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.