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'A force of nature': Former 'Top Gear' host Sabina Schmitz dies at 51

Sabine Schmitz is the first and only female race car driver to win the annual 24-hour race on the famed Nürburgring circuit.
Thomas Frey / AP
/ Source: AP (Associated Press)

Sabine Schmitz, the first and only female race car driver to win the annual 24-hour race on the famed Nürburgring circuit and a renowned TV personality, has died. She was 51.

Schmitz had been ill with cancer since 2017 and continued racing until 2019. The 24-hour race’s organizers said she died Tuesday following "a years-long battle with her disease."

Schmitz grew up near the Nürburgring, a fearsome track which winds through the hills of western Germany. Its 13-mile Nordschleife configuration is regarded as one of the most demanding and dangerous tracks in the world.

Schmitz moved through lower-level racing categories before winning the 24-hour race in 1996 and 1997 as part of a team driving a BMW M3. She also won the VLN championship of endurance races at the Nürburgring in 1998.

Schmitz was a Nürburgring specialist with at least 20,000 laps of the track on her own and in "Ring Taxi" rides for tourists. She also ran her own team, Frikadelli Racing, with her husband.

"The Nurburgring has lost its most famous female racing driver," the track said in a statement to Variety. "Sabine Schmitz passed away far too early after a long illness. We will miss her and her cheerful nature. Rest in peace Sabine."

In 2004, Schmitz was featured for the first time on the British motoring TV show "Top Gear" in a segment about the Nordschleife. She soon became a regular guest star and fan favorite, and from 2016 was part of the show’s regular team. In one notable appearance, she posted a competitive time on the Nordschleife behind the wheel of a van. The BBC said the next episode of the long-running show will be dedicated to Schmitz.

"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," executive producer Clare Pizey told the BBC.

Schmitz's peers shared sweet messages on social media: Current "Top Gear" presenter Paddy McGuinness called Schmitz an "amazing human being."

Former "Top Gear" presenter Jeremy Clarkson wrote that Schmitz was "such a sunny person."

Schmitz also worked on a show on German TV and ran a tourist ranch near the Nürburgring.