On Oct. 11, 2013, Spanish racing driver Maria de Villota made history when she became the first woman to die as a result of a crash in a Formula One car. Today, nearly a decade after her passing, we want to take the time to remember de Villota for her strengths and for the other wonderful things she brought to the motorsport world.
Welcome to Women in Motorsport Monday, where we share the stories of the badass women who have conquered the racing scene throughout the years.
Born on Jan. 13, 1980, de Villota knew she was destined for racing. Her father Emilio had been a Formula One driver, and her younger brother Emilio Jr. also competed in motorsport. When she was 16, she got behind the wheel of a kart for the first time — and promptly won that first race. She stuck with karting for four more years before moving up to open-wheel racing, like Formula Toyota and Spanish Formula 3. There aren’t a ton of details about these races, but de Villota wasn’t exactly top of the field.
She left soon after for endurance and touring car racing — the Trofeo Pirelli Ferrari Challenge, the World Touring Car Championship, Spanish GT, ADAC Procar, and more. She even contested the Rolex 24 at Daytona, though it didn’t take her long to get back to her true love: Open-wheel. There, she had mixed results in the Euroseries 3000, Formula Palmer Audi, and Superleague Formula. Her best finish was fourth in the Superleague, and she likely would have remained with her team, Atletico Madrid, had it not folded.
But that left space for another accomplishment. On August 18, 2011, de Villota tested a Formula One car, a Renault R29, for the first time. For a while, it looked like she would join the Lotus Renault team as a third driver, but it never came to fruition.
Instead, de Villota became the Marussia F1 Team’s test driver on March 7, 2012.
De Villota was signed on a multi-season development deal, and while there was no promise that she’d actually compete in a race, there were hints that this was the ultimate goal — and she would also have the chance to take the car out on track for non-race weekend test sessions. Nevertheless, she had a chance to get behind the wheel of a Formula One car, and that’s not a deal most people would refuse.
Unfortunately, a dream come true turned into a nightmare for de Villota.
On July 3, 2012, de Villota got her first shot behind the wheel of a Marussia machine for a test session at the Duxford Aerodrome. And at 9:30 a.m. local time, de Villota crashed.
She was carrying out a straight-line test for the team when she drove head-on into a stationary truck that was sitting at the end of the run. Later reports indicated that de Villota felt she would be able to miss the stationary truck but failed to do so. She was traveling between roughly 30 to 40 mph at the time.
Things only spiraled from there. It took over an hour for de Villota to be extracted from the car before being sent to a local hospital with life-threatening wounds to her head and face. Thankfully, she was reported to be conscious, and the day after the accident, Marussia team principal John Booth noted that she remained in “critical but stable” condition. She had lost her right eye.
Thus began even more chaos. Marussia was accused of having a faulty car, which resulted in her crash. No one quite knew what happened. De Villota remained in the hospital for 17 days before being released, and she all but disappeared from the media for several months.
Her first public appearance came in October 2012, when she gave an interview to a Spanish magazine and then spoke to the general media via press conference. In place of her long hair, de Villota was sporting a short pixie cut and an unmistakable eyepatch. She then revealed horrible details about what her life had been like after the accident. She had lost her sense of taste and smell. She suffered from headaches. She was due for even more surgery. She released a computer graphic that showed the horrifying extent of her injuries.
But above all, she wanted one thing: To return to racing. Despite losing an eye, she felt she could easily compete should she be deemed fit and granted a license. She also noted that, if that failed, she wanted to remain involved in motorsport in order to encourage the development of safety measures.
In the year after, de Villota never got behind the wheel of a race car, but she did write an autobiography and take part in several public appearances. She got married in July of 2013. For all the pain, it looked as if she would be able to make something of her life.
Then, on October 11, 2013, de Villota had been found dead in a Seville hotel room. The initial autopsy report concluded that she had died of cardiac arrest. A later, more intensive forensic report indicated that the cardiac arrest was tied to the neurological issues she’d suffered in her F1 test the year before, though the full scope of what transpired will never be known.
In 2015, the Health and Safety Executive, a UK government agency that evaluates health standards in workplaces, concluded its investigation into the crash. The issue, it said, was not with the Marussia car. Instead, the team had failed to properly instruct de Villota on proper safety measures for an emergency stop. She was likely caught out by the anti-stall system, which activated as she tried to brake to an immediate stop to avoid the stationary truck. Rather than stop, she was propelled into the truck. Her helmet then made contact with the vehicle, resulting in her injuries.
Since her death, de Villota’s legacy has remained. In 2014, the Circuito del Jarama organized a Christmas Eve foot race in her honor to serve as a fundraiser. In 2017, the circuit also renamed the final turn before the pit straight Curva Maria de Villota.
Perhaps her largest legacy comes from the Legacy of Maria de Villota, a charity set up by de Villota’s family and the Ana Carolia Diez Mahou Foundation after her death. The goal was to provide food to families in need and have been doing so for upwards of 500 people daily since then. According to de Villota’s father, at the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Legacy provided food to 1,000 people per day.
De Villota’s story is a tragic one. She was one of the first women to truly have a chance at embedding herself in an F1 team, and her dreams came to a tragic end long before she could accomplish her goals. But her efforts helped pave the way for women in motorsport across the world, showing them that F1 — though dangerous — is possible.