TRIBUTES were paid last night to Maria De Villota, a Formula 1 reserve driver who was found dead in a hotel room in Seville.
The 33-year-old Spaniard died a year after she was involved in a freak accident during a test drive for the Marussia team in Duxford, Cambridgeshire, when her car, which was travelling at about 40mph, ran into a stationary service vehicle.
De Villota lost her right eye as a result of the crash and required multiple operations to repair the damage to her face and skull.
Yesterday, a UK Health and Safety Executive spokeswoman said any possible links between De Villota’s death and the injuries she suffered last July would be investigated.
Spanish police said that the driver’s death was being treated as “natural”.
The HSE spokeswoman said that an investigation that was launched immediately after the accident was continuing and any post-mortem findings and other developments following De Villota’s death would be considered.
She added: “We don’t know if there is a link between her injuries and her subsequent death but we would expect to be kept informed of any new evidence.”
It is understood that De Villota was on a tour promoting her autobiography – Life Is a Gift – when she was discovered dead. While in Seville she was due to attend a conference entitled What Really Matters, which was aimed at inspiring young people.
A spokeswoman for Madrid police said: “We are assuming it was a natural death, but we cannot confirm anything.”
Despite spending a month in hospital following the Duxford Aerodrome incident, De Villota rebuilt her life in what was seen by many observers as a miracle recovery.
Last year’s accident happened during straight-line testing and eyewitnesses reported seeing her car suddenly accelerate. Her team, Marussia, later said that it had carried out an internal investigation and was satisfied that the car was not at fault.
Although De Villota lost her right eye, she was said to have made a full recovery from injuries to her face and skull.
De Villota, a Madrid native who became part of the FIA’s Women and Motorsport Commission, was the daughter of former F1 driver Emilio De Villota, who competed in F1 from 1976-82.
She had been in motorracing for 12 years, competing in F3, GTs, touring cars and the Superleague Formula before signing for Marussia in March 2012.
A statement on De Villota’s Facebook page, signed by her family, read: “Dear friends: Maria has left us.
“She had to go to heaven like all angels. We are thankful to God for the extra year and a half that he left her with us.”
Susie Wolff, the Scottish Williams development driver, who described De Villota as an inspiration, added her voice to the tributes.
“We both agreed her accident should never have happened. It was a stupid, freak accident,” Wolff said.
“Out of the paddock and out of the motorsport bubble, she was an incredible character, she was a fighter.
“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.”
FIA president Jean Todt described De Villota as “a fantastic driver, a leading light for women in motorsport and a tireless campaigner for road safety”.
McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh, speaking as the chairman of the Formula 1 Teams’ Association, said: “The whole paddock is very shocked by the news that Maria is no longer with us.
“She was an inspiration not just to women in this sport, but also to all those who suffered life-threatening injuries.”
Monisha Kaltenhorn, of the Sauber team and 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.”
Kaltenborn said that De Villota would continue to be an inspiration to women and the work of the Women & Motorsport Commission.
Fellow Spaniard Fernando Alonso 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.”