So sad to hear the news that the adorable Sabine Schmitz, Queen of the Nürburgring, has passed away from cancer aged just 51. A two-time winner of the Nürburgring 24 Hours and a former VLN champion, Sabine may be best remembered as the woman who beat Jeremy Clarkson in a van.
Sabine was born to hotelier parents in Adenau, in the shadow of the Nürburgring. The youngest of three girls, Sabine was raised in the Hotel am Tiergarten in the village of Nürburg, which is now home to the legendary Pistenklause restaurant. All three girls used to borrow their mother’s car to do laps of the ‘Ring and all three apparently tried racing, but it was Sabine who took it most seriously, eventually partnering with veteran BMW M3 driver, Johannes Scheid, to win the Nürburgring 24-Hours in both 1996 and 1997 and win the VLN championship in 1998 – a joint win with Johannes. She remains the only female driver ever to win the N24.
Racing could not pay the bills, so Sabine trained as a somellière and hotel manager, and married a fellow hotelier, with whom she ran a business in Pulheim: north-west of Cologne and 100 kms north of Nürburg. The marriage ended in 2000 and the newly-single Sabine returned to Nürburg, opening a bar called the Fuchsröhre (Foxhole) after one of her favourite parts of the circuit.
She also returned to the track, racing regularly and finding infamy as one of the drivers of the BMW M5 ‘Ring Taxis’. Sabine’s background made her a natural people person. Gifted with irresistible bartender humour, she had ample speed to match her wit, so it was only a matter of time before the motoring media would pick up on her talents. Recognition came in 2004, when BBC Top Gear visited the Nürburgring to test some new twin-turbo diesel Jaguar. Jeremy Clarkson was given the target time of a ten-minute lap, and Sabine was recruited to train him.
When Clarkson eventually managed a 9:59, and shot over the moon with delight, Sabine slapped him back down to earth with a derisory: “I could do that time in a van.” It was a memorable moment. The following year, Top Gear brought a bog-standard Transit (0 to 60 in 21 seconds) to the Nürburgring to give Sabine the chance to make good on her promise. She got within 9 seconds of Clarkson before admitting defeat, but the TV show exposed her to a vast audience. She became a regular fixture on Top Gear, which has been shown in 214 countries to an estimated weekly audience of some 350 million people at its peak.
Sabine did not stay in the pub trade too long on her second time around. She left the Foxhole in 2003 and formed Frikkadelli Racing with her partner, Klaus Abbelen (main image). The duo raced everywhere, running GT3s across Europe and in the Middle East, finishing third in the 2008 N24, beaten only by the two factory-backed Manthey Porsches that had won two previous N24s between them. Away from the circuit, Sabine also indulged her passion for horses, opening a stables in Barweiler – the Eifelranch am Ring.
In 2017, Sabine was diagnosed with a rare form of vulvar cancer. She experienced an adverse reaction to chemotherapy, which cut her options for treatment. Surgery was the only alternative and she had many operations in the years that followed. She did return to racing and promised to run in the 2020 N24, “as long as she was not on an operating table”. “I’m like an Eifel weed,” she told one interviewer, vowing to keep popping up.
Sabine Schmitz died from cancer on 16 March 2021, aged 51. That is no age for anyone to die, let alone someone like Sabine, who enchanted millions of people all over the world with her down-to-earth energy, passion and talent. She will be deeply missed by those who regard the Nordschleife as more than just asphalt. I look forward to raising a glass to Frau Schmitz at the Pistenklause and to celebrating her memory at the N24, some time in the future.