Living in the fast lane

Tiff Needell and wife Patsy at the Goodwood Ball.
Tiff Needell and wife Patsy at the Goodwood Ball.
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Hampshire-born Tiff Needell has lifted the lid on his life as a racing driver and TV presenter in his autobiography. He talks to SARAH FOSTER about luck, his passion for motors and holidays on the south coast.

As a young boy Tiff Needell loved nothing more than watching the cars race past him at the Goodwood Motor Racing circuit, near Chichester.

Over the years he saw all the greats – Stirling Moss, Mike Hawthorn and Jim Clark included.

For any motor racing enthusiast it’s the stuff of dreams and for a young lad like Tiff it sparked a passion that was to last a lifetime. Tiff – now the host of Channel Five’s motoring show Fifth Gear – has his dad, Tony, to thank for igniting that flame.

‘Dad dragged me down to Goodwood,’ explains Tiff. ‘He did the first members’ meeting there and used to go to Brooklands in the pre-war years.

‘I was a little boy hanging off the fence, I was a proper fan. How often does the little boy hanging off the fence get to be a Formula One driver?’

Born in Havant, Tiff went on to get his hands on a Formula One car three times. He competed in the 1980 Belgian Grand Prix, got to have a go round the famous Monaco circuit and was filmed driving the modern-day Williams in 2005 for a TV slot.

Today he’s instantly recognisable because of his TV work but his motor sport career is laid out in full in his new autobiography, Tiff Gear. And it’s his love of racing that comes across most.

‘I was three years old when we were down at Goodwood and watched Mike Hawthorn and Stirling Moss racing past,’ he adds.

‘Jim Clark was my greatest hero. He was such a gentleman and wonderfully charming. He used to race the saloon cars and the F1 cars and he was such a natural talent.

‘When I was writing the book just writing his name brought tears to my eyes, it makes me go a bit funny just talking about it now.’

When we speak he’s sitting in a pavement cafe in London drinking cappuccinos in the sunshine. He’s been talking about his book all day but Tiff admits he loves to chat.

Born in the now-demolished Emsworth Nursing Home, he has fond memories of the south coast. He and his family – wife Patsy and their three boys Jack, Harry and George – lived in Petersfield for 13 years. And holidays with dad, mum, Diana, and older brother Michael, were spent in the Witterings, just up the A27.

‘We used to go to Gunwharf Quays all the time,’ remembers Tiff, who turns 60 this year. ‘We had holidays in East Wittering, I loved the holidays there. We had the same two weeks in the same bungalow every year. We had fantastic holidays.’

Although he now lives in Salisbury his two oldest sons were born in St Mary’s Hospital, Portsmouth. But you’d be wrong if you thought that made them Pompey fans. Tiff reveals he supports that other Hampshire team, Saints, and jokes that his agent had warned him not to mention it.

‘I always love the fact that both teams call each other scum,’ he laughs. ‘My wife says “The boys were born in Portsmouth”.

‘But we moved when they were about seven or eight, when they were old enough to take to football and I thought we better go to St Mary’s then because it was up the road and so it started.

‘We’re coming up, we’ll have some more south coast derbys yet.’

It’s not football though that’s dominated Tiff’s life. As well as his brief shot at Formula One, his career has taken in everything from touring cars to Porsches, rallycross to the famous 24-hour endurance race Le Mans.

The release of the book coincides with one particularly pivotal moment in Tiff’s history. It’s 40 years since he won a racing car in a magazine competition, giving him the chance to make his dream come true.

Young Tiff started racing as soon as he left school and went to Brands Hatch to hire a car for £10 for 10 laps. The experience made him want to be a racing driving even more. But winning a Lotus 69F Formula Ford made that a possibility.

‘There were a lot of these competitions in the 1970s,’ recalls Tiff. ‘You had to list 10 items in order of something and the judges would then judge your answers. I did 20 lines of different orders, it was two shillings for each line, which was a lot of money. It was like winning the Pools and it was unbelievable. I had no money to run it though and had to become a mechanic in a shed.

‘People say if you’re determined enough to make it you will but you won’t. They say coming second is losing but it’s not. You can have a great life, people should enjoy it.

‘There’s only 24 Grand Prix drivers on the grid. There’s this idea that if you’re dedicated enough you will make it but you won’t. You have to be dedicated and have luck.

‘Look at Lewis Hamilton. He went up to Ron Dennis (former team principal of McLaren) and said “Will you sponsor me?”

‘If Ron Dennis said “no”, Lewis Hamilton wouldn’t be where he is now. Mclaren must have spent £6m or £7m bringing him up.’

Tiff’s own Formula One career couldn’t be any more different. He was driving in the Formula Two championship when the call came in to say F1 driver Clay Regazzoni had crashed his Team Ensign car and Tiff was asked to be his replacement.

‘It all flew by, it all happened in about a week,’ he says. ‘There wasn’t the time to look forward to it. I knew I was on trial, the team was watching. It was a rubbish car but at least I was there. I went from being the kid hanging off the rails to a Grand Prix driver.’

Engine failure put an end to his race in Belgium but Tiff was given another chance at Monaco. Sadly he failed to qualify and his career in the super-competititve Formula One was over.

Tiff remains characteristically upbeat: ‘I was so nearly a Grand Prix driver full time. I didn’t get there. I was so nearly the top motoring television presenter until Jeremy Clarkson came along. I have a saying – I’m unluckier than a few but luckier than millions.’

As one of the original Top Gear presenters (see panel) Tiff also puts his TV career down to a bit of luck.

‘Chris Goffey, the Top Gear presenter, broke his leg,’ he remembers. ‘I was doing commentary alongside Murray Walker during the bits James Hunt couldn’t be bothered to do and I was writing articles for Autosport. So I’d been working alongside Murray and they read my pieces. They made me Chris’s replacement and when they discovered I could drive on the limit and talk another career came along.

‘Most of the time I was doing Top Gear I was racing full time so it was pretty hectic. When I did the television my trick was to tell it how I felt it. It seemed like people enjoyed coming along for the ride.’

* Tiff Gear – the autobiography of Tiff Needell, priced £19.99, is out now.