Retracing the life of Maria de Villota, who lost an eye testing for Marussia F1
Let’s face it. Motorsport is a male-dominated sport. That perhaps holds true more in the world of Formula One, given the way the sport functions. Even though women are involved in F1 in various ways, we barely get to hear about a female driver driving a Formula One car, let alone testing for a team. Since its inception in 1950, five women racers made it to Formula One, although only two have been able to actually race. Maria Teresa de Filippis became the first female racer to make it to the F1 grid when she qualified for the race in the 1958 season, driving a Maserati. But women have been largely absent from the racing in F1, even though lower racing championships have women enjoy reasonable success. As a motorsport enthusiast and a girl at that, I have always wanted women to take up active roles in the sport, and have been particularly excited each time women have taken up a strategic position in F1. I would be happiest though if a female racer makes it to the Formula One starting grid in today’s day and age, giving her male counterparts a run for their money.
I was particularly excited when Marussia F1 had signed on Spanish racing driver Maria di Villota. I was hopeful of seeing her get a chance to race apart from her role as test driver. However, the ugly side of things are known to show up when least expected. In racing it is in the form of crashes given the speeds involved, especially in F1. Any F1 fan worth his salt will never forget the sad demise of Ayrton Senna at Imola in Italy. Ever since F1 has fortunately not seen a single death, but yes, crashes do happen, serious ones sometimes. Unfortunately for Maria, she fell prey to one such accident even before she could live her dream of actually racing in F1. Over the years, the FIA has made advances in terms of safety, but the risk of accidents cannot be eliminated completely. Intrigued by the way her life has changed since the gruesome accident that left Maria without sight in one eye, I was keen on learning about her, and got in touch with her family.
Maria’s tryst with racing began as a kid. Born in Madrid, she is the daughter of former F1 driver Emilio de Villota who raced in the 80s. She started her racing career with karting in 1996. She was very passionate about racing as a kid since her father was an F1 driver. Her dad however never wanted Maria to race. But Maria knew that she wanted to take up racing as a career when she won her first karting race. She went on to race in various single seater and sportscar categories like the Spanish Formula Toyota 1300, Spanish F3, Daytona 24 Hours, the Spanish GT Championship, Euroseries 3000 and the Superleague Formula and so on. Maria was studying sports science at the same time, and holds a degree in the same from the European University of Madrid.
She got her first taste of driving an F1 car in 2011 when got behind the wheel of the Renault R29 at the Paul Ricard Circuit for a test, hoping to secure a seat as reserve driver. A few months later, she was finally taken by Marussia F1 as test driver for the 2012 season. Unfortunately for her, Maria suffered a crash in her very first test for Marussia, at the Duxford Aerodrome, Cambridgeshire, performing a straight line acceleration run. Her car seemed to have accelerated suddenly whilst slowing down, launching it into the rear of a parked truck. She suffered serious head and facial injuries that took a long time to heal, but she lost her right eye in the process. F1 cars and driving helmets are designed to protect the driver from every possible injury, but the eyes generally get lesser protection due to the visors. Her car reportedly was at a low speed but she suffered fractures in her skull apart from losing an eye.
This was one of those unfortunate incidents where the crash took place in the service area where a support truck was parked. The reason for the crash is still not clear but when internal investigations were carried out by Marussia and by a Health and Safety Executive (HSE), they found that the crash was not caused by a technical issue with the car. Once she recovered, Maria wanted to get back in the cockpit, but had to wait for some time before she even got the clearance to drive on the road. When I asked what she thinks about her new life, she told me “I want to focus on my new life, and help promote safety.” She wears an eye patch now, and wants to work on ensuring testing in motorsport becomes safer in future.
October 2012 is when she made her first public appearance after the crash, having spent several months recovering. However, she suffers from headaches even now and has lost her sense of sense of taste and smell. Talking about the difficulties in her daily life Maria says, "After I recovered, even day-to-day activities were difficult. Catching a bunch of keys thrown in the air or getting a glass of water was a problem, but now it’s a lot better.”
De Villota is one of the ambassadors of the FIA’s Women in Motorsport Commission (WMC) and she says she aims to change the current scenario to open new avenues for women. She took a lot of time to make it to F1 as even a test driver and thinks is it important to encourage talented female racers to try and make it big in racing. She also thinks that road safety has improved a lot but still has a long way to go. She says is not sure if she will ever get a chance to get back into the cockpit of a race car, but looks forward to improve safety. She feels the situation at circuits is under control, but not outside, where other test such as aero are conducted.