De Villota was the daughter of former F1 driver Emilio De Villota, and has been involved in a number of both open- and closed-wheel racing series, ranging from the Grand-Am Series to F1 feeder championships in Europe. She made headlines in July of 2012 when she was involved in an accident with a parked truck while testing Marussia's F1 challenger. The near-fatal accident nearly ended De Villota's career, as doctors were forced to remove her right eye.
De Villota's family said in a statement, "Dear friends: Maria is gone. She had to go to heaven with all of the angels." Tributes to De Villota have been paid from a number of figures in F1, including countryman Fernando Alonso, who issued a statement saying, "Today is a very sad day for Spanish sport. We have lost a fighter with a huge smile."
Plans are already in the works to honor De Villota at this weekend's Japanese Grand Prix, with McLaren principal and president of the Formula One Teams' Association, Martin Whitmarsh, telling the BBC, "We will be talking amongst ourselves." Whitmarsh added, "Everyone wants to demonstrate the right level of sympathy but the real racers would want the show to go on and wouldn't want a fuss to be made. It's not something we need to amplify, it's something we've got to be sensitive about."