As I write, Top Gear presenter Richard Hammond is recovering in hospital after an accident that nearly claimed his life. Hammond lost control of a jet-powered car while traveling at more than 300 mph on a runway in the north of England. The car spun and then flipped, subjecting his body to forces of more than 100g. His condition was initially described as critical, but five days after the crash, he is taking tentative steps and talking. The signs are looking good.
Ironically, I was in the Faroe Islands shooting a Lamborghini for Top Gear magazine when the accident happened and, even in this tiny north Atlantic community, the story was big news. The Top Gear TV show has become such a global success story-the worldwide audience is now more than 500 million-that the accident was inevitably going to have widespread repercussions.
Within minutes of the news becoming public, the BBC was peppering my cellphone with requests for an interview. In the modern world, news needs to be instant and gratifying. Every day, all manner of 'talking head' experts are dredged up to pontificate on all manner of subjects. Normally I am happy to oblige, but not this time. Not only did I not know for sure how poorly Hammond was, but I didn't know all the facts about what had happened.
Others were not so reticent. Within hours, the global media was being besieged by 'expert' opinions from has-beens, never-weres and never-will-bes. People who know nothing about television, nothing about the car and nothing about the event were calling it crazy and foolhardy. Even some whose opinion I'd normally respect were getting in on the act. Sir Richard Noble-the British land speed record breaker-popped up to tell us that you had to be superhuman to attempt such a thing. Sadly for Sir Richard, his words sounded dangerously like an advert for Noble Inc. rather than a genuine contribution to the debate.
People started to talk about who was to blame, which is when the dreaded words Health and Safety first reared their ugly heads. It was announced that a full investigation into the accident would take place in conjunction with the Health & Safety Executive. The implication was clear-somebody must have been at fault. The health and safety situation in the UK is now just as bad as it is in the US. I was at a wedding recently where the waiters refused to serve champagne on the grass for fear of contravening Health & Safety regulations. If these people can legislate against the pouring of fizzy grape juice, then imagine their glee when they are asked to investigate a jet car crash.
Top Gear has become the success it has precisely because it pushes the boundaries. Thanks to some incredibly talented people and a healthy budget, it has been able to indulge in the kind of capers to which most people reading this magazine aspire. It is car porn: when one of the presenters clambers into the latest Ferrari and thrashes it around the test track, we are in the cockpit with him. We wanted Hammond to drive the jet car because we wanted 'our mate' to tell us what it's like to do 300 mph on tarmac. We live the dream by proxy.
The show is full of bravado, but it's not reckless. Behind every stunt is a massive support crew. They work to minimize the risks, even if they cannot ever be totally eliminated. I cannot claim to be a friend of Hammond's-I knew him better a few years ago than I do now-but I know him well enough to know that he lived for these pranks.
That much I can empathize with. A few years ago, I crashed at 150 mph on the same airfield while trying to break the world land speed record for blindfold driving. It was a relatively modest accident that destroyed the front left corner of a Jaguar XKR, but it could have been much bigger. Nevertheless, I returned six weeks later in an Audi S8 to break the record. I won an award for my endeavor and the certificate hangs proudly in my downstairs toilet.
The whole point for me, and one suspects for Hammond too, was that I'd chosen to make the attempt. I'd willingly signed all the disclaimers that Jaguar had to offer, donned my blacked-out helmet and clambered into the car knowing that what I was doing was a bit silly. If something major had gone wrong-as it very nearly did-then I'd only have had myself to blame. That was my risk and I was happy to take it.
For the Health & Safety types, this will never be acceptable. For them, there will never be such a thing as 'an accident' and people who think that taking risks is an appropriate human activity must be saved from themselves. Theirs is a wholly negative vision and it will be a tragedy if this sad incident furthers their cause.