It's a rare pleasure to see somebody doing what they were absolutely meant to do. But for anybody who spent much time at the Nürburgring, it was virtually guaranteed. Sabine Schmitz was that person, emerging from the RingTaxi with a smile broader than many of the paying customers, ready to take the next trio of nervous blokes on what would likely be the most exciting eight-and-a-half minutes of their lives.
The Schmitz family have long been part of the very fabric of Nürburg. The local economy is lubricated by petrochemicals and beer, and Getränke Schmitz, founded by Günter Schmitz back in 1956, had wrapped up the latter, selling wholesale and delivering beverages to events. The family also owned the Hotel am Tiergarten in the centre of the village, famed for its basement bar and restaurant, the Pistenklause.
This comfortable background allowed the young Sabine to indulge a passion for speed. She excelled at school sports and was a talented footballer, but loved horses. As soon as she was old enough to drive, she’d purloin her mother’s BMW and sneak onto the Nordschleife, back in the days before the big queues and automated ticketing systems, when you paid a grumpy old bloke in a leather cap a few Deutschmarks for a lap.
Read next: Women in motorsports
Racing success followed, Sabine standing on the top step of the podium at the 1996 and 1997 Nürburgring 24-hour events, with wins arriving in the VLN races in 1998 and 2006.
But to most, she was the girl in the E39 M5 RingTaxi, who’d drift through Adenauer Forst and Brünnchen corners, waving at any spectators. Back then, there were relatively few onlookers, and Schmitz was to become at least partly responsible for a massive uptick in visitor numbers to the region.
Her 2004 appearance on Top Gear, where she attempted to beat Jeremy Clarkson’s 10-minute lap in a Jaguar S-Type diesel while driving a Transit van, was one of those iconic moments of television. I was there at the time, and while I can’t vouch for the vérité of Clarkson’s attempt, with the camera crew running lap after lap in the Jaguar, none of which featured Jeremy at the wheel, Sabine was fully committed to wringing the time out of the van. She later switched into the Jaguar diesel, which presented a problem, as the camera car then couldn’t keep up with her.
Her entirely unforced enthusiasm and confidence made her a natural on camera, which saw her appear frequently on Top Gear for the next decade. She never identified as a television presenter though, preferring instead to focus on her driving and her beloved Frikadelli Racing team.
I’ll remember Sabine as somebody who, no matter how long it had been since you last saw her, would remember you and make time to chat. Who’d struggle to keep a straight face when telling you off for gassing half the restaurant at the Pistenklause by pouring pepper onto your hot stone for one of their fabled Argentinian steaks. She was fun, fizzed with energy and was as much a part of the Nürburgring as Caracciola, Bellof or Lauda. Like these legends, she’ll probably have a corner named after her. It would be a fitting tribute to the Queen of the Nürburgring. She’ll be hugely missed.