The passing of German legend Sabine Schmitz, also known as "The Queen of the Nordschleife", is a huge loss for our motorsport family: a personality whose popularity and legacy managed to go beyond the boundaries of our sport.
The world of motor racing woke up this morning to the shocking news of the passing of Sabine Schmitz, one of the world's most famous female drivers.
Adenau-born Schmitz was 51, and had been battling cancer since 2017. She revealed in July 2020 that she had relapsed and was undergoing treatment again.
"The Queen of the Ring" has left a tremendous legacy to the sport and deeply contributed to challenging stereotypes within the industry. Her popularity went well beyond the circle of motoring enthusiasts, thanks to her stints as TV personality, co-host and motorsport commentator both in Germany and in the UK. A combination that, together with her ground-breaking on track achievements in the late 90s and 2000s, made Schmitz a world-renowned inspiration for women and mens alike.
Born and raised around the most challenging racetrack in the world, Sabine Schmitz started racing in 1989 – a time when few women were climbing the ladder of motorsport in Europe.
Her experience of the Nürburgring Nordschleife was unmatched and, in 1996, she became the first – and so far only – woman to win the overall classify in the mighty 24 Hours of the Nürburgring. She secured another victory in 1997 and, in 1998, she was crowned champion in the VLN endurance championship..
Sabine was a woman with many passions: from race cars, to the hospitality sector, to helicopters and horses. But her life always revolved around the Green Hell, which she lapped for over 20,000 times. As a BMW factory driver, she famously became the driver of the BMW M5 "Ring Taxi", taking fans and tourists around the 20.8 km racetrack.
While continuing her racing career in the VLN series, Schmitz was brought to international attention after her participation in BBC's Top Gear program: since 2002, she featured in a series of episodes before becoming a regular co-host in 2016.
In 2015, she made her debut in the FIA World Touring Car Championship, as the series visited the Nordschleife for the first time. Racing alongside some of the world's leading touring cars drivers, Schmitz scored points and claimed a top-10 finish in her first ever race at the wheel of the All-Inkl.com Münnich Motorsport Chevrolet Cruze. She would repeat the same result one year later in another guest-entry. She is so far the last woman to have scored points in the now-rebranded WTCR championship.
The whole motor racing community paid tributes to the legendary racer. From Formula One to the Nürburgring racetrack; from her Frikadelli Motorsport team to all the drivers that competed against her and that were inspired by her upbeat personality.
“Sabine’s achievement in scoring points in the WTCC of course broke new ground and demonstrated a huge talent." – said Michéle Mouton, President of the FIA Women IN Motorsport commission.
"But Sabine achieved so much more in life and her career both in motor racing and broadcasting. She was a tremendous ambassador for FIA Women in Motorsport and it makes us all extremely proud in terms of what she accomplished and the many women she inspired to follow in her footsteps. This is a great loss and our hearts go out to all her loved ones."
"The Nürburgring has lost its most famous female racing driver" – can be read on the circuit's Twitter profile. "Sabine Schmitz passed away far too early after a long illness. We will miss her and her cheerful nature. Rest in peace Sabine!"
Most of today's female drivers also posted tributes to the German legend on their social media profiles, as some of them try to follow in her footsteps at the Green Hell.
Her youtube onboards at her home track often went viral, with a generation of young drivers looking up to her outstanding abilities.
Everyone that could meet her on track will forever cherish the experience – such as those lucky tourists that ejonyed her heart-stopping laps in the Ring Taxi.
The 2004 Top Gear episode where she tried to lap under the 10 minute mark in a Ford Transit van will remain one of the most extraordinary and entertaining collective memories of a driver whose popularity managed to cross the boundaries of our sport.
Trying to put our words together to pay tribute to Sabine wasn't easy and, even within our small team, we would have liked to tell many stories and personal recollections. "Sabine Schmitz is a name all motorsport fans in Germany know. She is THE female driver and the Queen of the Nürburgring. A role model for all young girls who enter the motorsport world and look up to her, with the aim of mastering the Green Hell." – writes our German correspondent Vivien Strebelow. "I remember very well when I first heard of Sabine." – adds Oliver Krüger, photographer. She was Sabine Reck back then and I stumbled upon this name in a touring car yearbook I had." "This was in 1996 and she had won the famous 24hr race at the Nürburgring together with Hannes Scheid in an awesome E36 BMW. I was quite new to racing back then and just thought how awesome it was to see a woman do so well in a predominantly men's sport." "Then it went quite around her for a while and she was back as Sabine Schmitz on the Ring in race cars - and in the Ring Taxi by BMW. Always a positive, light hearted person and a seriously talented racer, she became one of the Ring's legends." "When the Nürburgring GmbH went bankrupt in 2012 and the Ring had to be sold, she was one of the loudest voices to find a solution, as the Ring was and is a major tourist magnet and motor for the whole region of the Eifel." – recalls Oliver. "Personally I will remember her for the segments she had with Top Gear back in 2004/2005 and onwards. The little Eifel girl scaring the crap out of Richard Hammond while trying to better a laptime of 10 minutes around the Nordschleife in a Ford Transit van, showing her massive experience of tens of thousands of Nordschleife laps in all kinds of cars. In these moments she showed her personality - hilarious, kind and always being Sabine." "She is a name I always knew since I grew up with motorsport." – continues Vivien. "She was a racer and a star with Top Gear – but most importantly she was a fighter. Since she was diagnosed with cancer in 2017 she managed to come back to racing in 2019; for her, it was a passion that shone so bright like her smile. That was impressive to me, what made me connect with her – the passion and fight for what you love, even when life isn't fair." Thank you Sabine, for your love, for your passion, for all what you were and will remain. Thank you and rest in peace, you will never be forgotten.
“There are not many sports where men and women compete together. It’s more or less motorsport and some horse-riding. You need someone to look at who does it. I think I wasn’t too bad driving against all the professionals, the world champions and the Formula One drivers.”
Additional reporting: Vivien Strebelow, Oliver Krüger.