Her death came just when De Villota seemed to be moving past her accident. She told Hola magazine in February she felt "free" and "back to being me" after returning to driving on normal roads.
She returned to a F1 paddock for the first time in May at the Spanish Grand Prix. There she told the AP that she felt a mix of "adrenaline and also a little bit of sadness" on again being near the sport that almost cost her her life.
"If anybody represented strength and optimism, it was Maria," said Sauber's Monisha Kaltenhorn, the first female team principal in F1.
Williams development driver Susie Wolff recalled how De Villota asked her to carry on for her and all women drivers following her accident.
"She very much said to me after it, 'It's up to you to go out there and show them that it (a woman driver in F1) is possible,'" Wolff said. "She knew that women could compete at that level and that's why, after her accident and her not being able to do that anymore, she just wanted someone to know it was possible. She had such a spirit for life."
Star Spanish driver Spaniard Fernando Alonso said "Maria was loved by everyone." Her death resonated across all of sports in Spain.
Barcelona midfielder Andres Iniesta extended sympathies to her family. Tennis great Rafael Nadal called her death "very bad news for the world of sport in general, for the Spanish sport especially."
In July, she married boyfriend Rodrigo Garcia. She was active in charity work and a member of the governing body's women's commission.
On Monday, she was to present a book detailing her ordeal following her accident. It was titled "Life is a Gift."