F1 has paid its respects to Maria de Villota following the tragic news of the test driver’s death this morning.
Maria was found dead in her Seville hotel room, reportedly having died of “natural causes” according to early reports.
As the news broke following practice for the Japanese GP, the FOTA, chairman and McLaren team boss Martin Whitmarsh released this statement: “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. Her story, determination and subsequent inspiration flowed from F1 through sport as a whole, and to see the images of her in Barcelona on the grid earlier this year, surrounded by a throng of jubilant children, told a great story.
“Maria participated in the Manhattan Fans’ Forum on behalf of her team, Marussia F1, last year, and made a lasting impression on the fans who attended. She will be sadly missed, and we wish to pass on our sincere condolences to her family.”
The 33-year-old daughter of former F1 driver Emilio de Villota was appointed test driver for the Marussia outfit at the start of 2012, having conducted a test for Renault at Paul Ricard the year before and raced in single-seater and sports car categories including Spanish F3 and the Daytona 24 Hours.
In July last year, she lost the use of an eye following an accident during testing at Duxford Aerodrome, but returned to the F1 grid again in May when she attended the Spanish GP to promote road safety.
“The girl has been through so much, more than most people could go through in their lives,” said McLaren driver Jenson Button.
“It has been tough for her but this is horrific news and a real shock for the whole paddock and the world of motorsport.
“We saw her this year in Barcelona, we were doing some work for a children’s charity, and she was the first to put her hand up and do the work for the charity and she brought other drivers in to get involved. She was doing a lot for the community, so very sad news.”
De Villota was selected as a founding ambassador of the FIA Women in Motorsport Commission that was created last year, a body aimed at promoting women in motorsport.
Sauber Team Principal Monisha Kaltenborn, F1′s first female team boss, was a fellow ambassador and paid tribute to the courage the Spaniard showed after her accident.
“That’s been an exceptional recovery. I remember when we were all announced as the FIA’s ambassadors and we spent a day and a half in Paris and she was at that time so excited about the test and her dream coming through,” Kaltenborn said.
“It was just about ten days before she had that test and that terrible accident. Then I was often in contact with her sister and with her because she was very quickly on to texting and she just couldn’t wait to be back. Others would have maybe said they don’t really want to have anything to do with motorsport and do something very different, but she didn’t.
“She was so quickly back and full of energy. I think it was admirable the kind of courage she showed.”
Kaltenborn added that de Villota had been the ideal person to encourage female interest and participation in motor racing and it was now up to the FIA commission to continue her work.
“It was so interesting to exchange thoughts with her and especially about girls coming up in the sport because we knew what the challenge is,” the Sauber chief said.
“We fully agreed on where you have to start, right at the bottom, and give the right messages across to young girls and if you needed somebody with credibility, with courage, she was the best ambassador we had and I think it is now particularly important that as the commission within the FIA and as FIA ambassadors [we] exactly try to make the most of what she has left behind as legacy.
“It was tragic what she went through, it was so admirable how she came back and she was so committed to the cause.”