The universally-admired Sabine Schmitz was famous long before I first met her by chance back in 2009.
After all, she was the only woman to have won the notoriously dangerous Nürburgring 24-hour race in 1996 – only to back it up with another win the following year.
This was indeed heroic stuff given the 200-plus car grids, heady competition, and varying track and weather conditions that evolve over a day’s driving at the 20.76-kilometre-long Nordschleife.
Then came television fame. Her first British television appearance came in 2002, courtesy of the BBC program Jeremy Clarkson meets the Neighbours, where on a visit to Germany, Sabine took Clarkson for a lap around the Nordschleife in her ‘ring taxi’.
As a result of her self-proclaimed “fastest taxi driver in the world” adage, itself the result of more than 20,000 laps of what had essentially been her backyard (growing up less than a mile from the track), she again appeared as a guest on the revamped Top Gear series with Clarkson.
This time she piloted a Ford Transit van around the Nordschleife in a time only nine seconds behind what Clarkson had clocked in a Jaguar S-Type Diesel.
Sabine now had mass appeal on a global scale and continued to make television appearances in Germany and the UK, finally being selected as a Top Gear presenter in 2016.
For me, that chance 2009 meeting happened when Alborz and I had stopped to refuel our BMW M5 press car at the well-known ED Tankstelle, located at the entry to the Nürburgring GP circuit.
I can recall it vividly: Sabine was obviously rushing to get back to scaring the daylights out of paying passengers in her own M5 Ring Taxi but thought nothing of pausing to snap pics with myself and the entire crew, all with her trademark smile and good nature. That, I later discovered, was Sabine down to a tee.
The next time we met was 2013, again at the Nürburgring. I had been in Spain to see CarExpert’s current Performance Editor Chris (Atko) Atkinson testing Hyundai’s i20 WRC car.
Somehow, the Hyundai PR and I ended up in Frankfurt and decided to shoot across to the ‘Ring’ to see if my mate Ron Simons (of RSR Nurburg fame) would lend us one of his specially-prepped cars for a few laps, of which he generously obliged.
As soon as we’d completed our session, Ron – already a good friend and business associate of Sabine and husband Klaus – had us heading over to their log cabin for dinner. I’m not kidding; Guido, myself and Ron were suddenly being cooked a meal by Sabine herself, with Klaus deftly working the bar.
We could barely contain our emotions – here we were in the company of automotive royalty – but Sabine (and Klaus, for that matter) was the humblest person you could ever meet, despite her fame and global admiration. We were treated like old friends, and I’m forever grateful to Ron (another humble and kind person) for allowing us to share that meal.
Speaking of the meal, that humility – and authenticity – showed in what Sabine prepared. This was no fancy fare, with Frikadelli hamburger patties (that’s Klaus’ claim to fame, and the name behind the Frikadelli Racing Team), fried eggs, and some mandatory asparagus spears. Sabine even cooked up seconds for us.
Yep, that was a night to remember.
We were invited back in 2015 even though Sabine and Klaus were away, and ate the same Frikadelli hamburger and eggs just the way we liked them.
We kept in touch via email and through another friend of theirs and was meaning to package up a pair of custom R.M. Williams riding boots for her, as I’d been given an outline of her current boot sole, but between COVID-19 and the complete ban on international travel – I never got to surprise her personally with the boots, as I know she would have loved them.
She may have lost her battle with cancer and I may have lost a friend but her exploits at the ‘Ring’ and on television will live on for decades to come.
But, I will miss that smile.
Thanks for all the special memories, Sabine.