Wham, bam, thank you ma’am!

F1 Racing (UK) - - IGNITION -

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

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