Clarkson on: luck
Without any question or shadow of doubt, I am the luckiest man alive today. With nothing but half a qualification in journalism and the engineering ability of a sparrow, I have become a motoring journalist. Which, along with being a meteorological officer in the Sahara Desert, is possibly one of the easiest jobs in the world.
What’s more, I don’t know what people mean when they say they can’t find a free parking space, because there’s always an empty meter right outside where I want to be, and it’s always jammed on 38 minutes. Then there’s my driving licence which has been totally clean since 1989.
This doesn’t mean I drive around at 23mph, with a fish on the back of the car. What it means is that I only encounter those mobile speed-detector vans, just after I’ve dropped something on the floor and slowed down so it can be retrieved safely.
Traffic reports are meant for you. Not me. That bird on Radio Two will say that the M40 has been eaten by a dinosaur but when I get there, he’s just put it back. And it never rains on my holidays.
There is, however, a downside to this good fortune. You may remember, for instance, that I recently drove a Ferrari 612 from the Top Gear studio to a ski resort called Verbier in Switzerland.
It was all part of a big televised race against James and Hamster, who would be making exactly the same journey using trains to Heathrow, a plane to Geneva, and then the fearsomely reliable Swiss public transport to the heart of the Alps.
The figures suggested the boys would win by about half an hour. But I actually overtook them, after 11 hours on the go, literally just a few hundred meters from the finishing post.
This looked silly, like the whole thing had been rigged. And it was the same story when I tried to drive an Audi A8 all the way from London to Edinburgh and then back again, on one tankful of diesel. Of course, the car made it back to the starting point and was found to have no fuel at all in the tank, and just a dribble in the pipes.
And then there was the Land Rover expedition to the top of Mount Tongue in Scotland. Had it rained, I never would have made it, but it didn’t. So I did. And then there was the other race, between the Aston Martin DB9 and the new fast trains through France. Of course, I won that too, with moments to spare. And talking of moments to spare, I tried to drive a Jaguar S-Type diesel round the Nürburgring in under 10 minutes. Needless to say, on my very last attempt, I managed it in 9 minutes and 59 seconds.
If anyone ever asks what two things have made Top Gear such a success in recent years, I’d have to say it’s: a) the producer, Andy Wilman and b) my phenomenal personal luck.
One day, though, the fortune fairy will find another pair of shoulders on which to hang out. One day, we’ll film something that doesn’t work. And then we’ll be left with nothing. A story where the car doesn’t make it up the mountain, where it runs out of fuel in Watford, where it gets beaten by the plane. And then what?
“One day the fortune fairy will fly away. One day we'll film something that doesn’t work. Then what?”
All of this occurred to me on that extraordinary drive in the 612. When James called to say he and Richard had landed in Switzerland and were boarding a train, I had just gone past a sign saying ‘Dijon 180km’. And the correct address for Dijon is ‘Dijon. Nowhere near Switzerland. France’.
A spot of mental arithmetic resulted in some alarming news. They were 250 miles ahead and with the best will in the world, the best luck and 540hp, that looked like an unjumpable gap.
This meant I was faced with the prospect of losing and that, in turn, meant I had to start thinking about a meaningful and worthwhile conclusion for the piece. Some snappy little piece to camera which would make the car escape from its defeat with some dignity, and give the viewer a sense that they hadn’t just wasted 20 minutes. That seemed like an even bigger task than winning.
It was on the motorway, just outside Besancon that the solution began to spawn. If those guys got to Verbier before me, I’d just keep right on going. I’d just drive and drive until the tyres burst and my Visa card exploded. This, I reckon, would have happened somewhere in Jordan.
I’d then climb out and claim I’d been having so much fun, I really didn’t want the journey to end. This would have made their victory hollow, and as an added bonus, it would’ve stuck to the central principal of journalism. It would have been true. Because that 612 is something else.
I’d actually campaigned long and hard to use something else for the trip. I made enquiries about getting hold of a Ford Lightning pickup, or a Bentley Arnage; something with a bit of character, something I could get excited about.
The Ferrari, on paper, didn’t blow my frock up. It costs £70,000 more than a Continental and on the face of it, it’s hard to see why. They have the same number of doors and seats, they have the same performance, and they have big name badges.
What’s more, in photographs, the 612 really looks like a butchered ape. Its eyes are too piggy and what are those scallops doing down the side? It looks like a mess. And then the rattle started. It turned out that some dozy ha’porth had bent one of its wiper arms which was responding by buzzing whenever the speed went past ‘x’ mph, which it would have to do if I wanted to win.
And on top of all this, it’s a Ferrari, which was alright in the days when they went wrong all the time, and waved their arms around. But now, they’re so reliable, and so complete, it’s like driving the love child of Pete Sampras and Michael Schumacher. In essence, modern Ferraris are boring.
That said, on those long, car-free motorways in northern France, this dullness was something to be welcomed. The 612 cruised effortlessly, and apart from the buzzing wiper, in sepulchral silence. The ride was good, the seat was comfortable and the driving position, just so. Only when pulling away from toll booths or petrol stations did it behave like a supercar. There was a muted roar, and a definite sense that this was one quick car.
When I got to the Alps however, the whole thing turned round completely. It became a very quick car, that gave of a sense that it could also do motorway cruising as well. On that switchback road, with ice on the inside of every bend and sheer drops on the outside, it became the fastest, and most exciting four seater I’ve ever driven.
I began to feel that I couldn’t lose. If I won, I was going to prove that public transport was useless. And if I lost, I was going to keep on going. All the way to… I fancied Petra, to be honest.
This is one of those cars that sneaks up on you. It leaves you cold until you’ve become properly acquainted. Then, I suspect, nothing else would do.
I feel lucky to have spent so much time with it. Furthermore, I have the sense that I’ve driven a car that gets very close to motoring perfection.