Ex-Formula One test driver Maria de Villota, 33, found dead in hotel

Ex-Formula One test driver Maria de Villota, 33, found dead in hotel
Former Formula One test driver Maria de Villota smiles in the paddock at the Catalunya track in Montmelo, Spain. (Luca Bruno / Associated Press)

MADRID -- The Spanish race car driver Maria de Villota, famous for pushing the Formula One gender barrier and for the velvet patch she wore after losing her right eye in a crash last year, was found dead Friday in her hotel room in southern Spain. She was 33.

Police said there were no signs of foul play or drug use, and that it appeared that De Villota died of natural causes. An autopsy will be conducted in the coming days, they said.

Spanish media quoted unidentified police sources as saying the cause of death was a heart attack, possibly related to trauma from the crash in July 2012.

De Villota was hospitalized for a month after that accident, during a test drive in England for the Marussia F1 team. It was her fourth time driving an F1 car, and the first time for Marussia.

De Villota's car crashed into a support truck, causing serious injuries to her head and face, including the loss of her eye. She recovered from those injuries but had not resumed racing.

The daughter of a famous Spanish F1 driver, De Villota was one of very few female F1 test drivers. Her father, Emilio de Villota, competed in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

"Dear friends: Maria has left us. She had to go to heaven like all angels," her family wrote early Friday on De Villota's Facebook page.

"I give thanks to God for the year and a half that he left her with us," the message said, referring to the accident that nearly killed her last year.

De Villota had just married her longtime boyfriend, Rodrigo Garcia, in July.

A Madrid native, she was visiting Seville to participate in a conference called "What Really Matters," billed as an event to inspire and teach young people about values. The race car driver was scheduled to speak Monday about her new book, "Life Is a Gift," which describes her recovery after last year's accident.

Her death overshadowed preparations for Sunday's Grand Prix race in Japan. Jean Todt, who heads the motor sports governing body FIA, issued a statement Friday offering his condolences and saying, "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," he wrote.



Frayer is a special correspondent.