telling Behra, ‘It’s ridiculous that I should race in your car when you stay on the floor. You go and race it. 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.”
A full 15 years passed before another woman qualified for a Formula One race when Italian Lella Lombardi finally broke through at the 1974 British Grand Prix. Lombardi last raced in 1976 and a woman has never started a Formula One race in the 47 years since.
Had Maria Teresa continued her meteoric climb would it have been different for Janet Guthrie who patiently waited until May 29th, 1977, to become the first woman to race in the Indianapolis 500? Had Maria Teresa continued to shatter stereotypes in the racing world, we can only speculate at how much smoother the professional path for Lynn St. James, Danica Patrick, Sarah Fisher, and other women racers might have been.
Maria Teresa de Filippis passed away in relative obscurity January 8th, 2016 at the age of 89, in Scanzorosciate, Italy. On this Tuesday, August 1st, 2023, we are left to imagine what could have been — but was never destined to be.