It shouldn't happen to a car journo

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You have to feel for him. Mark Hales had a fantastic job. He was a racing driver and journalist who travelled the world writing about his high-octane exploits for glossy car magazines.

He was among the most trusted names in the classic car world, then in 2009 he borrowed a classic Porsche 917 from ex-Formula One racing driver David Piper for a story, and it all went wrong.

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Le Mans-winning Porsche 917.Mark Hales in a Maserati Tipo 61 Birdcage.

After several runs around the Cadwell Park track the engine of the £1.25-million (R17.5m) sports car exploded, leaving Hale red faced and Piper with a busted 1969 Le Mans Porsche and a £50 000 (R700 000) repair bill.

The engine, further investigation showed, went bang due to an over-rev caused by a missed gear. Hales said it was a fault with the gearshift while Piper maintained it was driver error. The oily mess ended up in the courts and this week a judge sided with Piper and ordered Hales to pay £113 000 (R1.58m) in compensation and costs, a hefty sum that looks likely to bankrupt him.

With classic cars, most loans from private owners (unlike the manufactures who lend out new cars) are done by gentlemen's agreement in a fashion that dates back to the monochrome age when these wonderful machines were first raced. But Piper told the High Court that with his cars, “if you bend it, you mend it”. Hales, it seems, thought differently.

As The Independent's car reviewer I've driven my share of the latest super-fast sports cars and I can testify that I go cold at the thought of pranging one. Yes, it's a privilege (and if I'm honest, a real hoot) to test the latest Porsche or Aston Martin but it's a relief to swap it for a Ford or Skoda at the end of the week.

The most damage I've done is a mangled alloy on a Audi RS4 (sorry Audi!). I test new cars that are fully insured so aside from my professional pride it cost me nothing.

Hales though could well lose his house. I know hacks rarely deserve sympathy but I really feel for the poor guy. -The Independent

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