Ex-F1 test driver Maria de Villota, who lost an eye in crash last year, dies in Spain at 33

Published October 11, 2013

| Associated Press

Former Formula One test driver Maria de Villota, who lost an eye in a crash last year, was found dead in a hotel room in Seville on Friday. She was 33.

Spanish police told The Associated Press that De Villota was discovered in the Hotel Sevilla Congresos in the morning and De Villota's manager alerted hotel staff. Investigators did not find any drugs or signs of violence and "everything points to a death by natural causes," police said.

An autopsy will be carried out. The police spokesman spoke under anonymity in line with police policy.

De Villota was seriously injured last year in a crash during testing for the Marussia F1 team in England, losing her right eye and sustaining other serious head injuries that kept her hospitalized for a month. She also had driven in the world touring car championship in 2006 and 2007 plus the Superleague open-wheel series.

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 after learning of her death.

De Villota's almost fatal accident in July 2012 occurred while she was driving an F1 car for only the fourth time — and first for the Marussia team — and hit a support truck during an exercise near an airfield in England. An internal team investigation concluded the car was not at fault. She first drove an F1 car in 2011, a Renault at the Paul Ricard circuit in Marseille, France.

De Villota, a Madrid native, was the daughter of Emilio de Villota, who competed in F1 from 1976-82. Her family used De Villota's 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."

F1 drivers and officials at the Japanese Grand Prix were stunned by her death.

"The whole paddock is very shocked by the news that Maria is no longer with us," McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh said, speaking as the chairman of the Formula One Teams' Association. "She was an inspiration not just to women in this sport, but also to all those who suffered life-threatening injuries."

Sauber's Monisha Kaltenhorn, the first female team principal in F1, said, "If anybody represented strength and optimism, it was Maria. Her sudden death is a big loss to the motorsport world."

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. What she came through was a testament to her strength of character and her positive outlook on life."

Fellow Spaniard Fernando Alonso said: "Maria was loved by everyone. Now, all we can do is pray for her and for her family."

Her death comes when De Villota appeared to be moving past her 2012 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 GP. 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.

In July, she married boyfriend Rodrigo Garcia. She was active in charity work and a member of the FIA's women's commission.

On Monday, she was to present a book detailing her ordeal following her accident. The book is titled "Life is a Gift."

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