`Queen of the Nurburgring` Sabine Schmitz Passes Away At 51
The longtime racing driver and TV presenter had been battling cancer since 2017by Michael Fira, on LISTEN 06:11
Twice a winner of the 24 Hours of the Nurburgring, former Top Gear presenter Sabine Schmitz loved the world’s longest permanent race track more than just about anything in the world and also knew it better than her own pocket. She may have never reached the peaks of motor racing by competing in Formula 1 or Indycar but nobody ever dared to deny her prowess around her home track that she raced on even while battling the disease that ultimately took her away from us.
One of the fastest women around the `Green Hell`
Born in 1969, the same year as seven-time F1 champ Michael Schumacher, Sabine Schmitz was once likened to a ’female Schumi’ by Top Gear. The German, a native of Nurburg who spent virtually all her life a stone’s throw away from the 13-mile road course, ended up as one of Top Gear’s presenters a few years later and was probably quicker than Schumacher himself around the famous ’Northern Loop’.
How, you may ask? Well, Sabine, who passed away on Tuesday at the age of 51 after a courageous battle with a "very persistent" form of cancer, has raced around the Nurburgring for over three decades. Her wealth of experience of every bump and pebble around the Nordschleife, translated in over 30,000 laps around the track made her a stout competitor be it in the 24-hour race or the odd World Touring Car round she’d do.
"I was always fast on roller-skates, on a bicycle," she said. "It didn’t matter what, it had to be fast — I had the fastest horse in the surroundings," she added, quoted by Motor Sport magazine. Growing up in the nearby Hotel am Tiergarten, she saw many F1 drivers come and go as they checked in before their races at the Nurburgring. This, as well as her experiences of the track in the back of her dad’s Ford Granada, fueled her passion for speed and racing.
"I was around six [the first time around the track]; I was crying I was so afraid," she told The Telegraph in an interview. "We have a town called Adenauer nearby that’s halfway down the Nordschleife and you could leave the track to do the shopping and get back on the track to go home. We used to do that all the time, especially my dad. He used the track like a normal road, so it was good for my race career," she pointed out.
By age 13, however, the young Sabine had decided that she wanted to become a full-blown racing driver which meant she was eager to get a go at driving the ’Ring on her own. Four years later, at 17, she finally had her first taste of the track from behind the wheel of a car, albeit a rather tame one and while breaking the law as teenagers can’t get their license in Germany before they hit 18. "I had no license but took my mum’s BMW 316, and she was always wondering why all the petrol had gone again," she remembered years later.
However, it wasn’t until 1992, when he landed a job as one of the drivers of the very popular ’Ring Taxi’ service that Schmitz really started to rack up the miles around the Nurburgring. The job coincided with a gig as an official BMW-backed driver in what was then the VLN series (now known as the NLS, the German Nurburgring-based endurance sportscar series). The job of a ’Ring Taxi’ driver is to take paying customers around the track for a number of spirited laps.
"Thousands of people threw up," recalled Schmitz with a grin talking about her days as a people-scarer at the Nurburgring. She filled this position for some two decades while also racing on the track that almost claimed Niki Lauda’s life back in 1976. Coincidentally, it was in 1996, 20 years after Lauda’s shunt, that Schmitz first won a major race on the Nurburgring, namely that year’s 24-hour challenge where she partnered local legend Johannes Scheid in an E36-generation BMW M3 Coupe built to Group N specifications. To show that a woman winning the toughest race to be staged at the ’Green Hell’ is no fluke, she backed it all up with another win in 1997, again together with Scheid. The first VLN title followed in 1998.
While it's true that the championship wasn't as competitive then as it is today, Schmitz proved herself year on year driving in more recent times for her husband Klaus Abbelen's team, Frikadelli Racing.
Driving for a Porsche team, Schmitz often had a plethora of Zuffenhausen-paid factory drivers to measure herself against and would often outsmart them. She was third overall in 2008 and also claimed a pair of sixth places, in 2009 and again in 2012 by which time the competition had become incredibly fierce.
As if racing at the Nurburgring - which she last did in 2020 despite her health issues - wasn’t tough enough, she also competed in the Daytona 24 Hours 2016 and also starred in two of the WTCC races to be held at the Nurburgring. Both those outings, in 2015 and again in 2016, resulted in points-scoring finishes for Schmitz who was, otherwise, unfamiliar with the TC1-spec touring cars she drove.
Sabine’s popularity grew immensely the moment she made an appearance on Top Gear, back in 2004. At the time, as a bit of a local legend, she was cast to appear next to Jeremy Clarkson in a bit aimed at showing how utterly and pathetically slow the lanky British presenter is around the Nurburgring. Clarkson was tasked with lapping the circuit in a Jaguar S-Type sedan and then Schmitz had to match his sub-10-minute lap in a stripped-out diesel Ford Transit van. While coming just seven seconds short of the mark, she would make further appearances on Top Gear as well as performing stunts during TG’s live shows. It all culminated with Schmitz joining the team of UK presenters in 2016.
As both a presenter and a (really fast) driver, Schmitz was always brimming with enthusiasm, her broad and bright smile nothing short of intoxicating.
Clarkson himself recognized this as he led the outpour of tributes coming from the world over in the wake of Schmitz’s untimely passing. [She was] such a sunny person and so full of beans," said Clarkson who was certainly also slower than Sabine on horseback, not just in a car. Oh, and if riding horses and driving cars wasn’t enough, Schmitz also loved piloting choppers. Speed, then, really was running through her veins.