The term ‘super-sub’ might be a massively overused cliché, but there’s perhaps no better term to describe Jutta Kleinschmidt after her performance on Saturday at Extreme E’s Ocean X-Prix.
The rally raid icon got an 11th hour call up to replace Claudia Hürtgen at Abt Cupra on Friday night after the German withdrew from the event with a stomach bug.
The surprise call gave the series its first use of a ‘Joker’ driver in just its second event.
“It was amazing because for sure I was quite nervous this morning,” Kleinschmidt told DirtFish.
“Yesterday [Friday] evening I heard I had to jump in the car, I actually had no chance to test it before.”
Of course, being one of XE’s designated substitute drivers, she was always expected to be able to step in at a moment’s notice.
What perhaps wasn’t expected, however, was the incredible performance the 58-year-old put in right away.
But she’s an official series driver, right? She knows the track better than most already, surely? Not quite.
While generally she would have had two full practice laps ahead of an event (compared to the regular drivers’ one practice lap following the largely inconsequential shakedown), a hiccup at the start of the weekend put an end to that plan.
“Actually our car, which is the test car, broke down after one lap and then actually we decided that is enough,” Kleinschmidt said, referring to her and fellow standby driver Timo Scheider’s designated series-run Odyssey 21. “This time it would be better to have at least two [laps], but I mean it is what it is.”
Nevertheless, in her Q1 run she matched regular series driver Stephane Sarrazin in sector one, and outshone the rapid Molly Taylor in sector three. The end result was the third-fastest time (later dropped to fourth as a result of a penalty for stepping into the driver change area too soon).
Then in Q2, Kleinschmidt finished her lap 3.3 up on Taylor, who is regarded by many as one of the top drivers in the series.
“Yeah, it was a little bit [of a surprise],” she said of her impressive performance.
“Because I didn’t race for many years. I did some races, like the little side-by-sides, which are very good too and fun but not in this kind of proper race car, and definitely not against all the superstars.
“So it was difficult for me. I had no idea where I am to be honest, I just tried my best and this morning I thought ‘go in the car, have fun, it doesn’t matter where you end up, it is what it is’.
“For sure if you are competitive, you always want to be in front, but you also have to understand when you never drive, you’re not as good like you maybe were.
“But I think I was very happy with the result. I helped out the team, which I wanted to do. It’s not good for the team if somebody jumps in who is super-slow and they have no chance at all anymore.”
This Hollywood-like story is good enough to end right here, but there’s something else that makes this whole tale all the more special.
This year marks 20 years since Kleinschmidt won the Paris-Dakar Rally on the very same beach on which the Ocean X-Prix is being contested. It’s a homecoming – albeit an unexpected one – for a true legend.
“I remember it very well, about 200 meter over there, I finished the Dakar and I won it 20 years ago,” she recalled, pointing towards the beach bordering the Atlantic Ocean.
“That’s why I was already so happy that this Extreme E championship was coming here, because the last time I was here was my last Dakar in Africa, which was 2007, and since then I haven’t had the chance to come back.
“I came here because I thought I wanted to see the mangroves again and Dakar again, and was nice because a lot of people still knew me from here, which was very interesting.
“And then at the end of the day I even had the chance to race,” she added with a wide grin. “So what else [could you ask for]. Just perfect.”
A lot of people try to make comparisons between other forms of off-road motorsport and XE, despite the fact it is massively unique in its approach to racing. That said, Kleinschmidt can certainly see parallels between the Dakar rallies of old and this weekend’s event in Lac Rose.
“The race track is very similar to what we had,” she explained. “For sure [it’s] shorter, that’s clear.
“The big difference is actually that you can see it before. That you have the chance to see the track, and then you have also the chance of the rollout and there’s a free practice to race it, even if it’s not much.
“But it’s at least short. This is different to the races I’ve known because you only have one chance, you just get a roadbook and you have your co-driver who navigates you, and you only see it once and you have to try to do it as fast as you think it works without lying on the roof.”
Has this fleeting appearance got her competitive juices flowing once again, and more to the point, have any teams been knocking at her door over a potential 2022 drive?
“That’s not happening now so I don’t have to think about it at the moment,” she said. “If they think about it, it’s always nice that people think about me. That’s what I can say.”