Richard Hammond: ‘The majority of cars will still be petrol in 2050’

Izzy and Richard Hammond have been presenting the podcast since February
Izzy and Richard Hammond have been presenting their podcast since February - ANDREW CROWLEY

It was always going to be difficult to know if and when Richard Hammond was in the throes of a mid-life crisis. After all, he’s been associated with the traditional signifiers – buying sports cars, wearing leather jackets, growing unsettling facial hair – for almost as long as he’s been in the public eye.

So it’s helpful that now, at the age of 54, Hammond has offered the surest indication yet that he’s questioning everything about himself: like so many of his peers, from Gary Lineker to Ed Balls, the former Top Gear presenter has launched a chatty podcast. And not just any podcast – one about men, mental health and ageing, with his 23-year-old daughter, Izzy.

“I want to talk about the midlife crisis because I am having one, I’m not lying. I’ve just bought a convertible Porsche and had a tattoo, my second tattoo. I think that will probably permeate everything we talk about,” he says in the first episode of Who We Are Now.

That tattoo, by the way, was the logo of The Smallest Cog, his car restoration business, on his left forearm. The first, procured on the occasion of his 50th birthday, saw the words ‘micris fidelis’ inked onto his right bicep. In cod Latin it means “faithful to small things” (not, as everybody jokes, “loyal to Nissan hatchbacks”), but is also a letter-perfect anagram of, yes, “midlife crisis”.

If it’s that bad, he seems to be holding up well. I meet Hammond and Izzy at their PR agency’s offices in central London. With his swept-back hair and tortoiseshell glasses, he has the air of a trendy university professor.

A surprisingly tall one, at that: Hammond may be famously diminutive (5ft 5ins), especially alongside his lofty former Top Gear colleagues Jeremy Clarkson and James May, but his eldest daughter is 4ft 11. The other two members of the family, 20 year-old Willow and Mindy, Hammond’s wife of 22 years, are also barely over 5ft. Izzy’s called their sprawling 600-year-old home in the Herefordshire countryside a “Hobbit castle.” When Clarkson comes over he’s like Gandalf, banging his head on the pots and pans.

Hammond and his wife Mindy in 2015
Hammond and his wife Mindy in 2015 - IAN WEST/PA

Today, the difference is starker still as Izzy, bright and chatty in a sleeveless vest and crisp blue shirt, has before her a Stanley Cup water bottle so large it makes her look half the size again, while Hammond drinks from a miniature can of Coke, making him look huge.“I don’t go anywhere without Stanley,” Izzy confirms. “Hydration is key.”

Instantly they decide they must do a podcast episode on generational attitudes to hydration. “My generation’s bodies are made up of bits of wire and gristle and sand and dust, whereas yours is water and cucumber and avocado,” Hammond says. “I’m so old. Full-fat Coke…”

They are like this: her forever calling him out, him grumbling but secretly enjoying it. It’s the basis of Who We Are Now, which intentionally sounds like someone’s simply stuck a microphone in their family kitchen.

In the first series, which has been weekly since the end of February, the pair have been discussing mental health, cancel culture, masculinity, transgenderism, motor-racing, obesity and metrosexuality, interviewing a variety of experts and friends, including James May, in the process.

As much as Hammond likes to joke about his ongoing crisis, deciding to publicly discuss those issues has just as much to do with the life-threatening crash he had while driving a jet-powered car at 320mph for Top Gear in 2006. He spent a fortnight in a coma, before “putting his brain back together” and recovering to resume presenting duties the following year.

“Because I was very publicly brain-injured, people are comfortable with me talking about mental health. I think blokes can shy away from the subject, but because they know me from car shows, it’s kind of permission to engage.”

Filming on location in Colombia for series three of The Grand Tour
Filming on location in Colombia for series three of The Grand Tour - ELLIS O'BRIAN

The original plan was for Izzy, who finished an English degree at the University of Bristol (“with a first”, her proud dad makes sure to add, twice) last year, to only help with production. But after proving a talented on-camera presenter on Hammond’s YouTube motoring channel, DriveTribe, a cross-generational dynamic made more sense.

“Yes, I’m a middle-aged bloke and we’re just a slice of society, like postmenopausal women, young boys, old people – but society needs happy, functioning, balanced middle-aged men who can be vulnerable and talk things through and understand their emotions,” Hammond says.

“Also,” Izzy adds, “so much work is being done with younger people about mental health, but we can’t just leave the older generations out and say they’re past it. And we’re so much more similar than we are different.”

Even cancel culture sees them on common ground. Top Gear’s flirtations with controversy – usually thanks to Clarkson – took place in a marginally more forgiving time.

“It’s harder to be in trouble now, to stare at your shoes and apologise,” Hammond says. “You can’t say, ‘Oh God, you’re right, I’m sorry.’ You’re described and labelled as whatever, and that’s it, you’re finished. We risk creating a world where you can be hanged for something, when what would be better is discussing it and realise for yourself where the problem is.”

“Yes!” Izzy exclaims. “Educate and understand people.”

Hammond now wants to cover everything, including the menopause. “That affects half of society, therefore it affects all of society. They’re going to have this extremely major thing going on and it’s going to affect you, so you have a role to support and understand.”

He’d also like men to get a little more credit for the bits of self-care they might already do. He goes to his local pub every Thursday night with “a completely mixed group of blokes, most of us met through our kids, and mostly we talk b–----- but it is a very safe space and it’s good for men to spend time with men sometimes. You don’t have to have a massive group hug and cry about it, but acknowledge that it’s therapy.”

For all its petrol-pints-pratfalls reputation, the Clarkson-May-Hammond iteration of Top Gear, which ran for 22 series between 2002 (remarkably, Hammond was only 32 when he first appeared) and 2015, was a family show really, and none of them, Hammond insists, are “particularly blokey blokes”.

Top Gear
Hammond spent 13 years on Top Gear with Clarkson and May - Ellis O'Brien

“We were quite open, ready to have a chat, quite modern really. The blokiness was projected onto us. I once had someone say, ‘Oh, I know what you lot are like about women drivers…’ And I thought, ‘What?!’ We never said anything about them. If anything, that show showed a different side to blokes. Yes, we took the p--- out of each other, but we were there for each other.”

Clarkson, May and Hammond (as well as their unofficial “fourth musketeer”, producer Andy Wilman) left Top Gear en masse nine years ago after the BBC decided not to renew Clarkson’s contract when he punched a producer – allegedly during an argument about catering. Clarkson later settled a £100,000 racial discrimination and injury claim.

They pootled on to Amazon Prime, which reportedly paid £160 million to secure them for a new show, The Grand Tour. After five series, they’re now bringing that to a close, too, and will go their separate ways – at least for now.

Will he ever do more TV with Clarkson and May? “Oh God, I don’t know. We always said we wanted to end on our terms, but we’re still all mates, we still talk to each other…”

Izzy puts up a hand to interject: “But also, and I don’t want to be rude, but they’re quite old… They’re really getting on. It had to end at some point. You can’t be doing it with walking sticks.” An easy bodyshot, but Hammond still laughs hard. “Yes,” he concedes, “we’ve done it.”

With Jeremy Clarkson and James May during a press event in Australia in 2015
With Jeremy Clarkson and James May during a press event in Australia in 2015 - MATT JELONEK/WIREIMAGE

Top Gear may also be done. Last November, the BBC announced the show will not return “for the foreseeable future” after presenter Andrew “Freddie” Flintoff suffered severe injuries in a crash while filming in Mansfield in 2022.

“I didn’t find it triggering at all [hearing about it], just more upsetting for Freddie. I don’t know any more than anybody else, but obviously my heart goes out to the guy and I hope he continues to recover, I really feel for him.” Have they been in touch? “No. But then, I wasn’t before.”

The absence of both The Grand Tour and Top Gear means there’s no high-profile motoring show on television. Some might see this as absolutely fine, given the petrol car’s days might be numbered, to be replaced by self-driving and electric vehicles, but Hammond suggests it makes it even more necessary.

“I think it’ll polarise out into people who [see driving] as this autonomous, anonymous thing on your smartphone when you press a button and that gets you to where you want to go, and people who’ll go ‘Wait a minute, I used to like my old VW Polo, I used to like my independence, and – oh God, I’m a car fan, who knew.”

It is one of the generational battle lines people like to draw, I say: that Gen Z aren’t petrolheads.

“Gen Z in the city,” Hammond corrects. “Out in the country, where we’re from, Izzy did 13,000 miles in her Mini in the first year after she passed her test. Because it’s that or stay at home. There’s no buses, no trains.”

He’s on a roll now. “EVs will be part of the picture, of course they are. But at the current rate of electrification, even if we could keep it up – which we can’t because China is withholding the rare earth minerals we need – by 2050 the majority of cars on the road will still be, and have to be, internal combustion engines. So we have to solve that, and synthetic fuels will be the way.”

This puzzle, combined with the potential variety of engines on the market, is why a primetime motoring show might be useful for consumers.

“The biggest financial decision we make as individuals, with a bearing on the carbon future, is the car. And people might end up buying electric cars that simply don’t work in their application, or not buying one when they’d be perfect. But we’re not properly informed. There is a need now for a show which goes, ‘Look, you need to get about, how you do that is an important decision, so here’s the stuff you need to know.’ Somebody should be doing that.”

Like, say, Top Gear?

“Well they’ve parked it again. They’ve parked it before, they’d parked it when we took it on. So somebody will do it, under that brand or as something else.”

I turn to Izzy, a Formula One addict who drives a Mercedes A-Class in her personal life but test drives everything from Teslas to pick-up trucks and her dad’s 530bhp Subaru Impreza in DriveTribe videos. (In addition to the Subaru, Hammond also has a Ford Ranger Wildtrak, a Porsche 911, a Land Rover 110, two 1962 Jaguar E-Types, a 1967 Ford Mustang and lots of bikes.) At home, the Hammonds also have a stable of horses – where Richard likes engines, Mindy, Izzy and particularly Willow, who’s studying equestrian welfare and management, like riding. But latterly, Izzy has inherited the cars and TV bug.

“Oh jeez, I’m not a proper petrolhead yet, to take on that sort of a role,” she says. But she’s getting there.

The eldest of three boys, Hammond was born in Solihull, the grandson of a coachbuilder. His own father, Alan, ran a probate business, but an interest in motoring and engineering ran through generations. After the family moved to North Yorkshire, he attended Ripon Grammar School and Harrogate College of Art and Technology, before joining the BBC as a local radio presenter, eventually settling at Radio Lancashire with a mid-morning show at just 22.

Obsessed with cars and motorcycles, he coveted the job of a friend, Zog Ziegler, who contributed motoring reviews to the show. Ziegler later urged Hammond to apply for TV roles, including Men & Motors. Then an audition for Top Gear came along. Luck played a large part, he insists.

“I applied for a job working in the press office at Renault, and the man who interviewed me only gave me a job because I had interesting shoes on. At Renault I met Mindy, and after 18 months I’d made the connections in TV and got onto Men & Motors,” he says.

“And then when I went for the Top Gear job I had a really crap left-hand drive Porsche 911, which they knew I’d only drive if I was really into cars, and when I left I said I ‘need to go back to The ’Nam’, meaning Cheltenham [where he then lived]. And because I’d called it that, I stuck in their mind… So it’s all luck, and then you work hard to make sure the next bit of luck comes along.”

Izzy is a natural on screen, and particularly adept at the tricky art of chatting to camera while driving. Viewers on YouTube adore her, and have instantly picked up on the similarities between father and daughter. It’s nice.

“I bet you don’t think it’s nice…” Hammond says to her.

“I got a hell of a comment the other day, someone went, ‘Oh, I can really see Jeremy…’” Izzy says, eyes widening with horror. She’s decided not to dwell on what they meant.

Izzy has inherited the cars and TV bug from Richard
Izzy has inherited the cars and TV bug from Richard - Andrew Crowley

Naturally, the matter of nepotism has come up. “It’s completely expected. But it’s just one of those things, if you’re given an opportunity it’s what you do with it. So many people’s careers are founded on luck and doors that get opened, but you can’t just sit there by the door frame, you have to work hard at it, which is what I’m trying to do,” she says.

“But you can’t win with the nepo baby thing, whatever you say, people are never going to like it. And the biggest thing I ever learnt from dad is work ethic. I don’t know anybody who works as hard as him.”

Hammond has spoken about working so hard, and being away with Top Gear, that he missed vast periods of Izzy and Willow’s childhoods, and was too tired to be fully present. “There were nights when I drove home from a shoot and parked round the corner until I knew bathtime was finished. I was pretty crappy as a father,” he admitted last year.

“Anybody who travels with work has that, but some jobs take you away,” he says, with a shrug. Izzy, now in the working world, is now discovering the same challenge. “Work often wins. Obviously I understood him going to work, but now I get to see it, and have a much deeper understanding of why he was away for so long, because I would do the same.”

Would Hammond have done it differently? “Er, not really. I don’t know if I could have done. But I’m not one who looks for regrets because what’s the point? Unless you’re learning lessons, and I’m 54, I’m not going to have another career. You just make the best of it.”

It’s an attitude that got him through that horror crash all those years ago. Izzy was six when it happened, “so it was hardest for mum, dealing with that and communicating it to me and Wills, but we visited him in hospital and he was doolally. The nurses were introducing us to him as his daughters.”

Hammond shakes his head. “I don’t remember this.”

Police inspect the car that Hammond crashed in 2006 which left him in a coma for a fortnight
Police inspect the car that Hammond crashed in 2006 which left him in a coma for a fortnight - OWEN HUMPHREYS/PA

“When he got home he was still a bit doolally,” Izzy continues, “and we had to keep seeing him, but mum couldn’t keep us too close to him because he’d say the same thing six times in a row in 20 minutes and we’d know something was wrong. I know it was bad, but I don’t look back on it as a traumatic experience that ruined my childhood. It’s just a thing that happened.”

Though fully recovered now, Hammond said last year that he may be at greater risk of a condition related to memory loss. “It might be because I’m 53, it might be because I’m working a lot and I’m tired, it might be the onset of something else,” he said.

Is he worried? “No, it’s just one of the big experiences of my life, we’ve all got those.” Really, though? He sighs. “A bit, maybe. Maybe it’ll have an effect, I don’t know. But I don’t think we will know, until something goes wrong, whether it’s related to that or something else. My memory has been affected, and it still is.”

Izzy scoffs. “It is rubbish, so it’s genuinely difficult to know.”

As it is, he’s doing less and less TV, bar the car restoration show Richard Hammond’s Workshop, which is made for Discovery Plus by his own production company, and will be letting Izzy take more of the limelight on DriveTribe. Otherwise they have the podcast.

“I’ve also taken up making AirFix models,” he says, brightly. “It’s great for the flow state. Doing something completely pointless, and that’s the point. I’m just shamelessly embracing middle age, and enjoying it.”

Richard Hammond’s growth spurt. Crisis, what crisis? He smiles. “No, I don’t think it’s a crisis.”

Beside him, Izzy screws up her face to correct us.

“Um, in some ways,” she says, “it’s a crisis.”

Who We Are Now is available to listen to on Global Player and all other major podcast platforms