Female race driver De Villota dies

5:44 AM, Oct 11, 2013   |    comments
María de Villota is seen on the grid before the Spanish Formula One Grand Prix at the Circuit de Catalunya on May 12, 2013 in Montmelo, Spain. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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BARCELONA, Spain - Former Formula One test driver Maria de Villota was found dead in a hotel room in Seville on Friday, and police said it appears she died of natural causes. She was 33.

Spanish police told The Associated Press that De Villota was discovered in the Hotel Sevilla Congresos in the morning, dead "apparently from natural causes." An autopsy will be carried out.

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 serious head injuries that kept her hospitalized for a month.

She also had driven in the world touring car championship in 2006 and 2007, as well as the Superleague open-wheel series.

De Villota, a Madrid native, was the daughter of Emilio de Villota, who competed in F1 from 1976-82.

Her family posted a message on De Villota's Facebook page saying: "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."

The Marussia team expressed its condolences from the Japanese Grand Prix.

"It is with great sadness that we learned a short time ago of the news that Maria de Villota has passed away," Marussia said in a statement. "Our thoughts and prayers are with Maria's family and friends at this very difficult time."

F1 officials and drivers in Japan were stunned by the news of De Villota's death.

"If anybody represented strength and optimism, it was Maria. Her sudden death is a big loss to the motorsport world," 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. What she came through was a testament to her strength of character and her positive outlook on life."

Spanish driver Fernando Alonso of Ferrari said: "It's very sad news for the world of motorsport as Maria was loved by everyone. Now, all we can do is pray for her and for her family."

De Villota was in Seville to participate in the conference "What Really Matters," whose mission is to inspire and teach young people "universal human values," according to the organizers.

Organizers canceled the conference after learning of her death and issued a statement "transmitting their care and support to the family and loved ones of Maria del Villota."

On Monday, De Villota was to present a book, "Life is a Gift," detailing her ordeal following her driving accident.

(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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