FREDDIE Flintoff could fast become known as the most accident-prone member of the new Top Gear hosts. While the first episode of the new Top Gear series featured only the mildest of bumps between cars, Flintoff was involved (although liability in that case wasn’t entirely clear). More damning were Chris Harris’s words at the start of the episode, when he said one of the only things we need to know about the new series is that Flintoff “crashes everything he drives”.
The new Top Gear season’s teaser trailer gave us a taste of things to come: the former England cricket captain rolls a rally-modified Daimler Double Six hearse. And reports suggest Flintoff will also crash a Subaru Brat converted to electric power in this weekend’s show.
We should have seen it coming. In 2013, he had a hefty smash while behind the wheel of a Citroën DS3 R3 rally car, during filming for the Sky One TV show A League of Their Own, captured in the video above.
The Sunday Times Driving was there to witness it, and we’re delighted to be able to dust off our report from the field.
August 4, 2013
YIKES! SAYS FRED AS FLINTOFF HITS THE DIRT
Cricket’s former wild boy and a clutch of comics are let loose in rally cars in the next series of A League of Their Own. John Evans files his war report
I AM STANDING on the side of a gritty mountain track in south Wales. Trees sway in the breeze and all is quiet. Then in the distance I hear the bark of a sports exhaust. A white rally car looms into view, skidding wildly as the tyres attempt to find traction on the loose gravel. The turbocharged engine note increases in volume and the souped-up Citroën careers past me, stones clattering like machinegun fire on its underside.
Through the window I catch the unmistakable face of Andrew (Freddie) Flintoff, the former England cricket captain, grinning wildly as he floors the throttle heading into the next bend. The engine note climbs as the car disappears from view. Then there is a sickening crunch followed by silence.
It’s hard to know what the producers of A League of Their Own, the game show that pits comedians and sportsmen against one another in a series of challenges, had in mind when they decided to move the celebrities out of the safety of the studio to film a segment in the real world. But, for a programme that prides itself on being unscripted, irreverent and unpredictable, hoping things would go according to plan wasn’t on the agenda.
A League of Their Own is a sports quiz show but, unlike its main rival — A Question of Sport — the jokes aren’t scripted and the action is very real. It is hosted by James Corden, the actor best known for writing and starring in the comedy series Gavin and Stacey. It features two teams of three celebrities, one captained by Jamie Redknapp, the former Liverpool and Tottenham footballer, the other by Flintoff. For the one-off special in Wales, aimed at revealing who has what it takes to be a rally driver, normal rules were suspended as Corden, Flintoff and Redknapp were joined in the challenge by the comedians Jimmy Carr and Jack Whitehall, and Amy Williams, the 2010 Winter Olympics skeleton bobsleigh champion.
This wasn’t the first time participants had been let loose in cars — previous challenges have included racing them at Silverstone — but it was probably the most demanding. Unlike track racing, rallying is full of unpredictable obstacles: it is one thing piloting a car around a glass-smooth track, but quite another having to avoid trees and rocks while you’re driving.
To get them in the mood, the six contestants first hit the classroom. Mark Higgins, three-time British Rally Championship winner, took them through the driving drill with the help of a flip chart, while Chris Patterson, an experienced rally navigator, ran through the terms used to describe corners by their severity: flat right, medium right, 90 right.
Eager to get going, the celebrities scattered in the direction of their cars. “Tell you what,” said Whitehall, “I’ll speak to Freddie in cricketing language, so ‘silly mid-off’ is a 90-degree right-hander, say.” Neither instructor looked impressed.
The cars they would be driving were Citroën DS3 R3 rally cars, each worth £100,000. These are serious pieces of equipment, developed by a team that includes Sébastien Loeb, the world’s most successful rally driver. The next best thing to full-blown World Rally Championship cars, they are designed to be raced by privateers with a support crew. Thanks to advances in engine and chassis technology, they are faster than the cars the late world champion Colin McRae was driving 15 years ago.
The cameras were moved into position and overhead a helicopter hovered, ready to capture all the action. Flintoff could hardly wait. For his first few laps he would have Kris Meeke, the world rally driver, as his co-driver.
Despite the banter, Meeke was clearly taking his job seriously. “A co-driver can’t win a rally but he can lose it,” he said. “The drivers will need to know every inch of the road out there.”
Flintoff leapt into the car and gunned the engine. Moments later he was back, having completed a lap of the two-mile course. He came to a halt in a cloud of dust: “It’s great fun. Noisy and dusty but all that power and sliding it on the gravel — you can’t beat it.” He then raced off for another lap.
Brian Klein, the show’s director, has also directed every episode of the new-look Top Gear since its launch in 2002. He’s seen some pretty confident guests trip up on that programme’s Star in a Reasonably Priced Car competition. Today, though, he reckoned Flintoff would emerge victorious. “He’s taken to it like a duck to water,” he said.
“Jimmy [Carr] has been a little more cautious. But you can’t rule him out. He’ll give it everything. Controlling the car will be his biggest problem.”
Carr seemed to agree. “I call this show a Make a Wish Foundation for Comedians,” he said. “I mean, where else are we going to drive rally cars?” Then everything went slightly haywire. No one knew exactly what happened to Flintoff’s car, but as he sped around the track at 70mph it suddenly flipped on its roof and rolled twice before coming to rest on its wheels in a cloud of dust and curses.
Emergency crews were scrambled, mobile phones started ringing. With its nearside wing smashed and the detached front bumper hanging out of the boot, the car looked in a bad way. Thanks to a roll cage and a large slice of luck, however, the occupants were fine.
A sheepish Flintoff, looking like the lad who’s crashed his dad’s car, emerged with a grin. “I’d do it again,” he said, rather unconvincingly.
Dusting himself down, Meeke tried to be philosophical. “It’s part and parcel of rallying,” he said. “There was a loose rock which upset the car and, instead of lifting off the throttle, Freddie braked. This upset the car and sent it rolling. Now he’s just got to get out there again and get over it. It was a bad shunt for an amateur but no biggie for a professional.” There was a moment of silence as cast and crew contemplated how serious it might have been. Then Carr summed up what everyone was thinking: “He crashed on a straight, for heaven’s sake. It shows what happens when you get a load of comedians in a rally car.”
This article first appeared in The Sunday Times on August 4, 2013