Maria De Villota: A Driving Force for Women's Racing

Fraser MasefieldContributor IOctober 11, 2013

De Villota attended the Spanish Grand Prix this year (Getty Images)
De Villota attended the Spanish Grand Prix this year (Getty Images)Mark Thompson/Getty Images

When Maria de Villota’s Marussia MR-01 crashed into a support truck at Duxford airfield in Cambridge on July 3, 2012 a promising career was cut short.

De Villota had been completing a straightline test when her car struck a team support truck while returning to the pits. She lost her right eye in the accident, but her life was saved, and de Villota recovered after a series of operations to take an active part in motor racing as an ambassador for the FIA’s Women in Motorsport Commission.

Talking almost a year ago to the day about her accident, de Villota said she had a new outlook on life and that the experience had given her “back what’s important” in life as quoted on BBC Sport at the time.

It makes today’s news all the more heartbreaking. De Villota was found dead in a hotel room in Seville, as reported by BBC Sport.

De Villota's death is a great loss to motorsport, with her passion for racing shining through in the BBC interview previously mentioned.

Before, I only saw F1, I saw myself in a car competing. I did not see what was important in life, the clarity to say: 'I am alive.' It has given me my bearings, given me back what's important. I accept it with the energy to say I am going to live out this chance 100%.

The daughter of former F1 driver Emilio, racing was in de Villota’s blood from an early age, and she followed the traditional route of karting before moving to the Spanish Formula Toyota series in 2000.

Three full seasons in the Spanish Formula 3 Championship followed before de Villota switched her attention from single-seaters to tin tops, competing in the Ferrari Challenge Europe in 2005-2006, four races in the World Touring Car Championship between 2006 and 2007 and the Spanish GT Championship also in 2007.

Her biggest success racing closed roof cars came in the German ADAC Procar series in 2007, de Villota winning at the Nurburgring for Maurer Motorsport en route to an impressive third in the championship standings.

Despite her successful 2007, it was clear that the ambitious de Villota had bigger fish to fry, and she moved back to single-seaters in 2008. She finished seventh in a one-off appearance in the Euroseries 3000 at Spa-Francorchamps before competing in the opening three rounds of the Formula Palmer Audi championship in 2009.

A prolonged spell racing in the Superleague Formula for Atletico Madrid followed, but de Villota’s big break came when Renault invited her to test their Formula One car at the Paul Ricard Circuit in France in August 2011.

In doing so, de Villota became the first female driver since Katherine Legge back in 2005 to drive a Formula One car, completing 180 trouble-free miles, and her thoughts on her breakthrough moment were published Autosport.

As a female driver, I was very happy to get the opportunity to drive in a Formula 1 car. Formula 1 is the pinnacle of motor racing and has always been a dream for me. The running went very well, conditions were ideal, and the team made me feel at ease straight away. It did not take too long to get used to the car and, after I felt comfortable with it, I was able to start pushing and, as a result, really enjoyed the experience.

The impressive outing led Marussia to hire de Villota as their test driver ahead of the 2012 season, and after attending the first series of European races de Villota finally had her chance behind the wheel at Duxford.

She had completed one run and was returning to the mechanics when the car suddenly accelerated into the back of a team support truck.

Despite losing her right eye, de Villota maintained a healthy outlook on life and was looking forward to the next chapter as reported by BBC Sport.

I have motorsport in my DNA and there's no way I can stay away from that world. I want to keep fighting because I believe so strongly in women being part of motor racing. Now I have a physical impediment but before I didn't and I want someone else to take over.

Female drivers in F1 are a rare breed. De Villota followed in the footsteps of Katherine Legge, who tested for Minardi in 2005, Sarah Fisher, who drove a McLaren at Indianapolis in 2002, Giovanna Amati, who failed to qualify for three races with Brabham in 1992, and Lella Lombardi, who started 12 Grands Prix back in the 1970s.

But it is perhaps best left to the words of current Williams test driver Susie Wolff, who dedicated her first drive in F1 to de Villota in July of this year as quoted by The Sporting Life:

She is an incredible lady. Before you even talk about her as a racing driver, you have to know she is an incredible person, an inspiration. We were in contact a couple of weeks ago and she told me to drive for the both of us now, that I would be out there representing us both. I had Maria’s star on my helmet, it’s with pride I have that and, without a doubt, I was driving for the two of us.