FILE - Spanish former F1 driver Maria De Villota smiles in the paddock prior to the start of qualifying session at the Catalunya racetrack in Montmelo, near Barcelona, Spain, in this May 11, 2013 file photo. Spanish police have confirmed Friday Oct. 11, 2013 that racing driver Maria de Villota has been found dead in a hotel room in Seville, and say it appears she died of natural causes. She was 33. De Villota was seriously injured last year in a crash during testing for the Marussia Formula One team, losing her right eye and sustaining other serious head injuries. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)

Former Spanish Formula One test driver Maria de Villota, one of the few women to come close to the top of the sport, has been found dead in a hotel in the southern Spanish city of Seville.

A police spokeswoman said on Friday De Villota, who lost her right eye and fractured her skull in a horrific accident at a test at Duxford airfield in England in July 2013, had probably died of "natural" causes, adding that an investigation was ongoing.

"We are assuming it was a natural death, but we cannot confirm anything," the police spokeswoman said, adding that forensic scientists and police from the homicide unit would examine the scene.

Although the 33-year-old recovered from the life-threatening injuries sustained in the crash, she no longer competed and had instead become an inspirational figure for aspiring female drivers.

The news of her sudden passing stunned Spain and the motor racing world.

De Villota, the daughter of former Formula One racer Emilio De Villota, was appointed test driver for Anglo-Russian Formula One team Marussia a few months before her crash. However she never took part in a general test with other drivers.

Only a handful of women have driven Formula One cars in the past decade and none has come near to racing one in competition.

Williams development driver Susie Wolff, who knew De Villota well, said: "I feel I owe it to her to say something because, 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," added Wolff from the Japanese Grand Prix in Suzuka.

"After the accident she was so behind me and had such a lust for life, she was so happy to be alive and that she'd survived it and she had so many great plans for the future.

"She was just an incredible lady, no matter about what she did on the racetrack. She was just an incredible character."

"I really don't know what to say."

Spanish Formula One driver Fernando Alonso appeared lost for words in an interview with radio broadcaster Cadena Ser shortly after hearing the news.

“Pray for her and her family and the whole motorsport family,” he said from Suzuka. “She was really loved by everybody."

De Villota's family posted a brief message on Facebook.

"Dear friends. Maria has left us. She had to go to heaven like all the angels. We give thanks to God for the year and half more he allowed her to be with us."

ROLE MODEL

The crash occurred after she had completed a test run and was returning to the mechanics. The car suddenly accelerated into the back of a team truck with her helmet taking much of the impact.

She was taken to Cambridge's Addenbrooke's hospital and had an emergency operation that began on a Tuesday afternoon and kept her in theatre until the following morning.

Speaking in public for the first time since the accident in October last year, an upbeat De Villota, who married her personal trainer Rodrigo Garcia Millan in July, said the best part of her life was still to come.

"I have motorsport in my DNA.”

Wearing a patch over her eye socket and with her blonde hair cropped close to the skull, De Villota thanked all those who had helped and supported her and said she now believed she had "a new opportunity to live at 100 percent".

She said she was determined to stay involved with Formula One in some form and being a role model for aspiring young female drivers was extremely important to her.

“There's no way I can stay away from that world," she said. “"I want to keep fighting because I believe so strongly in women being part of motor racing.

"The crucial thing was to get back some optimism about the future, that's what helped me to get my interior motor running again. I am sure that the best is still to come." - Reuters