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We interview Top Gear's Hamster

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Richard Hammond.

They are worshipped by car lovers around the world – now the Top Gear Team is on its way to SA.

The British crew – made up of Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond, James May and The Stig – will be in Durban soon for the Top Gear Festival debut.

The festival, which will be held at the Moses Mabhida Stadium in two weeks’ time, will include FMX bikes, donutting and flaming rally cars, as well as the Top Gear Live Stunt Driving Team’s hair-raising stunt manoeuvres.

The City of Durban will also have Top Gear’s first street circuit – over 2km long and winding through Durban’s streets. Spectators will see Stig power laps, head-to-head racing, supercars, drag racing, drifting, and celebrity race challenges.

The Saturday Star had an exclusive interview with Richard Hammond about his career as a Top Gear presenter.

What was your first car?

RH: My first car was a 1976 Toyota Corolla Liftback. It was red and I loved it. It had to die and eventually it did; I smeared it all down the side of a Volvo Estate and broke my heart at the same time. I’d love to be able to say you live and learn, but… well, I didn’t. Did I?

Did you pass your driving test first time?

RH: Nope. I failed on my first attempt when I ran through a red light. I came home to my parents’ house and stood by the window and, yes, wept like a baby. Passed it a few weeks later and didn’t look back. Or forwards, as much as perhaps I should.

Are you really a petrolhead – or is this just your character on TV?

RH: Yes, I am a petrolhead – always have been. My grandfather was a coach builder, working with wood, aluminium and leather to build cars the proper way – by hand. I dreamt of cars from when I first learnt to dream, and I still do. I got into Top Gear after 15 years of working in radio and on TV, eight of which were spent making small-time car shows for now defunct satellite channels.

Are men better drivers than women?

RH: Don’t be bloody ridiculous. Why would that be the case? I never have subscribed to that slack-jawed view – never will. And neither will my wife or two daughters.

You’ve been here a few times so you’ve had a chance to see how we (South Africans) drive. Are we rubbish?

RH: I’ve been to South Africa at least once a year for 10 years and love it there. And no, you’re not especially bad drivers. Well, there’s always the taxis…

Which country has the best drivers in the world and the worst?

RH: I’d say in countries such as Vietnam, Iraq and even Syria, drivers somehow navigate in an apparently chaotic maelstrom of seemingly uncontrolled and uncontrollable chaos with skill and aplomb, and without any apparent effort. They are all, I would say, brilliant drivers. I don’t especially like driving in London because people there will actually go out of their way to inconvenience you.

What’s your favourite car?

RH: I love a Porsche because they’re made to work, to be driven. Anyone collecting a brand-new 911 is told to bugger off and not come back until it’s done 32 000km, or in two years’ time. Now that is confidence that your machine – highly stressed and evilly abused though it may be – is fit for purpose, and I respect that.

Is it true that you are Top Gear’s sex object – at least in terms of fan mail from adoring women?

RH: As far as I know, we get no letters from adoring women. If you’re saying I’m seen as the best of a bad bunch, then thank you. Either way, it’s a joy when people feel compelled to write to us, whatever they want to say.

Are you a better driver than Jeremy and James? Would they agree?

RH: Oh, God, yes, I am and they would. They pretty much say that all the time, to everyone they meet. Except the press, so don’t believe them if you read anything to the contrary.

Where does Richard Hammond go from here, career-wise?

RH: I’ve been making TV and radio for 24 years and I love it more now than when I started. I love cars, too, and have been lucky enough to combine those two passions. I’m luckier still now because I have been able to do something I’ve wanted to do even before I learnt to love cars.

I have, over the past three years, been moving slowly towards making natural-history factual shows; I’ve just returned from working for four weeks in Kenya, making a series called Planet Earth Live and following the lives of elephants in The Samburu Reserve, lions in the Masai Mara, meerkats in the Kalahari and macaque monkeys in Sri Lanka.

Does your wife ever get tired of listening to you talk about cars?

RH: Yup, so she talks to me about horses and then we have a sort of stand-off and talk about something else. I’m glad, though, it’s healthy to each have our own interests and not give a rat’s arse about the other’s.

Besides cars, what is your other passion?

RH: Family. I am father to two young daughters, Izzy and Willow, aged 11 and eight. Leaving them and my wife, Mindy, behind when I set off on yet another trip is only possible because I know I’ll come home to them again. -Saturday Star


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