Richard Hammond looks well. He is as sharp and sparkly as any man in his early 50s could hope to be. But he is lucky to be here. Everyone knows that. In 2006 the former Top Gear presenter crashed a rocket-powered car at the scarcely plausible speed of 319 mph (513 km/h). He spent five weeks in hospital recovering from an injury to the brain that left him with post-traumatic amnesia. That didn't scare him away from automotive mayhem. Eleven years later, now with Amazon's The Grand Tour – a lucrative transplant for Hammond and pals Jeremy Clarkson and James May – he drove a Rimac Concept One (beats me too) off a mountain in Switzerland. Clarkson and May feared their pal may have died.
I am an overly enthusiastic Brummie who sometimes overreaches himself and crashes
Poor Amanda Hammond. I have read that Richard's wife decreed she couldn't go through a similar trauma again. Three strikes...
“She would be a bit cross,” he says with more seriousness than the words suggests. “That last time on the Swiss mountain the car was upside-down. I knew I broke my leg and ribs and stuff. They stuck me to a spine-board. As the helicopter was starting up, I did say: ‘I need a telephone to call my wife.’ So they got me one. ‘Mindy, you’re going to see this on social media fairly soon. I just need you to know here I have run checks on my own head. I can remember the date and so on. So, all right. It’s nothing that won’t mend.’ But I don’t want to do that again. There would be a sense-of-humour loss. It would be disrespectful.”
He’s still here, petrolheads. This month The Grand Tour Presents: Lochdown, a feature-length special, sends the three mouthketeers (if they can pun, then so can we) on a journey to the wilds of Scotland. They test out American classic cars. They attempt to drive across a loch. They make gags about the awful weather. You know the deal. I am a non-driving democratic socialist, but I still laughed quite a bit. How much happened as it appears to happen on screen?
“For whatever reason, when we work together as a team, stuff happens,” Hammond says. “We’re very lucky in that 20 years ago, we effectively invented a show that celebrates and embraces failure. When things happen that would be a disaster on other shows we are trying hard to suppress a natural urge to scream: ‘Yes!’”
And is the relationship between the three men as we see it on screen? Hammond is the reckless “hamster”. May is the lumbering old fogey. Jeremy Clarkson has established such a durable on-screen persona – brash and jingoistic – that we need only describe him as “Clarksonian”.
“We are the same off-screen,” Hammond says. “If you see us driving away from the set we are the same – the rivalries and the squabbles and the points that we share. That’s how it works. For me, it became really clear when we moved over to making these big specials. It meant we wouldn’t see each other for a lot longer. And as soon as we get back in front of a camera, it’s like a state of mind that we go straight into. It’s there waiting for us.”
But what about Clarkson? There is something of the bully about his behaviour onscreen. And not just there. In 2015, the BBC suspended him from Top Gear after he was found to have punched producer Oisin Tymon following a disagreement about catering. Clarkson's contract with the broadcaster was not renewed and the trio ultimately decamped to Amazon. Is the version of Clarkson in The Grand Tour the real man?
“He’s a big, loud, bouncy bully and buffoon in the film,” Hammond says. “We are all a bit caricatured in the show. Television does that. Yeah. It makes you a bit fatter and it exaggerates your character. I am an overly enthusiastic Brummie who sometimes overreaches himself and crashes. James does move a bit more slowly. Jeremy is very boisterous. But we are a bit caricatured.”
Following their pal’s defenestration, May and Hammond made it clear that they would not be returning to Top Gear. Whatever you think of Clarkson or of the series, that definitely showed loyalty. (Mind you, the budget for The Grand Tour is said to be staggering.) Were they ever tempted to set Clarkson loose?
When I was initially in recovery, the doctor said one of the problems is what they call 'lost-keys syndrome'. Years later I'd lose my keys and I'd think: it's because of my brain injury. But, no, I'd just lost my keys
“No, because the show we make is the show that you get when you put us together,” he says. “That’s the show that comes out. We weren’t all working at the same factory – the factory is what you get when you put us together. If I had split off and done my own thing it wouldn’t have been that show. And I wanted to do that show.”
Top Gear, of course, continued. The BBC owned the name and was not going to cull a cash cow. It still attracts respectable ratings, but, fronted by the likes of Matt Le Blanc, Andrew Flintoff and Chris Evans, it has never regained its post-millennial buzz. Has Hammond watched it?
“I get asked that a lot and I understand that,” he says. “If you add up us together and add an equal sign that is the show that you get. So I watch what we do all the time and we are still doing it.” Make of that evasion what you will.
It is worth pondering the bizarre prehistory of Top Gear. The title began way back in 1977 as a consumer show in which presenters such as Angela Rippon and Noel Edmonds soberly tested Hillman Imps in the quieter streets of West Hampstead. Everything changed with the reinvention in 2002. A delayed effusion of 1990s lad culture, the show now featured amateur racing, endless male joshing and absurd stunts such as "caravan conkers" – which really did involve playing that schoolyard game with suspended mobile homes. Raised in Solihull, originally a radio journalist, Hammond, who had been doing motoring reviews on satellite TV, suddenly found himself at the centre of a phenomenon. The show spawned books, record albums and massive live shows. It sold all around the world. It was as if someone had turned Gardeners' World into an international franchise. Does he remember when the penny dropped that they had a sensation on their hands?
“There was a definitive moment for me,” he says. “We had done a series with cut-price Italian supercars. I was in a Ferrari GT4. We pulled into a petrol station and people came out and they just reacted differently. They were talking to us about what the others were doing. I’d done car shows before. Jeremy and James had done Top Gear before. But that’s when I thought: now, this is a bit different.”
The accident in 2006 was a defining moment for Hammond and the show. Some speculated that he might not return or that the show itself might be in trouble. But he seems to have had no reservations about getting back into the driving seat.
“I didn’t consider stopping. No,” he says. “I have worked in broadcasting for 33 years and I have been unbelievably lucky. My work has given me everything. So, I wouldn’t walk away from that.”
After that first crash, Hammond did admit to issues with his memory.
“When I was initially in recovery, because it was a frontal lobe injury, the doctor said one of the problems is what they call ‘lost-keys syndrome’. Years later I’d lose my keys and I’d think: it’s because of my brain injury. But, no, I’d just lost my keys. I’m 51. Now, I regularly go into a room and I can’t remember what I went into it for. But I no longer think: oh god, my brain isn’t working.”
Well, that comes to us all. Still, Hammond is of an age to zoom around for some time to come. Twenty years ago, when he was barely out of his 20s, Top Gear already played like a middle-aged man’s diversion. But May is 58. And Clarkson is into his seventh decade. They can’t keep this up forever.
“I don’t know,” he says. “I’d like to enter this next phase as a voyage of adventure and discovery. We’re not desperate here. No, we’re not desperate.”
The Grand Tour Presents: Lochdown is available to stream on Amazon Prime from July 30th