Saturday, 31 July 2010

Sabine Schmitz (Reck)

Sabine Schmitz grew up in the Eifel region of Germany, close to the famous Nürburgring, where her parents ran a hotel. It is perhaps not surprising that she gravitated towards motorsports, especially as she was the youngest in a trio of racing sisters. Susanne and Petra both raced at club level, and in the VLN.

Sabine first took to the tracks at the age of eighteen, using a VW in slalom competitions. She gained her full racing license on the 'Ring itself a year later, in 1988.

By 1989, she was ready to take on her first championship, on the 'Ring of course. She entered the Nürburgring's Veedol Trophy (VLN), run on the famous Nordschleife. She was mainly in a Ford Sierra RS Cosworth, but she also did one race alongside her sisters in their Vauxhall Astra. Her first attempt at the championship's blue riband event, the 24 Hour race, brought her a 31st place, but a good second in the class for production vehicles over 2.5 litres. A visit to the Spa 24 Hours, then a touring car event, gave her and the Sierra 28th place.

Sabine's new project for 1990 was the Ford Fiesta Mixed Cup, a European racing series for two-driver, male-female teams. In her first year she partnered Franz-Josef Bröhling and was third overall. In 1991 and '92 she drove with Thomas Marschall. The pair made an excellent team, taking six wins in their first year, including the Nürburgring round, naturally. This was enough to take second place. They won the trophy the following year, with five wins, three seconds and one third place.

During this time, the Mixed Cup was not the only award Sabine won. She was the 1990 VLN Ladies' Champion in the Sierra. The 'Ring was never far off her sporting radar and she completed three more 24 Hour races, in the Sierra and her Fiesta.

In 1993 she left the Ford camp and joined up with BMW, in a car/driver combination that would prove very useful on the track. She started in the junior team, driving a production M3 with Astrid Grünfelder. They were an effective team in the VLN, and scored four class wins in six races. Sabine also sampled more Bavarian power in the ADAC GT Cup, driving an M3 GT.

She drove a variety of BMWs in 1994, in the VLN, ADAC GT Cup and the German Touring Trophy. She was given a 325i for the Nürburgring 24 Hours and scored her best finish yet - eighteenth.

After competing around Europe for several seasons now, Sabine got a change of scene in 1995 when BMW sent her to South Africa to contest the ZA Super Touring Cup. Later, she also did two part-seasons in Brazil, racing in the Espron Series for sports cars.

1996 was the year that the the name of Sabine Schmitz (or Sabine Reck as she was then known), became public property. Driving Johannes Scheid's M3, with Scheid and Hans Widmann, she became the first female winner of the Nürburgring 24 Hours. What was more remarkable was that she repeated the feat the following season, assisted by Scheid, Peter Zakowski and Hans-Jürgen Tiemann.

1998 was another victorious season for the new "Queen of the Nürburgring". Although she only came fourth in the 24 Hours, she won the VLN trophy outright in an M3 E36, with nine class wins and one second. She had previously been runner-up in 1996.

Sabine raced two different BMW M3 E36 models during 1999. Although she scored eight different class wins and three thirds, she was only eighth in the championship. The 24 Hours at the 'Ring was also uneventful and she was nowhere near the podium this time. Towards the end of the season, she tried a different sort of race, accepting a guest spot in the final of the Ferrari Challenge, driving a Ferrari 355.

The following year was a quiet one. Her highlight was another drive in the Nürburgring 24 Hours, this time as part of an all-female team. She was sharing a Honda S2000 with touring car aces Ellen Lohr and Tamara Vidali, and sportscar racer Vanina Ickx.

Sabine returned to full VLN action in 2001, driving a VW Bora Turbodiesel this time. This car was not really capable of challenging for outright wins, but its driver pushed it hard nonetheless, scoring a class win and a third as her best results of the year.

Sabine did not race at all during 2002, concentrating on other activities instead. However, she was soon back on track at her beloved Nürburgring, in yet another different car. This time it was a new MINI Cooper, as raced throughout Europe. Her best result in it was at the 24 Hours, where she was 91st overall (out of around 200 drivers!) and fourth in class. She used the same car the following year, but not to such good effect.

2005 saw her move more into sportscar territory, racing a Lotus Elise and a Porsche 996 in VLN events. Still at the Nürburgring, she entered a Porsche 997 into the Castrol Haugg Cup time-trial series. On a more exotic note, she also accepted a guest drive in the Maserati Trofeo Europa with Italian Fabio Babini. The pair made a good team and were second.

Sabine stuck with Porsche power for 2006. She shared her 997 Cup with Klaus Abbelen, her partner in life as well as motorsport. Their best result in the VLN this season was third overall, which they achieved twice. They entered the 24 Hours, but were not near the top of the leaderboard.

The arrangement continued for 2007 and played out in almost exactly the same way: two third places and a string of class seconds and thirds. Sabine’s car for the 24 Hours was a 911 GT3 this time, but she was still out of the top ten. For a change, she made a guest appearance in the Nürburgring round of the Polo Cup.

It was business as usual again in 2008, in the 997, although this time, Sabine managed another podium in the 24 Hours, coming in third. She also did some touring car racing in America.

In 2009, Sabine continued to race, now driving for Team Frikadelli. The team, consisting of Sabine, Klaus, Edgar Althoff and Kenneth Heyer, were sixth in the 24 Hours behind the works Audi entries and Porsche prototypes. Their 997 has given them a fifth, three sixths and two sevenths overall in the VLN. In the Nürburgring 24 Hours, they were second in class SP7.

The team carried on in 2010, and were still competitive. Their best finishes were a fourth, a fifth, two sevenths and an eighth. They did not finish the Nürburgring 24 Hours.

The "meatball" (frikadelle is a German meatball) flew again in 2011. The team had expanded to two cars, with  Sabine and Klaus driving the Porsche GT3 R "Big Meatball". They showed they still had the touch with a sixth place in the Nürburgring 24 Hours. Their best finishes in the VLN were a second and third. Their championship run was not as successful, due to some retirements.

Sabine had no intention of retiring, and the Frikadelli team was set on its first win in 2012. They started inauspiciously, with the first race red-flagged due to bad weather, after Sabine had earned them a driving penalty anyway. They were a solid sixth in the second round, their first preparation for the Nürburgring 24 Hours. It was fortunate that it went well, as they had to pull out of the next race. In the end, it did not matter much; they were sixth overall, best Porsche and best privateer team in the Nürburgring 24 Hours. The remaining VLN races gave the team a fourth, fifth and a DNF.

Frikadelli's mission continued in 2013. Sabine and Klaus were sharing the Porsche with Duncan Huisman. In a familiar script twist, they went out of the first round, after only nine laps. However, despite Klaus being substituted for Patrick Pilet, they were fourth in the second round. The usual team also failed to score in the third round, which was red-flagged after a fatal accident. In another frustrating (for Sabine) plot twist, the team did manage its first win, but with Sabine out with a knee injury. On her return, for the six-hour mid-season race, they did not finish, due to low oil pressure. The usual trio were then seventh at the Grenzlandrennen, then second in the Barbarossapreis, the 250-Mile race and the Munsterlandpokal, a rainy event which demanded tactical experience. The team won the SP9 class of the championship.

The Nürburgring 24 Hours was also troubled by adverse weather, and was actually stopped for nine hours by the Clerk of the Course, due to heavy rain. Sabine drove well in the rain, after a pair of pit stops, before the halt. However, too much time had been lost, despite Sabine's battling and Patrick Pilet's early speed, and they were 16th overall.

Team Frikadelli continued to race in 2014, keeping the same trio of drivers. They started very poorly, with a crash by Duncan Huisman putting them out of the first VLN round, but their season picked up immediately, with a win in round two, running as a quartet with Patrick Pilet. A mistake by Sabine herself, speeding in the pit lane, with its associated penalty, dropped them to sixth in the third round. A third place followed, in a race marred by a red flag, but despite preparation, the team had to retire from the 24 Hour race. There were multiple problems with the Porsche, including overheating, a broken radiator hose, and electronic failure. However, two VLN wins went some way to relieving the team's disappointment. Two accidents followed, but a second place in the final round was enough to rescue their season, and secure the VLN Speed Trophy.

The Frikadelli team expanded to four cars in 2015: the 996, a Porsche Cayman, a Renault Clio and an Audi TT. Sabine drove the 996, and her focus this year was a good finish in the Nürburgring 24 Hours. The lead Frikadelli Porsche ran extremely well throughout the race, and was leading at the 23rd hour, but a crash following a sudden rainfall put them out of the race. After a rebuild of the damaged "Meatball", Sabine, Klaus Abbelen and Duncan Huisman won the next round of the VLN outright. They were also third in the next race.

As well as "Queen of the Nürburgring", Sabine is, or was, also known as "the world's fastest taxi driver", due to her infamous "Ring Taxi". This is a V8 BMW M5, tuned by the Bavarian factory's own team, in which she gives very high-speed taxi rides around her home track. A good lap is believed to take around eight and a half minutes. She stepped down from taxi driving in 2011.

She also works as a performance driving instructor, runs a helicopter shuttle service to the track and until recently, ran a restaurant nearby. In recent years, Sabine has worked as a TV motorsport commentator, known for her dry humour in describing others' misfortunes on track. After a couple of appearances on BBC's Top Gear, she has also become known in the UK. Famously, she told presenter Jeremy Clarkson that she could do a better lap than his in a van - and he was driving a Jaguar. Although she couldn't quite post the sub-ten minute time she wanted, she still beat Clarkson.

There has even been some speculation that she might have been Top Gear's mystery test driver, The Stig, on one or more occasions. In 2016, she joined the presenting line-up of the new version of Top Gear, and became one of its more popular hosts.

Due to her Top Gear filming commitments, she did not take part in all of the VLN races in which the Frikadelli Porsche appeared. She did, however, start her first Daytona 24 Hours in January, in the Porsche. She was 27th overall, with Klaus Abbelen, Duncan Huisman and Norbert Seidler. In the VLN, the team fell foul of engine restrictions, and did not perform to their full capability for the first part of the season. Improved performances towards the end helped them up to sixth overall.

Frikadelli ran two Porsches in the 2017 VLN. Sabine was part of a rotating squad of drivers, due to other commitments. She raced for most of the season, and had a best finish of sixth in October.

The two Frikadelli Porsches ran again in 2018 but Sabine was absent for the first half of the season. When she made her comeback in June, it was revealed that she had been receiving treatment for cancer. She made further occasional appearances for the team and also raced a BMW alongside her brother Beat in the VLN. In 2019, she made one appearance in the Porsche in the VLN.

In 2018, she set a new lap record on the 'Ring for MPVs, managing a sub-ten-minute lap in a Skoda Kodiaq. She reprised her role on BBC's revamped Top Gear in 2019, appearing as "The German". Presenter Paddy McGuinness's reaction was "I thought they'd got rid of her!"

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