Wham, bam, thank you ma’am!
Only readers of a certain ageare likely to understand the significance of Maria Teresa de Filippis. She was the first woman to start an F1 grand prix, and also the first female classified finisher – both milestones achieved at the 1958 Belgian GP. She began racing, she said, to settle a bet with her brothers: a keen horsewoman, she only went and won the first race she entered, in a Fiat 500.
In the near-58 years that have since passed, only one woman has bettered de Filippis’s F1 tally: the late Lella Lombardi, a fellow Italian, who started 12 grands prix between 1974 and 1976, scoring half a point for her sixth-place finish in the red-flagged 1975 Spanish GP.
So to say that de Filippis, who died earlier this month aged 89, was a trailblazer, would be an understatement. Before Formula 1 she competed in a number of topflight sportscar races, in an era when driver safety was never considered, earning herself a reputation for bravery at the wheel that took her to the limit of – and sometimes beyond – her talent. Perhaps mindful of the sport’s dangers, she curtailed her own career in 1958, having seen “too many friends die” in competition, including the likes of Jean Behra and Peter Collins. She didn’t turn her back on motor racing altogether though; in 1984 she became secretary general of the Club International des Anciens Pilotes de Grand Prix and was later appointed its honorary president.
De Filippis’s statistical record is slight in the context of her totemic peer, Juan Manuel Fangio – whose own Formula 1 legacy is examined in detail in part two of our History of F1 series (page 94). Yet her importance to the sport’s wider narrative is beyond question.
A similar sentiment might be applied to another member of the F1 family who died days before de Filippis: Tyler Alexander. Not a driver, but the ultimate ‘backroom boy’, Alexander was central to Mclaren for almost his entire career. An aircraft engineer by training, he was in at the very start with Bruce Mclaren and Teddy Mayer; all too soon he was one of those who stopped the ship from sinking after Bruce’s death in 1970. Of that experience, he wrote in his memoir, A Life and Times with Mclaren: “It’s times like these when you have to get ahold of yourself and keep people together – in this case, the people who helped make Bruce Mclaren Motor Racing the team that it was. It was now time to use the things that we had all learned from Bruce, without showing personal sorrow.”
Alexander briefly left Mclaren, but Ron Dennis knew his worth and lured him back to his spiritual home to fortify the team as they embarked on their period of ’80s domination. As “one of the first pillars” of Mclaren, he remained there until his retirement in 2008.
You’ll forgive, I hope, the somewhat reflective nature of this column, but as it’s being written on the day we learned of David Bowie’s death, it seems only appropriate to pause for a moment to remember those in F1 and beyond who burn so brightly to lighten our lives. [They] can be heroes. Just for one day.
Follow Anthony on Twitter: @Rowlinson_f1