sabine schmitz, the racing driver and tv personality known across the world as the "queen of the nürburgring," died tuesday after a battle with cancer. she was 51.
schmitz was born in 1969 and raised at the edge of the nürburgring. her family ran a local hotel with a bar and restaurant beloved by 'ring aficionados, the pistenklause, festooned from floor to ceiling in racing memorabilia. it was an auspicious start: schmitz and her sisters all began racing at a young age. soon, sabine began racing, becoming the first woman to win at the 24 hours of nürburgring in 1996, driving a bmw m3.
she was also a 'ring taxi driver, taking passengers for full-speed laps of the 13-mile track during "tourist" lapping sessions. it was this job, where she logged an estimated 1200 laps of the track per year, that helped launch schmitz to international fame. in december 2004, schmitz had her first appearance on bbc's top gear, tutoring host jeremy clarkson on how to set a fast lap at the green hell. under her guidance, clarkson lapped the track in 9 minutes and 59 seconds. schmitz, with classic bubbly boastfulness, told clarkson, "i could do that lap time in a van." it became one of the most famous moments in top gear history, one of the first automotive videos to go viral.
schmitz was a natural television personality. charming and bright, she had an effervescent and playful sense of humor and a deep, thorough knowledge of cars and racing. after her first top gear appearance made her famous, schmitz went on to be a regular guest on the show and became a full-time co-host in 2016 alongside chris harris and matt leblanc.
schmitz was active in numerous forms of racing, having competed in several 24 hours of nürburgring races with frikadelli racing, the team she ran with her husband, klaus abellen. but she always maintained her connection with the nürburgring, where she always seemed to be embarrassing other drivers with her otherworldly mastery of the track.
upon news of schmitz's death, tributes poured in on social media from the world of racing and from her television colleagues. dale lomas, another 'ring expert, wrote on his website, bridge to gantry: "she was bullshit-free, cold beers in a smokey pistenklause after a hard day driving the ring-taxi sideways through brünnchen. she was eifel-blitz at 2 a.m. on a rainy sunday morning, she was frikadelli porsche carving through the pack after a pitlane start."
the next episode of bbc's top gear, which airs in england on sunday, will be dedicated to schmitz. clare pizey, top gear executive producer, said in a statement: "sabine was a beloved member of the top gear family and presenting team since 2016, having first appeared on the show in 2004, and everyone who had the pleasure of working with her on the team is in shock at this news. sabine radiated positivity, always wore her cheeky smile no matter how hard things got—and was a force of nature for women drivers in the motoring world. like everyone else who knew her, we will truly miss her—sabine really was one of a kind. our thoughts are with her partner, klaus, who was always by her side and who we welcomed to dunsfold many times, and her family in germany."