They say you should never meet your heroes, let alone learn how they make an omelet. But it’s confession time, so I’m sharing an untold story of Top Gear to celebrate its re-launch—or re-hash, depending on your view.
(Editor’s note: I asked former Stig, stunt driver, racer and friend of Jalopnik Ben Collins to tell me a story no one has heard about Top Gear before. And he did, because he’s awesome like that.
If you like Ben’s writing you really should check out his book, How To Drive, which just went on sale in the U.S. And if any readers out there are wondering what to do when your brakes fail and you’re NOT filming a Top Gear race, Ben has conveniently written a chapter on just that. -PG)
Back in the summer of 2008 we were looking for a nation to insult and Germany seemed to have it all: a seemingly humorless populace with high-speed highways and a new motoring show hosted by three presenters. Sounds familiar.
One of these was none other than Sabine Schmitz: the heroine of the Nürburgring who left Jeremy’s pride in tatters in the back of her white van.
In order to thoroughly humiliate the Germans, Top Gear relied on a tried and tested formula: invite them to a contest where we had all the cameras, and then edit accordingly to make them look stupid.
Operation Sauerkraut was staged at Zolder Racing Circuit in Belgium, which holds a special place in many hearts as the fateful venue where the legend of Formula One, Gilles Villeneuve, was extinguished by a colossal crash in the 1980s.
The Germans bowled up to the venue by car and were blissfully unaware that the English team would be “arriving” in World War II Spitfire fighter planes. At least, that’s how it would look after Top Gear’s editor worked his magic on the footage.
To avoid detection or enemy fire, the Spitfires were filmed in the safety of England while the Germans were filmed on location looking curiously at an empty sky. No doubt they were informed to look out for our arrival in the back of a low fair airliner. The footage, once spliced together, delivered a satisfactory mugging off.
Once filming got underway, we adopted another widely used filming technique known as “The Kick, Bollock and Scramble.” What this amounts to is throwing all your people and toys into one place and filming whatever happens next.
Double-decker cars were cleverly constructed by our version of NASA: a large man called Steve who set to work with the crack of his arse on display more often than a Kardashian. Steve’s welding conjoined one car on top of another like two ugly insects screwing, with one presenter sitting downstairs controlling the pedals and a crew-member doing the steering upstairs.
Somehow this was deemed insurable.
The race comprised two of these monsters from each team, and the carnage that ensued is readily available on the internet. The only problem was that Steve’s abominations proved to be far more reliable than anybody predicted, and nobody could get Jeremy and co to stop driving them. That left precious little time to film the remaining challenges.
In another subtle homage to Germany losing World War II, a timed autotest was set up using a BMW Mini that would be shot at with paintballs by opposing members in tiny tanks. There was so little time to film this segment that only Jezza got to drive before being whisked off to the track for a race against Sabine. Even an amoeba could forecast the winner of that contest.
Top Gear was trailing on points and the sun was starting to do that thing that film producers hate by falling out of the sky. The final contest was winner-take-all. James May, AKA Captain, Slow versus Germany’s Tim Schrick, AKA a professional racing driver, racing around the full 2.5-mile Zolder Circuit in a pair of 180 mph GT3 racecars. For James, this was tantamount to euthanasia.
I donned the Stig’s white suit and helmet and we all played along with the gag that it was actually James who had squeezed into the Nomex. But that was where the team orders ended.
Schrick eagerly climbed aboard his Porsche, I jumped in the Aston Martin. The race would be two laps, from a rolling start, and Schrick would be given a four-second lead on account of their points advantage.
I was understandably eager to drive the car for the first time around a track I had never seen, but my car wouldn’t start. Schrick, meanwhile, was roaring around the track getting his tyres and brakes up to temperature. Hot tyres means more grip, which makes the car go faster. It seemed conspicuously competitive for a scripted race where the Stig was supposed to save the day. “Scripted my ass,” he was thinking.
The Aston spluttered to life and I was finally released from pit lane with orders to drive directly to the start line. My protests about warming the tyres fell on deaf ears. We had ten minutes left to film what normally took hours.
The Aston’s bare metal surfaces were liberally covered in black rubber particles and oil residue, the hallmarks of an unloved beast that had been wheeled out of semi retirement to perform against its will. I floored it and weaved left to right to try and get the rubber working, and braked hard and early on the back straight to check the binders. Lucky I did.
The brakes worked fine apart from the fact that the throttle stuck open, resulting in the car trying very hard to accelerate me towards a wall. Back at the grid the cameras were ready and Clarkson was waving his giraffe-like limbs around, accentuating the “Bollock, Scramble” nausea now gripping the crew.
I tried explaining my predicament calmly but clearly to the director thusly: “The brakes on this fucking car don’t fucking work.” He looked at his watch, jogged on the spot and called the French mechanics over to take a look. Jeremy was frothing nearby. The mechanics dived briefly into the footwell and re-emerged, shrugged their Gallic shoulders and looked like they might go on strike at any moment. Fixing the problem was either uninteresting or impossible.
The option of sending up the white flag on safety grounds didn’t bode well for my TV career. Then again, losing would be unforgivable regardless of whether the car had brakes or not.
“Let’s do this,” I said with faux confidence.
Schrick, who must have been running low on fuel by now, pulled into formation and we drove towards the start line. I felt a gigantic rush of adrenaline. Schrick tore off and four long seconds later, I wheelspun away in pursuit.
For the first ragged lap, I drove the hell out of the car and the throttle behaved itself. Bless those garlic-crunching mechanics after all. I advanced towards Schrick’s Porsche until reaching Turn 1 where things went pear-shaped. I braked for the fast left-hander and the throttle jammed fully open, pouring 550 BHP of resistance against my brakes. The front tyres locked up and I fell off the circuit and into the sand trap.
I lost some ground, but at least the tyres were cooking. After another desperate lap I had the Porsche within my sights and I went for the world’s longest lunge under braking for a tight hairpin, whilst praying the Aston would play ball.
I squeezed past and The Stig saved the day.
The Top Gear editors took the footage into their windowless caffeine chambers and somehow managed to unscramble it to create an entertaining, joined-up piece of TV.
With seven presenters filling the screen the new Top Gear is sure to be an editor’s delight, and hopefully a crowd pleaser too.