Above is an MRI image of Maria de Villota's skull after she crashed the Formula One car she was testing into the back of one of the team's trailers in early July. She lost her right eye and her senses of taste and smell, and may never race again. But she survived and is opening up about what happened.
De Villota, 32, made headlines back in March when she joined the Marussia F1 team as a test driver. In her first test, however, she completed one lap of the circuit and then her car "suddenly accelerated" into the back of a truck.
BBC presenter Chris Mann witnessed the crash: "The top of her car and her helmet seemed to take the brunt of it," he said.
De Villota did not move for 15 minutes. She was treated on the scene and taken by an ambulance to a nearby hospital with life-threatening injuries. The ambulance arrived at 9:17 a.m., the police were notified by 9:25, and she was at the region's major trauma center by 10:45, reports Autosport. The speed of this response would have been extremely unlikely 50 years ago, when drivers first began advocating for more prepared safety precautions in Formula One.
Had this crash occurred in the 1950s, for instance, Maria would have been wearing an open-faced, thin metal helmet. She wouldn't have survived.
Just as critical as the modern helmet and safety structures of her race car was the on-site medical team, according to Autosport. Emergency crews are on stand-by at every Formula One test. Had they not been there, Maria would not have made it to the hospital.
De Villota was on the operating table from that afternoon through the next morning, being worked on by hospital neurological and plastic surgery teams. It was then that she lost her eye.
Doctors were positive by her third day in the hospital: “Whilst Maria remains acutely ill, this confirms that she has been responding well to the treatment she has received since her accident. Coupled with the significant progress that has been made with regard to her facial injuries, we feel sufficiently comfortable to proceed with a further update.”
In the first week after the crash she was in the Neurological Critical Care Unit receiving sedation. She had two major surgeries in this time. She was later moved to a hospital in Spain, where it was determined she did not suffer neurological damage.
Controversy over the Crash
Formula One's Drivers Association, who have been pivotal in increasing safety measures in the sport, are deeply concerned with the crash. Testing is only allowed at tracks approved by Formula One's governing body, so safety standards are already high. The problem, however, is that Formula One's direct safety measures are not designed for this kind of crash.
Thanks to a concerted safety effort covering decades, Formula One cars and helmets are extremely strong, but there remains a severe risk around the driver's eyes. The driver's body is protected by the carbon fiber body of the car itself, reinforced with dedicated crash structures. The head is protected by a helmet, but the eyes only have a visor in front of them. This is why drivers can easily survive 185+ mile an hour crashes into walls, yet be gravely threatened when a piece of metal hits them in the face.
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De Villota's crash did not occur at high speed, but the impact was sufficient to fracture her skull in several places.
The cause of the crash has still not been determined. At first, it seemed clear that the car had suffered some kind of failure, launching de Villota into the truck. A Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and private investigation commissioned by Marussia both concluded that the car was not at fault.
“We are satisfied that the findings of our internal investigation exclude the car as a factor in the accident,” Marussia said. “We have shared and discussed our findings with the HSE for their consideration as part of their ongoing investigation.
Marussia's team principal acknowledged that the wider investigation "will be a very long process," and "it will be some time before we know the final outcome."
De Villota spoke about her crash, her hospitalization, and her recovery for the first time last month. She said that she remembers everything from the accident, including the crash itself. Now she considers herself a changed person. De Villota spoke at a press conference in October, explaining how she took the news that she'd lost her eye.
“One of the surgeons who had operated on me came up to me and said "Maria, we saved your life,” she said. “I don't know if you remember you had a big accident but you are here with us. It's been hard, but we are happy we saved your life. But we need to tell you you have lost your eye."
Racing drivers are notorious for just thinking about driving after a crash. Maria was focused on how she could get back into a car: “In that moment, I asked the surgeon: ‘Do you need both hands to operate?' and he said yes, and I said "Well, I'm a Formula 1 driver and I need both eyes."
It wasn't long before she recognized the gravity of her injuries. This realization changed her outlook on the crash, and her life.
“But then you realize it is something unprecedented, that you are feeling fine, and you realize that you see more than before,” de Villota said. “Because, before the accident, I only saw Formula One, inside a car, competing, and I didn't see what was really important in life. At that point I wasn't appreciating the biggest thing, which was the person who had saved me.”
Back to Racing
She still has some surgery ahead of her. As of now she has lost some cranial matter and suffers from headaches that may last years or never go away at all. Amazingly, she still wants to get back into driving.
It is not a question of desire; the loss of her eye is the deciding factor. She pointed out that there are some drivers who have lost an eye who still have racing licenses here in America.
While she will never be a top-level F1 driver, de Villota still hopes to contribute to testing safety. She may even have a chance to participate in aero testing in the future.
De Villota appears to be on track for a full recovery. She has been smiling, and she looks healthy. Her eye patch has not dampened her enthusiasm.
“When I saw myself I thought, 'Who is going to love me looking like this?'” she said. “But since then I've realized they have loved more than in a whole life. I have enough love to cover this life and the next.”