Maria de Villota, a pioneering Formula One test driver who lost an eye and nearly died in a crash last year, was found dead Friday in a hotel room in Seville, Spain. She was 33.
Police told The Associated Press that De Villota’s manager alerted staff at the Hotel Sevilla Congresos, and the Spaniard apparently died of natural causes. There was no sign of drugs or violence, police said. An autopsy was being carried out.
De Villota was seriously injured last year during testing for the Marussia F1 team in England. She lost her right eye and sustained serious head injuries that kept her hospitalized for a month.
De Villota, a Madrid native, was the daughter of Emilio de Villota, who competed in F1 from 1976-82. She was no longer driving at the time of her death.
She was in Seville to participate in the conference "What Really Matters," whose mission is to inspire and teach young people "universal human values," in the words of the organizers. Organizers canceled the conference.
Her family used her Facebook page to say "Dear friends: Maria has left us. She had to go to heaven like all angels. I give thanks to God for the year and a half that he left her with us."
De Villota was the first Spanish woman to drive an F1 car. Sport minister Jose Wert announced she would be posthumously awarded Spain’s Gold Medal of Sporting Merit.
Jean Todt, president of motorsports’ governing body, said from the Japanese Grand Prix: "Maria was a fantastic driver, a leading light for women in motorsport and a tireless campaigner for road safety. Above all, she was a friend I deeply admired."
McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh, the chairman of the Formula One Teams’ Association, added: "She was an inspiration not just to women in this sport, but also to all those who suffered life-threatening injuries."
De Villota first drove an F1 car in 2011, a Renault at the Paul Ricard circuit in Marseille, France. She also had driven in the world touring car championship in 2006 and 2007 plus the Superleague open-wheel series.
Her 2012 accident happened in July while she was driving an F1 car for only the fourth time and the first time for her Marussia team. She hit a support truck during an exercise near an airfield in England. A team investigation concluded the car was not at fault.
Her death came just when De Villota seemed to be moving past her accident. She told Hola magazine in February she felt "free" and "back to being me" after returning to driving on normal roads.
She returned to a F1 paddock for the first time in May at the Spanish Grand Prix. There she told the AP that she felt a mix of "adrenaline and also a little bit of sadness" on again being near the sport that almost cost her her life.
"If anybody represented strength and optimism, it was Maria," said Sauber’s Monisha Kaltenhorn, the first female team principal in F1.
Williams development driver Susie Wolff recalled how De Villota asked her to carry on for her and all women drivers following her accident.
"She very much said to me after it, `It’s up to you to go out there and show them that it (a woman driver in F1) is possible,’" Wolff said. "She knew that women could compete at that level and that’s why, after her accident and her not being able to do that anymore, she just wanted someone to know it was possible. She had such a spirit for life."
Star Spanish driver Spaniard Fernando Alonso said "Maria was loved by everyone." Her death resonated across all of sports in Spain.
Barcelona midfielder Andres Iniesta extended sympathies to her family. Tennis great Rafael Nadal called her death "very bad news for the world of sport in general, for the Spanish sport especially."
In July, she married boyfriend Rodrigo Garcia. She was active in charity work and a member of the governing body’s women’s commission.
On Monday, she was to present a book detailing her ordeal following her accident. It was titled "Life is a Gift."