James May

Richard Hammond on a stretcher after his accident

Richard Hammond

Considering we have so little in common, it’s a wonder Richard Hammond and I get on so famously.

Richard Hammond is happy to drink lager, while I prefer brown beer made with soil and think anything bottom-fermented usually has a detrimental effect on precisely that area. Especially his. Hammond, absolutely and unequivocally, cannot cook a single thing, whereas I quite enjoy knocking off the odd pie or fry-up. He is strangely inept at any sort of bar game, while I’m reasonably good at darts and pool, and he knows even less about football than I do, which must make his the least encyclopedic knowledge of the game ever recorded.

Hammond lives in the countryside and likes rolling around in mud. I think the countryside is something you have to drive through in order to get to another city.

But here’s a better example. Richard Hammond likes fighting. He really does. He was once bitterly disappointed that he wouldn’t be able to take part in a proposed boxing programme called something like ‘I’m a celebrity, get me in the ring and see if I can last three rounds’. I believe he also once had a ‘friendly fight’ with someone inside a pick-up truck.

In Hammond’s ideal world, all the pub furniture in Britain would be made from balsa wood and all the windows from boiled sugar, so we could all have a big brawl in the evening without doing any serious damage. In truth, he should have been in the army. The gurkhas, perhaps.

Meanwhile – and I think Clarkson’s with me on this one – I hate fighting, largely because I’m very bad at it. Even in a world where quite a few people seem to want to punch me in the face, I will still do everything within my considerable diplomatic power to talk my way out of a scrap. This is why it’s quite good hanging around with Hammond, because if I fail to disarm my enemies with tact, I can always set the world’s hardest hamster on them. In return, I once negotiated his escape from a pub in which he’d almost started a fight with six off-duty American marines. Pillock.

Up to a point, Richard Hammond even seems to quite like taking a knock. I remember one of numerous bicycle expeditions we’ve undertaken on the riverside paths near my house. On one of these, inevitably, he fell off very dramatically at a point where I’d just managed to stay on. He cut his knee and skinned his knuckles quite badly. And I’ve rarely seen a man more pleased with himself.

Here’s another. Last year, I learned to fly a light aeroplane. This involves a lot of dry classroom learning, numerous written exams, a lot of mental arithmetic, quite a bit of form-filling and, of course, the notorious pre-flight checks. Hammond admits that he quite likes the idea of flying, but couldn’t be bothered with all that. The checks, in particular, sent him into a steaming rage and he never had the good grace, at the end of our Bugatti-vs-aeroplane race, to thank me that the wings hadn’t fallen off.

“The ascent of Everest probably didn’t advance humankind’s lot, but we’re still glad that someone did it”  

On the other hand, he’d quite like to jump out of the aeroplane and parachute to earth, whereas I can’t imagine anything more pointless. To my way of thinking, the Wright brothers did not toil thanklessly in their bicycle shop and miserable hut at Kitty Hawk so that I could one day step out of the door at 3,000 feet. Hammond probably thinks that the gift of flight was granted for exactly that purpose.

That’s the essential difference between us. Hammond is something of a thrill-seeker, and I’m not. The odd lap with the Stig is great fun, I enjoyed trying to max the Bentley Flying Spur in the desert, and I even quite liked the frankly alarming rally-car ride in the bobsleigh-vs-car film Hammond and I made. I am not, as the other two suggest, completely averse to high speed, it’s just that I don’t lie awake craving this sort of thing. I suspect he does.

So when I was told that I wouldn’t, after all, be driving the jet car, I didn’t exactly have a tantrum. I admit I was a bit disappointed, because I quite liked the idea of Captain Slow being the fastest man on Top Gear. I also thought a jet car would be technically intriguing, since I’m quite interested in jet engines and it would introduce me to a whole new world of truly delectable pre-flight checks.

But when the Vampire became available, I wasn’t. So Hammond got the job instead. This sort of thing happens all the time, and it meant that I’d be doing the piece on the performance of the Bugatti Veyron. And that wouldn’t exactly be a three-car diesel group test.

And, at the time, it seemed appropriate to do the swap. The Veyron film would require a certain amount of nerdiness, which I’m good at, and in the end it’s just a conventional car. The Vampire is something not many people will ever get to drive, and required someone who would rise to the ‘outside-of-the-envelope’ moment. That’s what Hammond’s good at. That’s why we freeze him and expose him to electric shocks; push him to the borders of the unknown and then sit back and await his report. I would have borne the jet-car experience with as much fortitude as I could muster, but Hammond’s brain would be awash with whichever chemical it is that makes his eyes go all poppy.

And then the demons were unleashed, and with them a torrent of sanctimonious questions from navel-gazing miserablists who enjoy saying, ‘I warned you’. They want to apportion blame – to the BBC, to the people who produce Top Gear, to me and Jeremy, to the people who built the car – and cannot accept that Hammond was the victim of that most unpredictable of possible consequences that haunts all human endeavour, and which, were it always considered, would have locked us in the stone age; an accident. Despite everything I’ve said above, I’ve spent enough time with Hammond to know he’d have done everything properly and treated the Vampire drive very, very seriously. I suspect he’d have found that tiresome, but he would have done it. He’s feisty and he’s up for it, but he’s not an idiot.

And just think: if everything had gone to plan, we’d have come back to the studio and applauded Richard Hammond for the size of his balls. Just because it went wrong doesn’t mean we should applaud that any less. Someone has pointed out that 300mph in a jet-powered car doesn’t actually achieve anything. So? The ascent of Everest probably didn’t advance humankind’s lot, but we’re still glad that someone did it. And the people who did that were people a bit like Richard Hammond.

This is what makes him good to watch on your television. More importantly, I now realise, it’s also what makes him such good company. Get well soon, mate.


James May, Column, Richard Hammond

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