Hamming it up

The former Top Gear presenter and co-host of The Grand Tour talks mid-life crisis and tattoos.

Anyone developing a mid-life crisis should take comfort from the experiences of Richard Hammond. Months before he turns 54 in December this year (2023), the former Top Gear star has just bought a high-performance Porsche 911 convertible and displays a collection of classic motorbikes in a living room.

The smallest third of The Grand Tour trio that includes Jeremy Clarkson and James May, already has a tattoo from when he turned 50, while his eldest daughter, Izzy, says his most annoying trait is a constant barrage of terrible ‘dad jokes’. The 23-year-old, who has recently worked with her father on a series of videos, says: “It’s like he saves them all up and then once he’s on a roll, it’s hard to stop him.

“If I was going to be nice, I’d say Dad is hard-working and very driven. On the flip side, he is short. In fact, the whole family is small. I’m 4ft 11 and my sister, Willow is 5ft 4ins. When Jeremy comes over he bangs his head on the beams in our kitchen. We live in a Hobbit house.”

With the future of The Grand Tour now in doubt with Amazon Prime, and Top Gear a distant memory, Hammond has instead been forced to spend more time in his mock-castle mansion, deep in the Herefordshire countryside.

Not that this man, nicknamed ‘the Hamster’, is complaining – much of his life has involved filming away from his family on location. Hammond openly regrets not being around to watch his two daughters grow up. “I was pretty crappy as a father.”

“I was knackered from constantly travelling and the money at Top Gear wasn’t great in the beginning. It sounds ridiculous now given how lucky I’ve been with my job but there were nights when I drove home from a shoot and parked around the corner until I knew bath-time was finished.”

His latest venture is Richard Hammond’s Workshop, with TV cameras following the ups and downs of his fledgling classic car restoration business. The Smallest Cog is based in Hereford and staffed by some suitably entertaining characters. Think Clarkson’s Farm with engines.

“I’m pleased Jeremy’s series has been so successful because he has a genuine love of farming – it’s not a stunt for the cameras. Of course, I wouldn’t tell him that to his face and where I live is proper farming country, not like the Cotswolds.”

Hammond has a genuine passion for the great outdoors too. He bought his six-bedroom castle near Ross-on-Wye in 2008. The Grade II Listed building is surrounded by 20 acres of lush countryside, complete with a giant duck pond and waterside shepherd’s hut.

The property has extensive outbuildings for Hammond’s collection of cars and motorbikes too, the latter kept inside a modernised, glass-fronted barn. Among the bikes basking next to the open-plan kitchen and bar are rare Triumph, BMW and Royal Enfield machines.

“They are all roadworthy and I ride them. My wife, Mindy, and our daughters prefer horses but I’m not familiar with the controls – horses are not my thing. We have always kept a menagerie of animals and I think living here made the girls feel like they come from somewhere. They wouldn’t get that in London.

“Growing up in the countryside has also helped them avoid some of the publicity around me. Even so, when Top Gear ended eight years ago, the spotlight was very much on James, Jeremy and I. One day, James came over and we took Izzy out for a KFC. When the bill arrived, James and I jittered over who would pay, so Izzy said loudly that she would because neither of us had a job between us. That had the restaurant in hysterics.”

While his daughters had no interest in cars growing up, Izzy would enjoy days out on the back of a motorbike with Hammond. “It was a shared interest. We would head out to the Welsh borders and visit castles, chatting to each other on the intercom.

“I’m thrilled she has found an interest in media but I don’t mind what Izzy does. She is still young and has time to find her career path. We have a few ideas to work together but I won’t be upset if she chooses a different direction. I’m still involved with The Grand Tour and will be for as long as it lasts.”

Despite the rite of passage tattoo – more on that later – Hammond insists he genuinely doesn’t enjoy big birthday celebrations. “Hopefully, it will be a quiet one this year. Besides, Mindy couldn’t top the surprise bash she threw for my 40th.

“I was helicoptered in to London for what I thought was an awards ceremony. I stood backstage, then the curtain drew back and I thought, fuck, I know all those people in the audience – and what’s my favourite Kawasaki motorbike doing on the stage?”

Despite his professed party phobia, Hammond has good reason to celebrate his birthday every 19th December – not least after he survived two near-fatal car crashes. The first, in 2006, when his jet-powered dragster flipped while he was filming Top Gear. He spent two weeks in a coma and longer learning to cope with the trauma.

Then in 2017, Hammond tumbled a Rimac hypercar down an alpine ravine in Switzerland, shattering his right knee. “It was pinned together at huge expense in a Swiss hospital. I was planning a Swiss army knife tattoo on my leg to show off the scars.”

In reality, the presenter is more circumspect about the first crash, which left Top Gear fans around the world anxiously waiting for news. “I don’t remember anything about the hospital in Leeds. Then I was transferred to Bristol and a doctor explained my head injury could create a tendency towards compulsion, possibly obsession, paranoia and temper loss.

“Mindy just looked up and said, ‘Did you meet Richard before the accident?’”

Izzy also recalls the 300mph crash. “I had just turned seven. Willow and I were anxious to see him in hospital when he came around. Dad’s eye was a complete mess and Mum told him not to remove the dressing because it would frighten us. Of course, Dad being Dad, when we walked in he popped it up and I ran out screaming.”

One of Hammond’s saviours was the late Professor Sid Watkins, a British neurosurgeon and trackside doctor in Formula One. Known as ‘The Prof’, Watkins helped save the lives of many famous drivers. In 1994, he attended to Ayrton Senna, after a crash at the San Marino Grand Prix, which later claimed the life of the triple champion.

“Sid didn’t treat me but he got in touch via Mindy,” recalls Hammond. “When I was in my darkest places, she could pick up the phone to him. The doctors told me it would take two years to get better but Sid took me aside one day and quietly said it would take much, much longer and not to worry.

“I burst out crying because I was so relieved that I was still on the right trajectory. At that point, I thought I would never be the same again. It takes years to file everything away properly, to re-order your life and make sense of it all. It’s a horrible thing. A frontal lobe injury of any kind lingers for years.”

Born in Solihull, Hammond later moved to Yorkshire with his family, where his father worked as a probate solicitor. The presenter says the naughty streak he demonstrated as a child would also help see him through his senior years.

“I was a bit of a scrapper at school – because I was short I had to defend myself in the playground. I didn’t set fire to the classroom or anything but I was eventually expelled. My end of term report read: ‘Richard’s difficult and obstructive attitude means his presence will soon no longer be required in this school.’”

He still has his boyish good looks, especially compared to his more grizzled Grand Tour co-stars – although the glossy black hair has attracted some unwelcome attention from his family. “Everyone thinks I dye it and I hate it,” says Hammond. “I don’t – and I don’t dye my beard either!”

Hammond gave up smoking eight years ago but sucks on a vape as he ponders the future. “I know what a riot getting older can be – the best part of my life is still to come. I’d like Mindy and I to travel to all the places I’ve filmed over the years and see them together.”

And the tattoo? While Hammond bought himself a bespoke Morgan sports car for his 50th, the tattoo required more than one stiff whisky and long hours pondering over a design. “It took me bloody ages to work out and is far better than the obligatory skull and crossbones.

“The words are hidden under the bicep of my arm and read micris fidelis – which is cod Latin for ‘faithful to small things’ but is also, as it happens, the perfect anagram of midlife crisis.”

Richard Hammond’s Workshop now streaming on Discovery+