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22 March 2014

Jeremy on: rallying

Most people hate driving fast in the wet. Obviously. But Jeremy says Hammond has always been unusual…

Jeremy Clarkson
Car image



Is there anything on God's green earth as miserable as watching rallying? You wait around in a wet wood for hours until your lungs have frostbite, and then a Swede comes along and spits gravel in your face. You can't sit down. There's nothing to eat. Your girlfriend is moaning. Everyone else in the wood is a murderer. And there's no overtaking. It's just one car. Then a bit of discomfort. Then another car. Then it goes dark. Then there's some headlights. And then some more. And then one of the murderers murders your girlfriend.

So you go to the end of the stage, where there is a lot of noise and many men with one tooth, standing about watching other men in corporate-branded clothing change the gearbox on a Ford Focus. If this is something you find interesting, why not spend some of your life in the waiting room of your local Kwik Fit? At least you can sit down in there, and there are often tea and coffee-making facilities.

I hate watching rallying. But it could be worse. Because instead of watching the cars go by, you could be driving them. On snow or ice or gravel, we all know that a car will not stop or steer. And yet rally cars do both of these things. That means the whole thing is sorcery, and the people who do the driving must be witches.

I remember well the first time I drove a proper Group A turbocharged 4WD rally car. It was up a hill, in a wood in Wales, and there were many trees. The men in corporate-branded clothing strapped me into the seat very tightly and explained what all of the levers did, but I couldn't hear above the sound of my own heartbeat.

I set off, gingerly, and arrived quite soon at the first corner. I turned the wheel, but the car continued to go straight on. So I braked. And this made no difference, either. The car maintained its speed and direction as though I wasn't there. And then it fell in a ditch.

Of course it did. Because you can only drive a car when you are under the influence of kinetic friction. And in rallying, there isn't any. There wasn't any on our track last week, either. I was in the new BMW M135i, and it was absolutely pouring down. One of our professional drivers came into the office, having been getting some pickup shots, saying I needed to be super-careful on the straight, because the damn thing was aquaplaning all over the place.

Those words were ringing in my ears minutes later when, at 210kph, the rear end snapped sideways, and I became what Martin Brundle amusingly calls "a passenger", and one on his way to the scene of an accident. It was a very long journey. I left the track just past Chicago, and even though I was fully on the brakes by this point, the car wasn't really slowing down at all. At a guess, I'd say I was still doing a hundred as I approached that bit of track between the second-to-last corner and Gambon. "Uh-oh,"

I thought, "if I hit the tarmac here, while going sideways, this thing could roll." Obviously, then, I needed to do something to make sure I was not going sideways when I hit the tarmac. But on wet grass, this is not possible unless you are a Scandinavian witch. And I'm not.

It was blind luck that put me across the track backwards, and then I was back on the grass, heading towards the fuel bowsers that these days are used mostly for topping up James May's Tiger Moth. Luck kept me away from those as well, and I eventually ended up half a mile from where the problem had first arisen. Half a mile! That's why I hate driving when I'm not in control. That's why I hate rallying.

Luckily, I have an imagination. When I am driving a car quickly, my head is consumed by negative waves. I wonder what would happen if a wheel fell off or the brakes failed or the steering wheel jammed. This is all-consuming in the high-mu world of a dry track. But in the middle of a forest on a track so slippery even a horse would fall over, it means I rarely go faster than 6kph. That's why my rural accidents tend to be small.

And that brings me neatly on to m'colleague, Richard Hammond. I hope I'm not being disloyal, but when the sun is out and the weather's warm and he is presented with lots of juicy friction to play with, he is a bit of a spanner. Oh, he can get a car's tail to slide with the best of them, but when it comes to the business of gathering it all up with an armful of opposite lock and a balanced throttle, he does often need the services of TopGear's editing machines.

I watch him sometimes fishtailing about the place in a flurry of curses, sweat and flailing arms and think, "Perhaps he's been stung by a bee." However, it's interesting. When you take away the friction, he is transformed into a driving god. Give him a Bowler Wildcat and a quarry, and it's like watching poetry in motion. Then there was the time when we were filming an item on Lancias. We were in Wales, and he needed to drive (I think it was a Morris Marina) round a special stage. Well, in his hands, even though it had a piano on the roof, it became a Peugeot 205 T16.

More recently, we were filming a segment for this year's Christmas DVD, and we arrived at a special stage in France. He had a Nissan 350Z. And I had a BMW Z4. And not to put too fine a point on it, he lapped me on lap one. Three times. On a track, I could kick his arse from here all the way to the middle of western Australia. But in a wood, it is the other way round. And I've been wondering. Why is this?

Some might argue that he lives near Wales, where there is a great deal of rain and very little in the way of actual roads. So he is used to slithering to the shops and drifting to the dry cleaners. If they have such things down there. But he grew up in Birmingham, where there is no mud or gravel or countryside of any kind. So it's not like he came out of the womb with his arms crossed and a Swedish accent.

What else, then? Well certainly, it has nothing to do with a lack of imagination. He's quite a sensitive sausage, and I daresay his big accident lives quite prominently in the frontal part of his lobes. He is not possessed with great co-ordination, either. If you watch him playing snooker, you quickly form the impression that there's something wrong with him. And you think much the same thing when he's at the oche. Until he accidentally throws a dart into your eye.

So. In the wise words of Sherlock Holmes, when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. Richard Hammond is a witch.

Tags: rallying, jeremy clarkson

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