Former Marussia F1 test driver María de Villota has today been found dead in her hotel room in Seville, where she was visiting to launch her autobiography Life is a Gift. She was 33 years old.
The news was announced via a statement published by the de Villota family on her Facebook page, which read simply: “Dear friends: Maria has left us, she had to go to heaven like all angels. We thank God for the extra year and a half that he left her with us.”
The daughter of occasional Formula 1 driver Emilio de Villota, María followed in the family footsteps to embark on a career in motorsport. While she didn’t show great potential in the junior categories, her family and financial connections were certainly a factor in advancing her career further.
She drove in a range of international championship series’ such as the FIA World Touring Car Championship and the ADAC Procar Series, but shot to greater prominence when she signed full-time with the Atlético Madrid team in 2009 to compete in the SuperLeague Formula series, where she remained until the series folded in 2011.
That year, she had her first Formula 1 test outing with the Lotus F1 team in a 2009-spec Renault at the Paul Ricard circuit. While her lap times weren’t really anything to write home about, she expressed a desire to land a permanent test driver role with the team.
She may not have had the junior category results or a Formula 1 Superlicense, but what she did has was a pot of cash and – more importantly – a dream to make it into Formula 1. When the test driver role negotiations went nowhere with Lotus, she signed with the backmarker Marussia F1 Team.
The Banbury-based outfit didn’t have a great deal of financial resources, and so de Villota’s presence certainly helped alleviate a little bit of that concern and give the team a bit of extra publicity on account of her gender. While it would be easy to accuse the team of a bit of tokenism, the deal clearly benefited all concerned.
Regardless of the circumstances, María had realised her dream and on her first day in the Australian Grand Prix Formula 1 paddock during the obligatory pre-season driver portrait photos, her smile was easily the biggest in the paddock. I had the pleasure of briefly meeting her and grabbing a photo before she set foot in front of the professional photographers’ lenses, and she was delightful and amiable to everyone.
Less than four months later, María would find her Formula 1 dream realised when she was strapped into the cockpit of Marussia’s MR01 at Duxford Aerodrome to carry out some straight-line testing for the team.
After completing her initial installation run, de Villota was moving the car back into position for the awaiting mechanics when she inexplicably surged forward and she collided with the lowered tail-lift of one of the team’s trucks, with her helmet bearing the brunt of the impact.
It took over an hour for her to be extricated from the car before she was rushed to Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridgeshire with life-threatening head, facial and eye injuries, from which she would lose the use of her right eye.
After 17 days in hospital and multiple surgeries to treat her injuries, she was discharged from hospital and returned home to Spain, incredibly having escaped serious neurological damage, but her racing career was finished.
Her first public appearance came in October in an interview with the Spanish-language ¡Hola! magazine – sporting a new cropped hairstyle and colour-coordinated eyepatch – ahead of an open press conference for the world’s media, where she dazzled the media with her optimism and determination to contribute to the motorsport scene in any way she could.
The following year saw de Villota return to motorsport, with the FIA’s World Motorsport Council appointing her on their fourteen-member Drivers’ Commission panel, which would serve to advise the FIA on the rights and interests of racing drivers around the world. She was one of two women appointed to the panel.
And then came today, exactly one year on from her first public appearance since her career-ending accident, with the story being broken by the Spanish press before rapidly spreading worldwide.
It is too early to know the cause or circumstances of her death, although it would be a complete understatement to say that the news of her passing is shocking and deeply saddening to all of us at RichardsF1.com. We extend our condolences to María’s family and friends.