On the 20th of September 2006, Richard Hammond was seriously injured in a car crash while filming for Top Gear at the former RAF Elvington airfield near York. He was driving a jet-powered car, the Vampire dragster, which was theoretically capable of travelling at speeds of up to 370mph (595.5 km/h), when one of the tyres unexpectedly failed on a structural level and caused the Vampire to lose control, before rolling over to its demise. Though unintentional, the Vampire's destruction meant it was one of 166 vehicles destroyed throughout the first 21 series of Top Gear. Despite the significance of the accident, it became something of an in-joke on the series in the years that followed.
After its appearance in Series 9, Episode 1 and three subsequent re-airings on BBC Two and Three in the United Kingdom, the clip was never publicly shown again until the Series 3 finale of The Grand Tour, with the footage aired under licence from the BBC.
Sky News and BBC News reported that he was driving a Vampire jet car powered by a Bristol-Siddeley Orpheus turbojet engine, one of a pair built by Allan 'Bootsie' Herridge in 1981; the same car which had held the British land speed record at 300.3 mph (483.29 km/h) since 2000. The car was built as part of a pair alongside Hellbender, which was destroyed in a crash in 1986 which also killed its driver, Mark Woodley. Herridge himself had died three years prior during the initial run of his "Midnight Cowboy" funny car.
Primetime Land Speed Engineering initially 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 314.4mph (506 km/h), an unofficial British record. The run was not a land speed record attempt; this is consistent with there being no official present, and no attempt at a second run in the opposite direction, both of which are required for a land speed record to be officially recognized. Once back in the studio, Clarkson jokingly added that Hammond's crash would have been the fastest, but for the sake of fairness would need to be recorded in the opposite direction. At the point of blow out, the Vampire was travelling at 288.3mph (464 km/h) but upon initial impact had slowed to 232mph (373.4 km/h), mainly as a result of the roll cage digging into the ground and the top of Hammond's helmet being dragged across the surface. It has been speculated that if he were any taller, he would have been decapitated.
Hammond was completing a final run to collect extra footage for the programme when his front-right tyre failed, and, according to witnesses, "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 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". He was then taken to the specialist neurological unit of the Leeds General Infirmary.
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 happened. Hammond's family stayed with him at the hospital along with Top Gear representatives who were present at the accident site, as well as Top Gear co-presenters James May and Jeremy Clarkson who had also rushed to his bedside. Jeremy Clarkson was quoted by the BBC as saying "Both James and I are looking forward to getting our 'Hamster' back", referring to Hammond by his nickname.
Dave Ogden from Event Fire Services, present at the scene of the accident, said 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." The cause of the crash was later determined to be a blowout of the front right tire.
The Health & Safety Executive report on the accident stated that Hammond's "instantaneous reaction to the tyre blow out seems to have been that of a competent high performance car driver, namely to brake the car and to try to steer into the skid. Immediately afterwards he also seems to have followed his training and to have pulled back on the main parachute release lever, thus shutting down the jet engine and also closing the jet and afterburner fuel levers. The main parachute did not have time to deploy before the car ran off the runway." The report suggests that the accident may not have been recoverable even if the driver had reacted with no more delay than was humanly possible.
The crash was shown on the ninth series premiere of Top Gear, which had been postponed pending Hammond's recovery. Hammond requested at the end of the episode that his fellow presenters never mention the crash again, a request which has since been forgotten about or ignored by both Hammond and the other presenters. However, the crash itself would not be officially shown from the 23rd of February, 2008 through to the 11th of April, 2019, when the day after would see its re-appearance in The Grand Tour.
Treatment and Recovery
20 September 2006
- BBC reports suggest that he was air-lifted from the crash scene while 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."
21 September 2006
- The doctor treating Hammond announced 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, the first time on this date. Hammond 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'.
22 September 2006
- In the early hours of the morning, Hammond took his first steps for the purpose of going to the toilet, a mere 30 hours after the crash, according to Jeremy Clarkson, and was moved to a general ward the following day.
- His severe injury reduced him to a "child-like state" in which he became obsessed with LEGO bricks, and Top Trumps which he said helped him recover.
24 September 2006
- 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, due to the overwhelming generosity of the public, the chief executive of the air ambulance trust announced the money would be used to procure a second helicopter.
26 September 2006
- Hammond was reported to be improving so well he would be moved to a hospital nearer his home in Gloucestershire.
28 September 2006
- Following the report from two days prior, Hammond was airlifted from Leeds General Infirmary to the BUPA hospital in Clifton, Bristol, to be closer to his home in Gloucestershire. His neurosurgeon, Stuart Ross, 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 the footage of the crash/race to be shown. This would have resulted in minimal screen time for Hammond outside of pre-recorded segments, and the show was postponed as a result.
- Rumours started to circulate after Hammond's crash that Top Gear was going to be axed, but this was denied by the BBC when they announced on the 6th of October that the show was still in full production for its new series, although it would only air when Hammond had fully recovered and able to participate in the programme.
- The BBC also announced that they were producing a special programme on Hammond's crash which would show the footage filmed on the day; this would become the premiere episode for Series 9.
- His wife, Amanda "Mindy" Hammond told her side of the story in an article published on the 24th of October.
- On the 1st of 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', making jokes about his bad driving.
- On the 12th, Hammond was back behind the wheel for the first time after the accident. He chose his Morgan ahead of the other vehicles in his garage, which included a Porsche, vintage Ford Mustang and a Range Rover, and under doctor's orders took things at a slow pace, not venturing above 50 mph. He had also since taken his first ride on a motorcycle since the crash, as publicised in MCN.
- On the 7th of December, 2006, he attended his first day filming studio segments for the upcoming series at the annual Top Gear Awards ceremony. During the show, he was presented by Lego with a model of the Vampire jet-car which he crashed as well as a model of the Top Gear set, complete with the presenters as well as The Stig. It was during the same night that the show's presenters confirmed that the new series would premiere on the 28th of January, 2007.
- On the 22nd of December, 2006, Hammond made his first television appearance since the crash on Friday Night with Jonathan Ross in which he said that since the crash he has gained a better memory, particularly with regard to telephone numbers, and a new found liking for celery. He is, however, somewhat irritated by the fact that he has been forbidden to drink any serious quantity of alcohol for a period of two years, being restricted to, at most, two pints of weak lager. Hammond revealed that he has a pact with his co-presenters that, should one of them die in an accident, the following edition of Top Gear would open with the remaining two presenters solemnly mentioning the death and then remaining silent for a moment. They would then start a new sentence, in which the first word would be 'Anyway' and continue to happily report about cars as though nothing major had occurred (this pact had previously been disclosed in Jeremy Clarkson's column in The Sun three days following Hammond's crash). He also described the first time his children came to see him in hospital where, in a confused state, he proceeded to take off his bandages and show his gruesome eye injury to his daughters.
- On the 28th of January, 2007, Richard Hammond made a triumphant return to Top Gear. He opened the show walking down a set of airline boarding-stairs complete with showgirls, because as Clarkson pointed out Hammond "didn't want any fuss whatsoever", and that "to build a proper set of Morecambe and Wise steps would have cost at least £300". Hammond thanked everyone involved with his accident and who wrote to him wishing him the best. Following the airing of the crash footage he asked that it never be mentioned on Top Gear again, to which Clarkson and May agreed.
- Footage of the crash, as shown in this episode, can be seen at the Top Gear website.
- In September 2007 Richard made a return to high-speed driving with a race between a Bugatti Veyron driven by Hammond and an RAF Eurofighter Typhoon filmed for Series 10 of Top Gear.
For the next 18 months, the accident had a series of knock-on effects which affected production of the show as a whole:
- Series 9 was delayed until January 2007, 3 months after its scheduled premiere.
- Series 9 featured just 6 episodes, as it is likely many proposed segments were cut following the accident.
- Viewing figures permanently rose from Series 9, Episode 1 onwards.
- The Summer 2007 series, which would have been Series 10, was skipped entirely, taking place during the Winter season instead.
In September 2007 , a year after the accident, Andy Wilman revealed that James May was the original presenter intended for the ill-fated segment, but was delegated to Hammond following schedule conflicts. It stands to reason that a similar prospective accident would have resulted in May's death, due to his taller height.