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F1 pays tribute after De Villota found dead

FORMER Spanish Formula One test driver Maria de Villota, one of the few women to come close to the top of the sport, was found dead in a hotel in Seville today.

De Villota, who lost her right eye and fractured her skull in a horrific accident at a test in England in July last year, had likely died of 'natural' causes, a Spanish police spokeswoman said, 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 and was due to present a book detailing her experiences on Monday.

The daughter of former F1 racer Emilio De Villota, she was appointed test driver for Anglo-Russian team Marussia a few months before her crash.

She never took part in a general test with other drivers but was one of only a handful of women to have driven Formula One cars in the last decade. None, though, have come near to racing one in competition.

The news of her sudden passing stunned Spain and the motor racing world. "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," said Susie Wolff, a Williams development driver who had a test for the team last July and knew De Villota well.

Meanwhile as this year's F1 season heads towards its conclusion, Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel enjoyed the perfect scenario in second practice for the Japanese Grand Prix.

If repeated in Sunday's race he'll be world champion for a fourth consecutive time.

At a Suzuka circuit where Vettel has been on pole in the last four races, winning three of them, the 26-year-old finished top.

After Lewis Hamilton spearheaded a Mercedes one-two in the opening 90-minute session, so Vettel followed suit in the second run as he finished 0.168secs faster than team-mate Mark Webber.