The high-speed crash which nearly killed the Top Gear presenter Richard Hammond was probably caused by a nail in a car tyre which safety experts did not spot, an official BBC report revealed yesterday. There was a "distinct possibility" that a check of the tyres between earlier practice runs could have identified the danger, investigators concluded, adding that an "inability to spot the damage to the tyre" was the underlying cause of the accident.
The inquiry, ordered by the BBC's director of television, also revealed that another Top Gear presenter, James May, was the first choice to test-drive the jet-powered Vampire car but Hammond stepped in because May was unavailable.
The crash occurred at Elvington airfield, near York, on 20 September last year while Hammond was driving the modified drag racer. He was on his fourth run of the day when the front offside tyre suffered a "catastrophic disintegration". A penetrating object such as a nail, probably picked up during one of the practice runs, punctured the tyre's side wall.
The 88-page report criticised the producers of the popular BBC2 motoring show for not having anyone present with the expertise to monitor whether Primetime Landspeed Engineering, the company which owned the Vampire, had performed safety checks properly. It said of the crash: "The provisional opinion of the tyre expert, pending further information from PLE, [was] that a detailed examination of each tyre immediately following each run is likely to have revealed the area of weakness on the front off-side tyre."
PLE initially asked Top Gear to cover its attempt to break the world land speed record, which it had set previously with another car that reached 300.3mph. The producers declined the offer because it did not match the Top Gear format. Instead, they sent Hammond to test-drive the older, more reliable Vampire. It appears, however, that Hammond did unofficially break the record by reaching a speed of 314mph on his third run. It was on the next run that he crashed at 288mph.