EVER THOUGHT you’ve got what it takes to present Top Gear? Dream of flooring the accelerator on the latest supercar or going hell for leather in a hot hatch? Think you could beat Tom Cruise around a race track any day?
Your dreams are about to come true. The Top Gear Track Experience, launched last week at the programme’s home, Dunsfold Park in Surrey, promises the chance to indulge all your motoring show-inspired fantasies. Put a jarringly fast Ariel Atom through its paces on the test track. Or enjoy a hair-raising hot lap with the Stig, the show’s tame racing driver, in the driver’s seat. Or try your hand at off-roading — and, because it’s Top Gear, dodge simulated tank fire at the same time. You can even follow in the tyre tracks of Cruise and Cameron Diaz, as a Star in a Reasonably Priced Car.
For the BBC show’s millions of viewers, this is a chance to experience what it’s like to be Richard Hammond, James May and Jeremy Clarkson — the men who, for many, have the best job in the world. The experience includes the chance to explore a replica studio set, take Clarkson’s chair and pretend to grill the stars on their choice of wheels, put your stamp on the replica Cool Wall, or look at some of the weird and wonderful cars from Top Gear challenges that will be on display around the glorified aircraft hangar that doubles as the studio.
This track day with a difference, a collaboration between BBC Worldwide (the commercial arm of the corporation) and the consultancy Brandscape, will open for business on August 27. I headed to Dunsfold Park last week to get a preview of what’s in store.
First things first — don’t expect slick grand prix circuit-style facilities or even an indoor lavatory (although there are some posh portable loos). The genuine Top Gear experience means a greasy burger van next to the aircraft hangar, surrounded by a scrappy mess of huts. Dunsfold Park is a former Second World War airfield and the test tracks are laid out on the runways, so it takes some skill to know even where you’re supposed to be driving.
But that’s all part of the devil-may-care charm that has made Top Gear one of the most popular shows on our screens (except to those complaining to Ofcom) and spawned an ever-growing army of spin-offs from computer games and live shows to this.
You soon discover whether you’ve got what it takes when you’re strapped into a Kia Cee’d and about to test your mettle on the track, gripping the wheel of a Reasonably Priced Car. My great hope was to avoid the shame of being slower than Sir Terry Wogan, who clocked up a milkfloat-worthy two minutes and four seconds in a Suzuki Liana.
A professional instructor sits beside you, guides you through the course and advises on when to brake and accelerate. Before you even head onto the track, you can learn the course on an Xbox simulator, although I had time only to crash into a couple of virtual tyre walls and narrowly miss a virtual aeroplane before I was ushered into position.
The celebrity guests get to complete five laps, but the Top Gear Track Experience offers only one practice lap before your timed run. I had barely figured out which direction I was supposed to be driving in before I was waved off at the starting line. Cruise’s fastest lap was under one minute and 45 seconds, Diaz’s was just over, and the fastest celebrity in the Kia was cuddly Matt LeBlanc from Friends, with a time of one minute and 42 seconds. So, how hard could it be?
Pretty hard, actually. For a start it’s counterintuitive trying to drive a bog-standard hatch in a reckless fashion. On the practice lap I was so confused that I even indicated and checked my blind spot before moving over.
By the timed lap, things had improved only marginally. Gambon — the final corner (named after Sir Michael Gambon, who took the bend on two wheels) — flummoxed me. I dropped down to second gear — madness! — and crossed the line like a short-sighted octogenarian on her weekly crawl to the church coffee morning.
Fortunately, the Stig was on hand to demonstrate how things should be done. Climbing into the passenger seat of a Porsche 911 GT3 with the Stig glowering at the wheel was an unsettling experience. Some say he sleeps upside down and is wanted by the CIA; all I know is that close up he’s scarier than on TV. With his eyes fixed dead ahead (not that you can see them through his mirrored visor) and his gloved hands gripping the steering wheel, he was so unflinching that I began to wonder whether he was a robot clad in Nomex. The most I could tell you about him is that he is at least 6ft tall and has recently bought some new racing boots.
I held onto the door handle for dear life and hoped that the 1990s pop sounds from the stereo would mellow his mood. The Porsche roared onto the track, putting my own feeble efforts to shame, the Stig’s foot leaving the throttle only for the tightest bends.
I wondered if he were not relishing the thought of all these nobodies wanting a piece of the action — surely driving hordes of non-celebs was going to eat into his downtime? Then again, perhaps it won’t always be the “real” Stig. Duncan Gray, commercial director of Top Gear for BBC Worldwide, refused to be drawn but insisted that, in any case, the Stig didn’t enjoy downtime.
“All the Stig likes to do is drive. He’s not chatty and he’s not very engaging. Given the chance to be in a car and on the track, he’s happy.”
The experience days will have to be fitted around the Top Gear filming schedule (you won’t be there at the same time as the presenters). Prices for the track-day experiences will range from £99 for a hot lap with the Stig, £135 for the Ariel Atom experience and £175 to try your hand as a Star in the Reasonably Priced Car.
For £45, 11 to 17-year-olds can drive an automatic Range Rover Evoque on the off-road course. Just like in the adult version they’ll be dodging simulated machinegun fire, though unlike the Top Gear challenge, cars will not be pursued by a moving tank.
The Ariel Atom is reserved for the big boys and girls. This is the car that Clarkson famously described as “so quick it can destroy your entire face” as the wind buffeted his jowls. The model available to drive here weighs only about 500kg but boasts more than 160bhp and a 0-60mph time of less than three seconds. And of course it has no roof and no windscreen.
Even at 30mph in the Atom it feels more like flying than driving. With my instructor repeatedly yelling “floor it!”, I managed to take it tentatively past 60mph. After that it was just too quick.
All the experiences include the chance to spend time in the studio, look at the Top Gear challenge cars and sit in replicas of the seats used by Hammond, May and Clarkson.
The instructors are there to cater to all levels of ability. The minimum requirement is that “you know which pedal is which and how to turn the big circular thing in front of you”.
Which brings me back to that humiliating lap time in the Reasonably Priced Car. Crossing the line in a pitiful two minutes and 22 seconds, I made Sir Terry look like a speed freak.
To find out more, go to topgeartrackexperience.com