She joined Top Gear after the controversial departure of Jeremy Clarkson and Co, and since then she has seen Chris Evans quit the hit show. Yet nothing seems to faze driving ace Sabine Schmitz.
And it will come as no surprise to her legion of fans that the German racer now looks set to prosper with an expanded role in the next series. Schmitz is, after all, the Queen of the Nurburgring, one of the world’s most terrifying circuits.
“It’s the longest, fastest and scariest roller coaster in the world,” she says. “And it has jumps — you don’t have jumps on a roller coaster. It’s the most dangerous race track in the world, that’s for sure.”
The tragic statistics bear this out. About 200 people have been killed on the Nurburgring — incredibly, it is open to normal traffic as a no-limit toll road when it’s not hosting a race.
Schmitz grew up nearby. Her family runs a hotel and restaurant, and she spent her early years serving breakfast to F1 legends such as Niki Lauda, Nigel Mansell and Ayrton Senna. But Schmitz was never going to settle for serving sausages to racing drivers — she planned to be a driver. Her greatest achievement was winning the Nurburgring’s gruelling 24-hour race — proof, were it needed, that women have the physical and mental toughness to compete alongside men in motorsport.
“It’s dangerous enough in the daytime, but when you’re racing there at night you have to drive with your nose. If you smell oil, then someone has leaked some and you have to be careful. If you smell freshly cut grass, then someone has spun off.”
Following the departure of Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May, diehard Top Gear fans were ecstatic when Schmitz was unveiled as one of the new presenters alongside Evans and US actor Matt LeBlanc.
It wasn’t because she brought some much-needed gender balance to the show but because she already has a huge following among petrolheads. They know she can climb aboard the fastest, most powerful, most expensive road and race cars and drive them beyond their limits: something Clarkson, Hammond and May simply couldn’t do.
Schmitz and Clarkson go way back — she famously made him turn green while teaching him how to drive around the Nurburgring circuit in 2004. Clarkson then set a lap time in a Jaguar — a time Schmitz demolished in the same car, and nearly beat in a humble Transit van.
Following her appearance, she almost joined the show. “I had some conversations with [then producer] Andy Wilman,” she says. “But a German girl on Clarkson’s show? Could you imagine that? No way.
“But when those three left the show there was another chance. And when the call came, I said yes straight away.”
So what did she think when she was told that former Friends star LeBlanc would be one of her new colleagues?
“When the BBC called to say they were going to announce that Matt LeBlanc would be one of the new hosts, I said, ‘Who is Matt LeBlanc?’ I don’t have much time to watch television. I’d heard of Friends, of course, but I had to Google him. But when the results came up, I thought, ‘Yes, I know that face.’”
Although Evans will not be back for the new series, BBC insiders say the other presenters will return, and the studio-based segments will be revamped. Pre-production is already under way and filming starts next month — not that Schmitz is at a loose end. She has spent the summer at her farm near the Nurburgring, where she and boyfriend Klaus Abbelen are building a Canadian-style log home.
There’s a Porsche 911 GT3RS in her garage but her daily transport is a Ford Ranger Wildtrak pick-up truck and a Fendt tractor. “I love my tractor. I actually love going slow,” she says.
She and Abbelen run the Frikadelli Racing team, and Schmitz owns a small chain of hotels near the Nurburgring.
For the first post-Clarkson Top Gear series, Sabine flew out to a Top Gun air base in Nevada to recreate a dogfight with Evans in high-powered Corvettes and Vipers. ‘It was fun,’ she says. ‘But I was a bit worried when the Top Gun pilot started throwing up in my car. He was supposed to be one of the top pilots in the world, right? Shouldn’t he be used to the G-forces?
“I really enjoyed working with Chris and was sorry to hear that he wasn’t coming back.
“I just hope it wasn’t my driving that made him leave."