How I survived the 200mph fireball that melted my flesh and killed my best friend, by Britain's top female racing driverPippa Mann, the first woman to qualify for the world-famous IndyCar racing series, suffered catastrophic injuriesBest friend Dan Wheldon died in the blaze
22:33 GMT, 6 October 2012
Pippa Mann can remember exactly what passed through her mind when her racing car somersaulted into the air at almost 200mph in Las Vegas. In the split-second before landing, recalling what she had been taught about surviving crashes, she took her hands off the steering wheel, closed her eyes and forced her body to relax.
Even by the high-risk standards of racing, it was a horrifying accident – a 15-car chain collision last October that caused the death of Pippa’s closest friend in racing, Briton Dan Wheldon.
Pippa, Britain’s most successful female driver, was in one of those 15 cars and suffered catastrophic injuries when she was enveloped in the ensuing fireball.
Survivor: A year after the crash and Pippa Mann is recovering
The accident could easily have taken the life of the pretty 29-year-old, whose car was sent hurtling into the air, caught fire and landed upside down.
But it is not in her nature to dwell on what might have been.
The first British woman to qualify for the world-famous IndyCar racing series – the American rival to Formula 1 – Pippa is used to putting emotion to one side and assessing every situation coolly.
A year after the crash, she is recovering and resuming her racing career, as well as looking forward to her wedding in December.
But the death of Wheldon affected her deeply. ‘Dan was a team-mate and a great guy,’ she says. ‘Losing a friend was a big shock and it was very difficult to deal with, something separate from my crash strangely enough. Dan will be missed. His death affected everyone.’
Still, the tragedy has not diverted Pippa from her passion.
‘You couldn’t do it if you were scared of crashing. It’s racing and you are going to come together with other cars, and sometimes it’s going to go wrong. It’s a part of it,’ she says.
She vividly remembers every detail of the crash on the Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Her remarkable reactions were those of someone who lives with danger on a daily basis.
‘I pulled my hands off the steering wheel because otherwise at that speed you will break your arms, and I thrust them back to my belts on my chest.
Fatal: The crash that killed Mann's best friend Dan Wheldon
‘Although the hand was covered with a fire-proof glove, the fireball that came into the car while I was upside down had a blow-torch effect on one small area of my right hand.
After the car stopped, I could not open my eyes because they were closed by the debris that had come in while I was upside down, and I could not undo the belt because of the pain in my hands. I just waited for the medical team.’
The burns to her little finger were so severe that most of the soft tissue was dead and surgeons were forced to cut away the flesh before they could begin the task of rebuilding her hand.
In the space of just over a week, Pippa had three operations.
At that stage, she had little idea of the extent of her injuries. ‘It didn’t sink in until I came out of the third surgery,’ she says. ‘I was in so much pain that they put me on horse tranquillisers.’
That final bout involved removing a tendon from her right forearm, blood vessels and skin from close to her right elbow, and a nerve from the ring finger on her right hand.
Pippa says: ‘You get used to injuries. I have had a broken hand before – you have surgery, then therapy and three weeks later you are back in the car. It hurts, but is no big deal. It goes with the territory.
'But with this injury, I could barely move my hand. I never doubted my future, though.’
From the moment she stepped into a racing kart aged 12, Pippa – who is only 5ft 5in – has broken through both gender and pain barriers to pursue her career.
Taken as a child to watch a Formula 1 race at Silverstone by her father Clive, she was bitten by the racing bug and by the age of 14 was taking part in national karting championships.
However, Pippa found that her arrival was not welcomed by all of her fellow – male – competitors.
‘I realised that the bumpers on karts were not just there for safety,’ she laughs.
‘They were also used by my competitors to let me know they were there and what they thought about me racing.
Tragic: Dan Wheldon is pictured here holding son Sebastian alongside wife Susie holding Oliver, with the Borg Warner Trophy
‘I returned the favour and so created space around me. I had to develop a thicker skin. It is not the size of the person in the fight that matters, but the size of the fight in the person.’
A lone female in her age group, Pippa learned swiftly that a minority of male drivers would never afford her the respect she warranted.
‘Any female racing driver will tell you if you drive hard, fair and well you will get respect from 95 per cent of your competitors but there will always be those exceptions.
‘You think, “Oh dear, here we go again.”
These drivers will put you into the pit wall, so you just have to drive faster than them so that they cannot catch you.’
Pippa left Britain for Italy at 17 to pursue a career in professional karting.
After three years, she returned to Britain to switch to racing cars before moving to the United States in 2009.
A year later, she became the first woman to take pole position in a race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and won her first race in Kentucky.
Last year, Pippa stepped up to the higher-ranked IndyCar Series and took part in the prestigious 2011 Indianapolis 500, which was won by Wheldon.
The accident that claimed his life occurred five months later during the Las Vegas Indy 300.
Pippa blames advances in technology for the crash because it encourages teams, drivers and officials to overlook the dangers of driving too fast, too close.
She says: ‘It was not because someone did something stupid but because circumstances came together and fate decided to remind us that racing is dangerous.’
Recovering has been a slow process.
When Pippa first returned to the gym after Christmas, she says her forearm was ‘deathly weak’. It took until the summer to build the strength back up.
During her long recovery she also discovered that her funding had dried up.
To stay involved in racing, she started hosting racing tours, mentoring aspiring female drivers and doing some radio commentary on races.
But last month Pippa was back in the driving seat for the first time since the accident when she was given a ride in the Auto GP World Series.
Nobody would blame her for being scared but she insists: ‘There was no anxiety. That was the longest break I have had from driving and it was driving me potty.
‘The hand is not a problem at all – it just does not look pretty. It functions, but no one will be asking me to do hand-modelling in the future.’
Pippa is also busy planning her wedding to her fiance, American race engineer Robert Gue.
The pair met in 2009 at a racing function and are marrying in Indianapolis, where they live, in December. ‘I had to break my own rule, which was never to go out with someone from the racing paddock.
‘Every female racing driver will tell you that the paddock is like high school – nobody has got anything better to do than talk about whom they are dating.
‘If you want to be taken seriously you try to steer clear of all that stuff as much as you can. Dating someone in racing will probably see you lose a bit of respect.’
Despite her protestations, she is immensely grateful to Robert for his support over the past year. ‘Having a stable relationship has helped me come through what has been a really difficult time,’ she admits.
Pippa is determined to get back into IndyCar racing, but for now Formula 1 is off the agenda, not least because she believes the barriers for female racing drivers remain higher in Europe than in the US.
She says: ‘In IndyCar, there have been successful female drivers and that paves the way for others. I am starting to see it change in Europe. It looks like it is a little bit better for female drivers, but there’s still a long way to go.’
And Pippa remains philosophical about the risks. ‘Motor racing is dangerous and things can go wrong. But it’s the same as life – you can get knocked down stepping into the street.’