IT TOOK a while for the BBC’s senior management to understand what I was on about. They’d just canned Top Gear and couldn’t really understand my plans for bringing it back. Eventually, though, I managed to get a bit of face time in Jack Barclay’s Bentley showroom in Mayfair with Jane Root, the controller of BBC2 at the time.
Over a glass of wine I said that the show would have a studio, which would be in a hangar, and that outside there’d be a test track, where all the corners would be named after soft rock bands. “It’ll be a place,” I said, “where car things happen.” And the penny dropped.
With her backing, Andy Wilman, the producer, and I set out to find the “place” where these “car things” would “happen”, and ooh it was tricky. Britain is festooned with airfields and empty hangars, but everywhere we went it was the same story. “I’m afraid the RAF still needs it.” Or: “You’ll never get planning permission for that.”
In the end, while I was looking at a potholed and pockmarked option somewhere in the north, Andy rang from a place called Dunsfold in Surrey . . . and the rest is history.
It was an active airfield, but the perimeter road was in good nick and the owner said we could paint a few lines on the main runway to mark out a bit of a track. To help us out with that, we called a Lotus test driver called Gavan Kershaw, who came down from Turnipshire and worked out the corners that are now so familiar to millions of people around the world.
“Lionel Richie was our first big-name American guest and we’d rented him what was described as a luxury motor home. What made it luxurious was that it had a picture on one of the walls. A picture, much to our American friend’s distress, of the Twin Towers.”
We were especially pleased with Hammerhead, which, for no reason at all, wasn’t named after a soft rock band. It was a quick left followed by an opening right and it would, said Gavan, cause a badly set-up car to understeer. Weirdly, the car that understeered most through there was the Lotus Elise. And anything on Pirelli tyres. Everything else kicked its tail out and went through, sideways, trailing a thick cloud of tyre smoke. I loved the Hammerhead. But then I loved all the corners. It’ll always hold a special place in my heart, that track.
Which is why, last week, I was feeling a bit choked as I went through the gates for the very last time.
The Top Gear portable office was locked to stop me taking even a small souvenir. The hangar was empty. But the track was full of enough memories to keep me going. The missing lamp where Black Stig went off in an Aston Martin Vanquish. The tyre wall rendered cockeyed by the first White Stig’s Koenigsegg moment. And the two furrows left by me after a quarter-of-a-mile spin in a BMW 1-series.
The longest accident, however, made that look like a parking bump. One of our drivers — I shan’t name him — had been asked by a director to get a shot of a Lamborghini’s speedometer reading 200mph. So off he went, in the pouring rain, to oblige. And he finished up more than half a mile away, pointing backwards, just yards from a primary school playground.
Then there were the celebrity moments. Lionel Richie was our first big-name American guest and we’d rented him what was described as a luxury motor home. What made it luxurious was that it had a picture on one of the walls. A picture, much to our American friend’s distress, of the Twin Towers. And it got worse, because while he was out on the track, trying to set a time in the reasonably priced Suzuki Liana, the front wheel fell off.
Then we had Sir Michael Gambon bloody nearly rolling while doing the last corner. And Tom Cruise, who did exactly the same thing.
As I said. Many memories. So I wanted to enjoy my last moment out there, which is why I was so very grateful to Ferrari for shipping a brand-new 488 over from Italy.
I’d brought some guests. People who’d donated, between them, £100,000 to the Roundhouse charity in London to be there for my last hurrah.
Or so I thought. In fact it turned out that what they’d really bid for was the chance to be driven round in the Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason’s LaFerrari.
While we waiting for a go in that, I took them round in the amuse-bouche, the 488, and ooh it was good. Many people have said that because it’s now hurled along by a polar-bear-friendly turbocharged engine, it’s lost the magic of the naturally aspirated 458. But it hasn’t. It really, really hasn’t.
Yes, you sense there’s been some marketing-led jiggery-pokery to make it sound “proper”, and the engine bay does look a bit empty, but from behind the wheel it feels pretty much identical to the 458, which means it feels better and more exciting than all its rivals. There’s a lightness in a Ferrari, a delicacy, that McLaren and Porsche and all the others just can’t match.
There’s a lot of speed, too. Had I been so inclined, I could probably have done my fastest-ever lap in the 488. But I wasn’t so inclined. I was there to have fun, to kick the tail out and burn some rubber. Which is why Mercedes had sent along an AMG GT S.
The Ferrari is a wonderful thing — make absolutely no mistake about that. But the Mercedes is more . . . how can I put this? It’s more me. A big engine at the front, a gearbox at the back and a big smiley ape in the middle, shouting, “Power!” for no apparent reason every few seconds. The Ferrari is a quail’s egg dipped in the finest celery salt. The Merc is a great big steak, dripping in blood and horseradish.
So I did a few laps in that, looking out of the side window at all the places where people had come off, and then it was time to choose. Which would I use for my final lap?
The answer was obvious. It would have to be the Ferrari the Ferrari. Nick Mason’s million-quid hybrid.
And so off I went for one last go in what most people would say is the greatest, most exciting car yet made. It’s up there, certainly. But I did look a bit quizzical when I first put my foot down hard, because while the acceleration was prodigious, it didn’t feel quite as savage as it had done in the McLaren P1.
“McLaren never wanted to see its P1 race the Porsche 918 around Dunsfold. It had done the maths and worked out that in those tight corners the Porsche’s four-wheel-drive system would give it the edge.”
What does surprise you is the way you think it absolutely must be time for a gearchange but the rev counter suggests that the petro-Faraday motor is only just starting to gird its loins. On and on the power comes, in a never-ending stream of relentless noise and thrust.
When the dashboard and the steering wheel finally start to light up like the control room in a stricken nuclear power station and you pull on the right paddle to change up, you get your second surprise, because ooh it’s quick. Not blink-of-an-eye quick. Way faster than that. And then you’re in the next gear, and on and on comes the power again.
Then it’s time for the tricky second-to-last corner, the one that caught out the celebrities because you’re going from a wide runway that dulls you to the sense of speed to a tiny slip road where everything feels much faster. You need to brake hard in a Ferrari the Ferrari, and that’s OK because it slows down the way it changes gear: immediately.
Through the bends? Well, it was Nick’s car and it was my last-ever lap and I didn’t want to bin it, so perhaps I wasn’t pushing quite as hard as I should have been. But I dunno. While it felt sublime and planted and wondrous, I do seem to recall that Porsche’s alternative, the 918, has just a tad more grip.
Let’s not forget McLaren never wanted to see its P1 race the 918 around Dunsfold. It had done the maths and worked out that in those tight corners the Porsche’s four-wheel-drive system would give it the edge.
We will find out one day which of these three cars really is the fastest. It’s on the to-do list. But for now it was time for the last lap. And I made it a good one. A smooth one. The sort of lap that would have made the Stig proud.
And then it was over. And back in the car park everyone was packing up to go home. And there was one of the guests left, saying she hadn’t had a go. And the only car that hadn’t been loaded onto the trailer was the Mercedes. So I took her out in that. And went nuts.
My last lap, then. It was smoky. And I’m happy with that.
Clarkson’s last lap at Dunsfold: the victims
Additional reporting by Dominic Tobin
SO WHO accompanied Jeremy Clarkson on his final laps of the Top Gear test track? Step forward Zak Brown, co-owner of the United Autosports racing team, one of two winners who bid an eye-watering £50,000 charity donation each for the privilege. Last week Brown and his two sons were at Dunsfold to savour the moment.
The cloud is low, there’s drizzle in the air and on the track visibility is near zero — although that’s mainly due to the huge cloud of tyre smoke pouring from the rear of a Ferrari 488 GTB.
“These are once-in-a-lifetime memories,” says Brown. “They are particularly hard to come by these days. The kids have had a great time and it’s for a great cause. Absolutely, it’s been worth it.”
His sons agree. After one lap, Max, 11, climbs out of the car grinning from ear to ear. “After you slide, he looks at you, smiles and puts his thumbs up,” he says.
When he has finished with the Ferrari, Clarkson makes his way to a Mercedes-AMG GT S. “We’ll fire up the Merc now,” he announces, “and burn some rubber.”
Money raised from auctioning Jeremy’s last lap went to the Roundhouse Trust, a charity that supports disadvantaged young people