Richard Hammond Back Behind The Wheel

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13 November 2006 - Hammond gets back behind the wheel

British 'Top Gear' presenter Richard Hammond has got back behind the wheel of a car for the first time since suffering a brain injury in a high-speed car crash.

The presenter was injured when the jet-powered car he was testing for the series crashed at a speed of 288 miles per hour.

Hammond told reporters that he had to endure two hours of complex mental tests before getting back his driving licence.

"I will remember this day for the rest of my life. Now I feel more like me. As soon as I got back into the driving seat it felt like I was back where I belonged," he said.

"It was wonderful to be away from everything, being able to tootle around the lanes in the foothills of the Malverns in Gloucestershire on a sunny Sunday afternoon."

Hammond joked that his fellow presenters on 'Top Gear' would be sure to tease him about doing his driving test again. "I am expecting to see a set of L-plates in the post any day," he said.

At approximately 5:45pm BST on 20 September 2006, Hammond was seriously injured in a car crash while filming for Top Gear at the former RAF Elvington airfield near York. He was piloting a jet-powered Vampire car, which is theoretically capable of travelling at 370mph.

According to some sources, he was not attempting to break the British Land Speed Record, however this contradicts a statement given by the owner of 'Event Fire Services' which was hired to provide safety cover. He was said to be travelling at 288mph at the time of the crash. He was taken to the specialist neurological unit of the Leeds General Infirmary.

Sky News and BBC News report that he was driving a Vampire jet car powered by a Rolls Royce Orpheus Turbo-Jet Engine, one of a pair built by then driver, Keiran Westman; the very same car that currently holds the British landspeed record at 300.3 mph (480.48 km/h). Primetime Land Speed Engineering have now denied reports that Hammond was making an attempt to break the land speed record, although telemetry on one of the runs did suggest that he had reached 300mph (480 kmh).

According to witnesses, Hammond was completing a final run to collect extra footage for the programme when "One of the parachutes had deployed but it went on to the grass and spun over and over before coming to a rest about 100 yards (90 m) from us." When rescuers arrived at the car it was upside down and "dug in" to the grass. Rescuers felt a pulse and heard Hammond, who was unconscious, breathing before the car was turned right way up. Hammond was cut free, put in a neck brace and placed on a stretcher before the air ambulance arrived. "He was regaining consciousness at that point and said he had some lower back pain".

ITV News reported that Hammond had broken the British land speed record and was on a last run, filming extra scenes for Top Gear, when the accident took place. Hammond's family stayed with him at the hospital, along with Top Gear representatives who were there when the accident took place, as well as Top Gear co-presenters James May and Jeremy Clarkson. Jeremy Clarkson is quoted by the BBC as saying "Both James and I are looking forward to getting our 'hamster' back.", referring to Hammond by his nickname.

A quote from Dave Ogden from Event Fire Services, present at the scene of the accident, as broadcast on Sky News that evening: "He was just doing the final run of the day - I don't know quite what happened - but the parachute deployed. There was quite a lot of smoke and the car veered off to the right and on to the grass, and it overturned several times and it came to a halt a couple of hundred yards in front of us."

Treatment and recovery

BBC reports suggest that he was air-lifted from the crash scene drifting in and out of consciousness. North Yorkshire Police said that they "received a report via the fire service of a male person trapped in an overturned jet car which had been driven on the airfield."

The doctor treating Hammond announced on 21 September that he had a "significant brain injury" but he was reasonably optimistic he would make a good recovery.

Hammond was visited several times in hospital after the crash by co-presenter Jeremy Clarkson and responded well to conversations with him. He even managed a smile after Clarkson jokingly said the reason he crashed was because he was such a 'crap driver'. It also became clear that Hammond's co-presenter James May was originally supposed to be driving the car. May explained later that a leaked shooting schedule made weeks before the incident was changed due to scheduling conflicts. After visiting Hammond in the hospital, May remarked: "I was chuffed to see him and although he's muttering, he seems much like the irritating little shit I know and love. Even when he can't say much, he seemed to make as much sense as he does when he can talk normally...Having seen him today I do believe Richard will make a full recovery from this awful crash and, when he's back on his feet, I'm looking forward to going down to the pub with him.".

Hammond's condition was downgraded from "serious but stable" to "stable" on the morning of 22 September, when he was moved out of intensive care. On the same day ITV News reported that Hammond was conscious and was talking to friends and family. In the early hours of 22 September, Hammond took his first steps (he got up and went to the toilet), just 30 hours after the crash, according to Jeremy Clarkson, and was moved to a general ward on 23 September. His severe injury reduced him to a "child-like state" in which he became obsessed with LEGO bricks, which he said helped him recover.

On 26 September and 27 September Hammond was reported to be improving so well he would be moved to a hospital nearer his home in Gloucestershire. On 28 September he was airlifted from Leeds General Infirmary to the BUPA hospital in Clifton, Bristol, to be closer to his home in Gloucestershire. His neurologist estimated a full-recovery time of 6 months.

It was reported that Hammond wanted the new series of Top Gear, as scheduled, to go ahead in October and also that he wished that the footage of the crash/race to be shown.

Rumours started to circulate after Hammond's crash that Top Gear was going to be axed, but this was clarified by the BBC when they announced on 6 October that Top Gear was still in production for its new series, although it will only air when Hammond is fully recovered and able to participate in the programme. BBC also announced on 6 October that they are producing a special programme on Hammond's crash that will show the footage filmed on the day.

A charity appeal in aid of the Yorkshire Air Ambulance was established shortly after the accident. Initially the money was to be used to fund day-to-day running costs of the helicopter. However on 24 September, due to the generosity of the public, the chief executive of the air ambulance trust announced the money would be used to procure a second helicopter.

In a series of articles published on 23 October he described what he remembered of the accident, and his recovery so far. At the time, he was preparing to return home after five weeks, though he had been originally told that he would be hospitalised for fifteen months. His wife told her story in an article published on 24 October 2006.

On 1 November 2006, Jeremy Clarkson and James May received the National Television Award for best factual programme on behalf of 'Top Gear' and announced that Richard Hammond is 'back to normal' and made jokes about his bad driving. I Told You If One Of Us Crashed We'd Win This - Jeremy Clarkson at the National Television Awards.

On 12 November 2006 he was back behind the wheel for the first time after the accident. He chose his Morgan, the classic British sports car, ahead of the other motors in his garage, which included a Porsche, vintage Mustang and a Range Rover, and took things at a slow pace, not venturing above 50mph.

By Clare Raymond And Victoria Ward

ONLY the bloodshot white of his left eye gives any sign of how close Richard Hammond came to death after crashing a jet car at 288mph.

Speaking for the first time of the horror smash just 33 days ago, the Top Gear star and columnist said: "I was upside down inhaling a field. My nose and eyes were full of earth. I'd gone ploughing on my head.

"My very last thought was 'Oh bugger, that's gone wrong. Well, we're checking out now. You've had it'.

"I was aware of my brain saying 'We'll wave the flag' - and that was the point I passed out. Doctors use a point system. Fifteen is normal, three is a flatline. I was a three. I was that close to being dead.

"I was in a bad way when they came to get me. The air ambulance guys were amazed I was still breathing.

"Next thing I know I'm coming to in hospital. As far as I'm aware, I got into a car in York and woke up in Leeds."

Richard, 36, crashed his Vampire car at Elvington airfield, York, about a month ago. Astonishingly, the man nicknamed "Hamster" is now ready to return home.

Talking to reporters at a secret hideaway where he is recovering with his wife Mindy, 35, and daughters Izzy, six, and Willow, three, he said: "At first they said I'd be in hospital for 15 months.

"Yet here I am ready to go back home after five weeks. I'm so bloody lucky. I can't believe it.

"At the time of the crash I was doing 288mph so it's incredible that every doctor I've spoken to tells me I'm on course for a 100 per cent recovery."

The horror unfolded at the end of a day's Top Gear filming after Richard clambered into the phenomenally powerful jet car - holder of the British land speed record at 300.3mph - for one final run.

He had already made a series of successful runs getting faster at each attempt. He said: "It was the same every time. I got in, I sat there, a man came along, knelt on my chest and strapped me in with this bloody great harness.

"Every time he used to hurt me so much - and I'm bloody glad he did.

HE made sure my crash helmet was on and my visor was down. Then I put the starter motor on to start the jets and was ready to go.

"The car has got less knobs and buttons than a Nissan Micra. It's great. All you do is get in and press a button, literally.

"You take your foot off the brake and just set off down the track with unbelievable acceleration."

"There's no fear because you have to reassure yourself before you do something that the machine is good, the place is right and you're not going to suddenly have a cow on the track or something.

"You become in a suspended state of concentration thinking about what you're going to do. But there's no fear.

"If there was fear it would mean we'd have left something in the air.

"You have to be really strapped into these things and you wouldn't strap in if you thought 'I hope it doesn't crash'. That would just be catastrophic.

"So you go in thinking 'We've done everything, I know how the thing works, I know where I'm going, I know what I'm going to do. Let's get on with it and let it unfold'."

Richard set off on his final run and gathered speed. Then appalled observers saw the open cockpit Vampire suddenly hurtle out of control and crash.

The presenter said: "The car ended up upside down. There was just a roll bar above my head and I was breathing a field.

"Apparently it's true that I told them I needed to film a piece to camera. But I'm buggered if I can remember that.

"It's normal in serious head injuries that you get this initial moment when you think everything is OK. It's like after tripping over on the pavement and getting up like you meant to do it.

"It was like me getting knocked down by a bus and jumping up saying 'I'm fine, everybody!' But very quickly after that, things deteriorate sharply. It was 50/50 what was going to happen. I may have been dead, I may not have woken up.""

Two investigations are under way into the crash but Richard is adamant all safety procedures were followed to the letter.

He said: "I've absolutely no idea what went wrong. One minute I was there and the next I was buried head first, off the track.

THE whole idea had been to experience driving something very unusual. We chatted about the jet car and all I had to do was drive it. It was so easy.

"We wanted to use the afterburners because essentially, if an ordinary car has about 100 horsepower, after you light the afterburners it has 10,000 horsepower.

"It's an amazing amount of power. All I wanted to do was get to the point where I could drive it with the afterburners on, which I did. Apparently there was a load of stuff in the papers about us breaking a land speed record.

"That would be stupid because we'd be putting too much pressure on ourselves to hit a target.

"And in the Top Gear sense it's exciting enough, given that we're all 10-year-olds, just to go 'It's got a jet! How does it feel?' It was my job to explain how it feels. Get me in the car and I'll tell you what it's like.""

Richard is aware that the spotlight is on Top Gear now that the crash is being investigated.

He said: "On Top Gear we live in a world where we have to deal with an element of risk. It's our job to minimise it.

"We're so used to sitting down and deciding how to do things. It doesn't happen without a great deal of work and would never be any other way.

"So in my mind it was less calculable that anything had gone wrong. We spend our lives minimising risk so that's what I couldn't believe. That it had actually gone wrong"

He laughed as he added: "I was actually quite good at driving it. But clearly something went wrong and the day didn't turn out as we put it mildly!"

For the test, Richard was wearing a set of bright silver Formula One-style flameproof overalls. True to form he had entertained the crew all day darting about as the "Silver Flash".

He said: "I'd laughed about those pants all day. They were the silverest silver you've ever seen. But the point was, I had all the gear, we were all aware of the risks. It's the nature of the job."

Richard describes the crash helmet he wore as the "most spectacular crash helmet you've ever seen". He revealed the manufacturer wants it back to test, saying with a smile: "They told me, that after all it's the fastest test we've ever put it through."

But ultimately, he wants it back as his one souvenir of the day he almost lost his life.

Richard said: "I want it to go in a plinth on the wall in my office. Definitely.

For all I know, it saved my life. We proved that it's worth taking the measures that we take.

"If everybody hadn't been on their toes, if we hadn't had the best possible safety gear, if the crash helmet hadn't been the best, if the helicopter hadn't taken off...

"The very fact that I made it, is testimony to the fact that the precautions we ordinarily take are worth taking. I'm living proof that safety works."

It is hard to imagine the Top Gear ace so recently came so close to death. That bloodshot eye and his gaunt and pale complexion are the only giveaways.

POPULAR Richard, loved by millions of fans who have been praying for his recovery, joked around with his daughters, made faces and laughed over lunch.

And he smiled at the fact that it is only five weeks after he cheated death that he can properly describe what it is like to travel at 288mph in a jet car - and what it is like when it all goes horribly wrong.

Before he headed off for a much-needed nap, he had one final thing on his mind. Richard said: "Do you realise how annoyed I am that I've got no marks on me? Absolutely nothing at all, nothing for the pub.

"There are people who fall off their trikes at the age of four who've got better injuries than me. I've been through hell and I've got nothing to show for it except a chipped tooth! I'm gutted."

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