Richard and Mindy Hammond are sitting at the kitchen island of their extraordinary castle home in Herefordshire, mugs of tea in hand, trading the delicious barbs that bear testament to a profoundly secure partnership. Mindy announces that nine years after they moved here, Richard still has no idea where the cat food is kept; Richard counters with his knowledge that she takes “special milk” in her tea, as proof of his devotion to her. She rolls her eyes, and they laugh.
Twenty-two years since they met, when both were working at a PR agency, he looks to her often during the hour that we chat. Unfeasibly gorgeous at 52 to his 47 (he turns 48 in December), Mindy is “the love of his life” – and it shows, never more than in one particularly ironic fact. I’m here to interview him about the second series of The Grand Tour, the Amazon-streamed follow-up to the career-defining platform he created with Jeremy Clarkson and James May on the BBC’s Top Gear. The idea of such publicity interviews is of course to drum up maximum viewing figures. But there are three people Richard Hammond specifically does not want watching the first episode of the new run – Mindy, along with their daughters, Izzy, 17, and Willow, 14 – because the show will broadcast graphic footage of the second life-threatening crash of his career.
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In 2006, Hammond was driving a jet-powered dragster for Top Gear when it had tyre failure at 288mph. He sustained a brain injury so serious that he was in a coma for two weeks, and it took him several years to recover fully. Then, on 10 June this year, while filming in Switzerland for The Grand Tour, he lost control of a £2 million supercar at 120mph. The Rimac Concept One barrel-rolled 110 metres down a steep hill before catching fire. Hammond was still inside it, his left knee shattered, as the sound of the flames pierced his consciousness.
The Rimac was not a racing car, fitted with a safety harness designed for exactly such situations, which would spring open with a single touch. It had an ordinary seatbelt, and Hammond could not release it. Moreover, he was wearing regular clothing rather than a fire-retardant race suit that would have offered protection from the imminent inferno. And he couldn’t get out.
“I remember all of it, right from when maybe I was going too fast and went over the edge,” he recalls. “Then sky, ground, sky, ground, like being in a tumble dryer full of bricks. I thought, ‘Oh God, I’m going to die. This is it. I’ve had it.’
“When it finally stopped, I knew I’d broken my leg, and it felt as if I’d broken a load of ribs, too, but that was just bruising from the seatbelt. I was jammed there, and I couldn’t open the door. I was really struggling and flailing as I battled to get out. And then I stopped. That was when I heard crackling and realised the car was on fire. It was going up. So I thought I had better increase my efforts to get out.”
That last sentence is a jaunty, Hammondesque acknowledgement that he was about to burn to death. He speaks of the crash vividly, but shies from frank description of either fear or pain. It falls to others to outline the utter horror of the scene. “There was an inferno raging,” wrote Jeremy Clarkson afterwards. “It was the biggest crash I’ve seen and the most frightening. I genuinely thought he was dead.”
At Clarkson’s side, James May described a “blazing, charred heap” and felt a “blossoming, white-hot ball of pure, sickening horror forming in my heart… I cannot remember experiencing such a debilitating sense of shock and pure incomprehension as this. Hammond was dead.” In fact, out of sight of his co-presenters, Hammond had managed to crawl out. As help arrived, he was able to process two thoughts: one, that this time he had no head injury; two, that he must contact Mindy to tell her so, assuring her that no matter what she might see or hear over the coming hours, this was not like 2006. Within minutes he was speaking to her, as she shopped in Cheltenham with Izzy. Yet by the very nature of it, a call that was meant to soothe had the opposite effect.
“He said, ‘I’ve had a bit of a shunt,’ and I knew it was serious,” remembers Mindy. “His words implied it was a big one. I could hear panic around him and I fell apart. I went back to 2006, thinking, ‘Oh my God, oh my God,’ because with a brain injury like the one he had, you can sound completely fine and not be.
“None of us in our little family dares think what the outcome would have been if he hadn’t scrambled his way out of that car. He told me at one point that he gave up, and then thought, ‘No, I have to get out.’ It was close. He was extremely lucky. Most of us are fortunate to escape looking death in the face. Richard’s done it twice, and that’s two times too many.”
Swiss doctors, accustomed to ski-mangled limbs, diagnosed a tibial plateau fracture before surgically inserting a plate and ten screws to create what Hammond labelled his “Swiss army knee”. Now almost six months down the line, season two of The Grand Tour will kick off with a detailed look at the crash, although footage is limited as the in-car cameras were incinerated.
It was pretty horrible for me to watch it back,” admits Hammond. “I wanted to reach into the screen and stop myself being there, because I knew what was coming. I genuinely didn’t like it, and I don’t think Mindy or the girls should see it.”
Next to him, Mindy nods in agreement.
“I saw the footage of the first crash just once and then couldn’t watch it again,” she says. “After I saw it, I was in the Top Gear audience when that footage was broadcast, and I had to leave. This time, I know I don’t want to see it at all. Too upsetting.”
The bottom line, happily, is that the worst did not come to pass, and life goes on at their 31-acre estate (so large that the running of it requires its own limited company). Residents include four dogs, five cats, eight horses, a rabbit, two goats, a peacock, a donkey, a flock of sheep, “loads” of ducks and chickens, and a turkey called Princess.
“We love her,” says Mindy firmly. “Don’t talk about Christmas.”
The fact is that to beloved pet turkeys and new visitors alike, “Hamelot” (as some call it) is a magical place. Undetectable from the A40 just a mile away, it’s a mix of 16th-century beams and picture-perfect Queen Anne frontage, with castellated additions built 200 years later. There are six bedrooms, a moat, a lake and outbuildings that are twice as large as the 5,500sq ft house (“Not big really,” according to Hammond). A converted granary contains a swimming pool, while assorted stable blocks house Hammond’s “12 or so” cars, and a vast glass-fronted barn is given over to his 40-plus motorbike collection. “It has underfloor heating, as motorbikes need to be warm,” says Mindy, rolling her eyes with a smile. “But actually, the heating is great for the annual New Year’s Eve party we have in there.”
What comes over isn’t a blingy exhibition of conspicuous wealth (Hammond’s fortune is estimated at £19 million), but a warmly welcoming home whose occupants feel fortunate they can invest in things that give them pleasure.
They bought the house for £2 million in 2008, by which time Midlands-born solicitor’s son Hammond had notched up six years on Top Gear and the show was on its way to becoming the most-watched factual programme on Earth, despite an ever-increasing list of controversies. The last of these, in 2015, saw Clarkson punch a producer, after which his contract was not renewed. When Hammond and May then declined to renew their own, Amazon snapped up the trio in a reported £130 million three-series deal.
Season one screened last winter to predictably mixed reviews. Amazon won’t release viewing figures, but market research suggests that 2.3 million people in the UK were watching midway through the series – that’s more than 70 per cent down on the eight million of Top Gear’s heyday, but still the biggest audience share for any Amazon show to date, and it did attract large numbers of new subscribers to the service. Series three goes into production early next year but Hammond is vague on what will happen next.
“No idea,” he says. “All we know is that Amazon are very pleased. Maybe they [Clarkson and May] will go into an old folks’ home, because they need full-time care, and I’ll retire and be home with Mindy.” He grins at her loud retching noises, admitting, “I’d drive her bloody nuts.”
There are no such plans, but the June crash brought at least one enforced change. While he resumed driving in mid-August, his lifelong love of running no longer has an outlet. He cannot so much as attempt to run for another year, and will need a knee replacement sooner rather than later.
“It’s aching now,” he admits. “I’m like an old man.” I remind him of a previous interview I did with him for Radio Times three years ago in which he said, “There could be another big accident out there waiting for me.” He laughs uproariously at that, and Mindy claps her hands.
“Bugger,” he grins. “It turns out there was. But what could I have done? Not done my job? After this summer’s accident, Mindy and I had a long talk and this is the life we want. We don’t want to change it. When I’m away, all I think about is being here. It’s a struggle, albeit entirely self-centred. But if I have a day off, instead of me catching up on rest, Mindy and I get the wine out and talk until 3am.”
For the hundredth time that morning, he looks at his wife. “I wouldn’t want it to change, although I do fret,” says Mindy. “When he goes away for work, I deliberately don’t ask him what he’s going to be doing, to protect myself from worry. But I don’t chide him for any recklessness – unless he picks up a power tool at home, because that’s guaranteed to go wrong.
“I never resent him being away, and neither of us think he has missed key times in the girls’ growing up. It’s not just that he makes me laugh. We challenge each other. I’d be bored to tears with someone dead calm just skipping through life.”
Hammond is still gazing at her, his expression unmistakeable. For all his millions, the look on his face is the kind that no amount of money can buy.
The Grand Tour is on Amazon Prime from Friday 8th December