Richard Hammond

It’s six months since his car came off the road at 120mph and burst into flames during the filming of The Grand Tour. Now Richard Hammond is haunted by the knowledge that his daughters might have grown up without him. By Nigel Farndale

You would imagine that “having an excessive fondness for your wife” is a condition so obscure it would not have a name, yet it does. Uxoriousness. I mention it because I don’t think I’ve ever met a man quite as uxorious as Richard Hammond.

His wife is called Mindy and he refers to her often as we sit in the back of his chauffeur-driven Mercedes on the two-hour drive from Heathrow to what he calls his “stupid pretend castle” in Herefordshire. And later, when we get there, I find myself walking in on them when he is greeting her with a big hug in their low and oak-beamed kitchen, even though he has only been away for one night. He calls her Mindy Moo.

She is 52, has long blonde hair, is 5ft 2in tall and is wearing wellies, having just come in from doing the horses, or perhaps the sheep – something rustic, anyway. He is five years younger, five inches taller, is still going through a leather jacket phase and has a David Brent-style goatee he claims is not dyed. They have been married since 2002 – the year Hammond joined Top Gear – but were going out together for seven years before that. She is, then, long-suffering in the sense of being married to someone who keeps having crashes that ought, by the laws of physics and probability, to be fatal.

The first was in 2006 when his jet-powered dragster left an airstrip at 300mph and he was in a coma for two weeks. The second happened in June this year and will feature in the new series of The Grand Tour, which is released on Amazon’s streaming service this Friday.

He was doing a timed hill climb in Switzerland in a £2 million electric supercar when it came off on a corner at 120mph and rolled several hundred feet back down, an experience he compares to being inside a tumble dryer full of bricks. He remained conscious but thought he was going to die, and then he realised the car was about to burst into flames and managed to scramble out seconds before it did.

As we are driving to his house he makes light of all this, in that “It was only a scratch” way men do when there are other men around. With a tap of his right knee, he says, “Got a metal plate in here. Ten pins holding the tibia and the plateau together and, because it is a weight-bearing part of the knee, that will need replacing. The main downside is I’ve been told I can’t run for a year and, when I do, my knee will go.”

He thinks the ordeal was worse for the director, Phil Churchward. “I thought we had wrapped for the day, and then Phil asked me for one more take and I said, ‘You do realise,if you make me do this again, I’m boundto crash?’ ” says Hammond. “A minute later, the car was upside down at the bottom of a mountain and on fire. Poor Phil was in pieces. He came to see me in hospital that night and was a broken man.”

It might have been bad for his director, but I’m guessing Mindy didn’t exactly shrug off the accident either. Did she give him an ultimatum? “The only ultimatum I have had from her was when she said, ‘You’ve had your two strikes. I don’t want a third.’ ” He looks at me with large, unblinking brown eyes and deploys an expensive white smile. “Will it change me? Probably, yes. I will think, um, things can go wrong. This is a wake-up call for Mindy and me because it is a reminder of how lucky we are and how we don’t want to throw it all away. I need to reassess my view of risk slightly.”

Yet they had a similar talk in 2006 by a fireside in Scotland. “Recovering from a brain injury like that is difficult,” he says. “It’s about mood control and I was going through a phase of obsession, paranoia and compulsion, and I knew I could make myself a victim if I wasn’t careful. But Mindy and I said, ‘Let’s turn this into a good thing in our lives. Let’s take stock and appreciate what we have.’ ”

For all his blasé manner, Hammond admits that following the latest crash he is haunted by the thought that he might have left not only his wife as a widow, but his two teenage daughters without a father. “But I don’t feel like I am reckless,” he adds, “because I’m not. I learnt to fly helicopters and I was bloody cautious. Same with motorcycles, which I have ridden for 32 years. Occasionally, if you do enough of stuff, things will go wrong.”

I ask if it has made him superstitious, but apparently, it hasn’t. “The only superstition I have is that I always have a pee before I do something dangerous, because you don’t want a full bladder if you’re going to have an accident,” he says. “It can rupture and kill you. Plus, you look a bit of a nelly if they pull you out of the car and you’ve wet yourself.”

In their mocking, blokeish way, his co-presenters Jeremy Clarkson and James May have said that the crash happened because Hammond was too short to see over the steering wheel and that the surgery to his knee has left him “even shorter”, which is true, but only by 7mm. But even Clarkson seems to have been rattled by this latest crash, admitting it is the worst he has ever witnessed.

“The crash is a wake-up call for my wife Mindy and me. We don’t want to throw it all away”

Instead of hill running, which Hammond found therapeutic after his 2006 crash, he has taken up cycling to stay fit. That must be awkward, I say, given that Top Gear was always having a go at cyclists. “Well, yes, but only because cyclists are so stroppy,” he says. “Where did all the fury come from? I’m going to be a chilled cyclist.”

If “cyclists” became Top Gear shorthand for the PC brigade (as Hammond calls them) that they liked to wind up, then for the PC brigade, Top Gear became shorthand for bigotry. Hammond was one of the worst offenders when he described Mexicans as being, among other things, “lazy, feckless and flatulent”.

He now tells me this was a consequence of him playing a “sort of character” on the show. “That was really us taking the piss out of ourselves,” he says. “I was portraying a cartoon version of myself, the thick Brummie. The picture I painted of Mexicans belonged in a Road Runner cartoon. The laugh was on me because anyone watching would say, ‘He’s an idiot if he believes that.’ ”

With a sighing outbreath, he gives a shake of his head. “Look, it’s a difficult thing to carry off and sometimes it doesn’t work. I felt queasy about that one afterwards.”

While he accepts that with the “Clarkson, Hammond and May banter” there comes a degree of deliberate provocation and line-crossing to annoy people, he doesn’t always enjoy doing it. “The other two laugh at me for it, but I don’t enjoy being in trouble, I genuinely don’t,” he says. “We were in a ferry terminal once and they said, ‘Let’s jump the queue,’ and I said, ‘Actually, let’s not.’ ”

Clarkson did enjoy getting into trouble, however, and with each new transgression – such as his use of the word “slope”, which is a pejorative term for an Asian – there was an attempt at the BBC to get rid of him. The opportunity was eventually handed to his enemies on a plate of cold food when he punched an assistant producer.

Hammond is all too aware of the incongruity: that a BBC presenter who was hugely popular with the public – one million people signed a petition to have Clarkson reinstated on the show – was pretty much loathed by the bien pensants who actually run the BBC. “Yeah, yeah, I can see that the BBC is very good at twisting itself into knots like that,” he says. “The BBC needs to remember sometimes that it can’t be one view only. It can’t be homogenised. It has a duty to reflect the nation.”

The three amigos went to Amazon with a budget said to be not unadjacent to £160 million, but then, in the first series, came another comment that caused offence, this time to gay people, and this time from the mouth of Hammond. He said he didn’t eat ice cream and that this was “something to do with being straight”. It caused a Twitter storm.

Didn’t the complainants have a point? Don’t mocking comments like that from public figures belittle gay people and make it harder for them to come out? “It was certainly not what I set out to do,” he says carefully. “I wouldn’t want to cause genuine difficulty for anyone. But if it’s mock fury, pantomime fury, from people looking to take offence, then …” He trails off. “Look, anyone who knows me knows I wasn’t being serious, that I’m not homophobic. Love is love, whatever the sex of the two people in love. It may be because I live in a hideously safe and contained middle-class world, where a person’s sexuality is not an issue, but when I hear of people in the media coming out, I think, why do they even feel the need to mention it? It is so old-fashioned to make a big deal of it. That isn’t even an interesting thing to say at a dinner party any more.”

So he was making the comment in a spirit of the ironic, post-prejudice, testing-the-boundaries way that, say, Ricky Gervais might do it? “I don’t think I can claim it was as carefully crafted as that,” he says. “I’m not a comic, and when I try to be funny it bites me on the arse.”

I get the impression that, while Clarkson revels in being a hate figure to the liberal left, Hammond has no stomach for it. I mention another left-wing comedian, Stewart Lee, who based a whole section of one of his live shows on Hammond. It was not only funny, it was brutal. Lee characterised Hammond as a giggling, cowardly sidekick to the bullying Clarkson. Among the more printable comments was a description of Hammond as “a publicly funded cheerleader for mass ignorance”.

I ask if he finds such characterisations hurtful. “I don’t think Stewart Lee likes me very much,” he says with a grimace. “But if noise-makers are just making noise, I’m not interested. I don’t live in north London; I live in the countryside. I don’t join in with that. I don’t have an agenda. Feelings? Not in the sense of getting hurt, because my friends and family know me, and they know I can be an absolute idiot, as thick as a brick, but they also know I’m not necessarily the same as that public persona.”

“He’s more liberal than any caricature allows. He voted Remain and admires Jeremy Corbyn”

It is a disarmingly dignified answer. In person, Hammond comes across as chatty and cheerful, if a little prone to Alan Partridge-like self-aggrandisement. And while his self-deprecation may be a useful conceit – always mentioning his diminutive stature first, as well as his reputation for not being very bright – I do wonder what lies behind his insecurities.

He grew up in suburban Solihull, the eldest of three boys, one of whom became a teacher, the other a fund manager. Their father was a probate solicitor, their mother a charity consultant, and the family moved to Yorkshire when he was 15. But then, or so I have read, he was expelled from Ripon Grammar School. Is that true? “A bit,” he says. “I joined in the sixth form and didn’t bed in well, and after six months it was suggested that I might like to try somewhere else. Anywhere else.”

After that, he went to study audio-visual communication at Harrogate College of Art and Technology. “But I do wish I’d been to university,” he says. “I did get a place to study architecture as a mature student at Canterbury, but by then I was working in local radio and in debt so I couldn’t afford it. It was going to be seven years before I got to design a garage extension. I sometimes wonder where that other path might have led. It certainly wouldn’t have led me to Mindy’s doorstep, so I can’t regret it.”

They met at Renault, where he was working as an assistant press officer and she was in HR. “So it was very much an old-school office romance,” he says.

Nowadays, that would be a political minefield, I note. How did he manage it back then? “Well, I’m not very bold,” he says. “I fancied her tremendously. Everyone did. She was drawn like a cartoon of a ridiculously pretty girl. I got an invitation to the Doghouse Ball [a motor racing event] and I was scared to ask her, so I asked the boss’s chauffeur to ask her for me. She said yes and when I went to pick her up from her flat, her Irish friend Maggie answered the door and said over her shoulder to Mindy, ‘Sure, he’s never five-seven. He’s a diddy fecker.’ At the ball, there were cigarettes on the table and we smoked and drank and talked about blues music.”

A week after the ball, they met up to walk their dogs. “It was a lovely day and I turned around to see her catching up and I just thought, oh, there you go. That was it. I’d fallen in love. When you know, you know. Soulmate is a soppy word. It’s more the intertwining of your life with someone who makes it nicer. Mindy still surprises me.”

And they have been through much together. Mindy was, after all, in his life before Top Gear turned into a global monster with 350 million viewers worldwide. What was the mood like at home when it became apparent that Clarkson was going to be sacked? “It wasn’t a high point,” says Hammond. “There was a sense of ‘So, that’s that, then.’ James came over and we went out with Izzy, our older daughter, for Kentucky Fried Chicken, and James said, ‘I’ll pay,’ and I said, ‘No, I’ll pay,’ and Izzy said, ‘I should pay because neither of you has a job.’ ”

He thinks it was good for his daughters to hear their parents having one of those “What are we going to do now?” conversations. “I did think it could mean us having to move out and me having to go back to local radio,” he says. “We shared everything with the girls. They knew the amount of time we had before the money would run out.” Quite a long time, one imagines, given that Hammond is estimated to be worth £20 million, although he tells me he is not sure of “the numbers” himself.

It is a measure of his niceness that he resists the urge to rubbish his old show, which has struggled. Hammond says he likes it and that he thinks it will find its mark. “There is room in the world for more than one car show,” he says. “Look how many cookery shows there are.”

He thinks the secret of the success of Top Gear in his day and The Grand Tour now is “naughtiness”. He describes the formula as three middle-aged men driving about getting things wrong and sometimes catching fire and falling over. That and it being a family show. “With Top Gear, we were given the Sunday-night slot. It was a 50/50 male and female audience. With The Grand Tour, we have continued some of that sense of it being a family show, the trying not to swear.”

There have been one or two teething problems, but The Grand Tour seems to have lived up to expectations.

And the chemistry between the presenters still seems to work. When I ask what Clarkson’s most annoying habit is, Hammond thinks for a moment, then says, “The way he is.” He laughs at this and adds, “He can be grumpy, but we can all be. You cannot spend as much time together as we do without winding each other up and occasionally feeling homicidal. We don’t socialise together away from the show because we would never be apart if we did.”

He has noticed that when he is with a group of men, in a pub say, they tend to treat him in the same way that Clarkson and May treat him, as the butt of their jokes. “But that’s the great thing,” he says. “You bump into strangers and they engage with you as if they were part of the show. In terms of approachability, I think it helps that I’m small. Although I’m probably not as small as people imagine. I think they are sometimes disappointed when they see I’m not something out of a circus. Unlike Jeremy. He does belong in a circus. He’s ridiculously tall.”

For all his eagerness to be seen to fight back, I get the sense of there being an element of Stockholm syndrome about Hammond’s relationship with Clarkson and May. I suspect he is much more liberal than any caricature of him allows. He voted Remain and he admires Jeremy Corbyn. “I like that he makes noise and stands for something. We need more Corbyns, on both sides.”

At the faux castle, there is as impressive a collection of cars as you would expect, from an E-type Jag, Lagonda and Bentley to a Mustang, Porsche and Model A Ford. The vehicle he seems most fond of, though, is an old Land Rover Discovery that has 130,000 miles on the clock. “I do the school run in it and it’s full of hairbands and socks and books and notepads and food,” he says. “It’s a health hazard, which I don’t like driving at night because you hear things rustling. When it’s done, we’re going to take it out into a field and bury it.”

There are also 37 motorbikes, a reminder that, as a child, Hammond had motorbike wallpaper. There is also what he calls, in between vaping, “the campest man cave ever”. It’s true. As well as a beer cooler, it has a 19th-century blackamoor candelabra light fixture next to a baby grand piano. There is also an ornate love heart with the words “Richard and Mindy” written above and below it in coloured glass and shells.

As well as looking after all their cats, dogs, horses, donkeys, sheep and hens, Mindy writes a weekly newspaper column. She is also handy with a hairbrush and does Hammond’s hair by the Aga before our photoshoot. And while he is doing the shoot, she collects eggs to make him an omelette for his lunch. She seems to mother him, in other words, and perhaps that, after all his traumatic ordeals, is what he wants – and needs – the most.