A warrior behind the wheel: Formula 1 pays tribute to María de Villota

Drivers at Suzuka and MotoGP stars remember Spaniard who fought for 33 years before death last Friday

Formula 1 drivers observe a minute of silence to honor late Spanish racing driver María de Villota.
Formula 1 drivers observe a minute of silence to honor late Spanish racing driver María de Villota.DIEGO AZUBEL (EFE)

The stars of Formula 1 lined up to pay tribute to Spanish former F1 test driver María de Villota, who was found dead in a Seville hotel room on Friday, with a minute’s silence ahead of Sunday’s Japanese Grand Prix.

Sebastian Vettel — the eventual winner of the race — her fellow Spaniards Fernando Alonso (fourth) and Pedro de la Rosa, and Williams test driver Susie Wolff were among those who joined in the ceremony before the traditional drivers parade at the Suzuka circuit.

The star that De Villota always wore on her racing helmet was also to be seen on many of the helmets and cars of competing drivers over the weekend.

Tributes also came in for De Villota — who investigators believe died from natural causes as a result of the injuries she sustained in a horrific crash last year — from the world of motorcycling. “Sport will miss you,” said Spanish rider Jorge Lorenzo from the Sepang circuit where he finished third in Sunday’s Malaysian MotoGP, behind compatriots Dani Pedrosa and Marc Márquez.

“This affects us all,” Márquez noted.

I had never had a girl as a teammate, so I treated her with a bit more care and she got angry"

The majority of the people who knew María de Villota agreed that she was a warrior. “I am a normal person who, for a series of circumstances in life, has had to fight,” she always used to say about the feeling of strength she transmitted. “First to get to Formula 1 and afterwards for my life.”

De Villota spent her 33 years battling to achieve the goals she set for herself, both on and off the track. It could have been no other way for one of the daughters of driver Emilio de Villota — a trailblazer for Spain in the modern Formula 1 era — whose blood ran through María’s veins at full throttle.

Born in 1980 in Madrid, she started out in karting as a girl before heading off to the United States to learn English. After beginning racing in single seaters in 2000 and graduating from the INEF sports science faculty of Madrid Polytechnic University, she focused on touring cars in order to renew her path and return to prototypes.

In 2005 she competed for the Maserati Trophy alongside fellow Spaniard Marc Gené. “As I had never had a girl as a teammate, I treated her with a bit more care and she got angry a lot because she didn’t want there to be any difference,” the Ferrari test driver remembered from Japan on Friday. “Her values are an example to all of us.”

Gené contributed to the introduction of De Villota’s book, La vida es un regalo (or, Life is a gift), which she was due to present in Seville on Monday.

I addressed her in English because I thought I was still with my team as I was doing when my brain shut off”

De Villota threw herself into working to help others, becoming a representative and ambassador for women for the Madrid regional government and an ambassador in the fight against gender violence, besides her work at the Emilio de Villota Driving School.

After a stint in Superleague Formula with the Atlético Madrid team — during which she was forced to undergo a neck operation as a result of the huge G-forces generated by racing the series’ 750-horsepower V-12 open-wheeled beasts — she became the first Spanish woman to get behind the wheel of an F1 car with the Renault team on the Paul Ricard circuit in France in August 2011.

Her abilities led her to sign with the Marussia F1 team as a test driver last year. On July 3, during her first session behind the wheel of the prototype of the Russian car at Duxford Aerodrome in Cambridgeshire, Great Britain, she lost control of the vehicle and smashed into the tailgate of a support truck, which had been inexplicably left in the lowered position.

As she admitted herself, the accident led her to lose her right eye but at the same time provided her with a new, clearer perspective on life. “Now I see more than before, I feel more,” she said.

After a 17-hour operation at Addenbrooke Hospital in Cambridge that left with a line of 104 stitches across her face, she remained in a coma. The doctors warned her family of the consequences she might suffer as a result of the terrible impact that had opened up her head and even wondered whether she would be able to speak again, let alone remember.

But her ability to fight surfaced again. She reacted on the fourth day when she told her mother, who had been instructed to not stop speaking to her, to be quiet. “I addressed her in English because I thought I was still working with my team. That’s what I was doing when my brain shut off,” she remembered in an interview with Navarra Televisión just a few days ago.

De Villota returned to Spain 20 days after the accident where she underwent three more operations at La Paz Hospital in Madrid and a change of mindset that brought her more praise than she had received in her professional career.

It was those same admirers who flooded the social networks with messages eulogizing her vitality and ever-present smile upon learning of her death on Friday.

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