'Top Gear' presenter in 300mph jet-car crash

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The Independent Online

Richard Hammond, the television presenter for BBC2's Top Gear, was in a was in a "serious but stable" condition today after a jet car he was driving crashed during a land-speed record attempt.

Mr Hammond, 36, was driving at almost 300mph and filming for the motor programme at Elvington air base near York, when the "rocket-powered dragster" crashed and overturned. He was airlifted to Leeds General Infirmary and remains in intensive care.

Top Gear co-presenter Jeremy Clarkson today visited the hospital with fellow presenter James May. Mr Clarkson said: "I would just like to say how heartened Richard will be when I tell him just how many motorists and truck drivers on my way here wound down their windows to say they were rooting for him."

He also said: "Richard remains in intensive care. Obviously at this time both he and his family are the most important concerns we have. It must be devastating for his wife Mindy and his two utterly adorable children."

A former firefighter who was one of the first at the scene said the crash happened on the last "run" of the day. Dave Ogden, who was helping to provide emergency cover at the airfield in case of an accident, said: "They had just done one more run and were planning to finish when it veered off to the right. One of the parachutes had deployed but it went on to the grass and spun over and over before coming to a rest about 100 yards from us."

He said his crew found the car upside down and "dug in" to the grass. The emergency services cut Mr Hammond, who was partially conscious, free from the jet car.

Mr Ogden said Mr Hammond had been travelling at just over 300mph in a previous "run" yesterday, but he was uncertain whether he had broken the British land speed record of 300.3mph, held by Colin Fallows.

Relatives were travelling to the hospital, where Mr Hammond is being treated in the neurological unit, last night.

Mr Hammond, who lives outside Cheltenham with his wife, Amanda, and two children, first appeared on British television screens on cable and satellite channels presenting motoring programmes before switching to the BBC's Top Gear in 2002, joining Jeremy Clarkson and James May as presenters.

As part of the programme he has taken part in stunts that range from sitting in a car struck by artificial lightning to illustrate the effects of an electrical storm, to being strapped into a vehicle plunged into a water tank to discover the best way to escape.

The editor of Top Gear magazine, Michael Harvey, said: "I've heard Richard was touching speeds closer to 300mph than 200mph. Clearly, at those kind of speeds, the speed massively exaggerates the consequences of anything going wrong.

"This wasn't a high-performance car, this wasn't a road car, this was a rocket-powered dragster which bears absolutely no relation to the kind of cars which are the main fodder of Top Gear. This was a car that clearly contained its own risks. I know every single precaution will have been taken, but something clearly absolutely unaccounted for has gone wrong, and Richard has unfortunately suffered the consequences."

Quentin Willson, a former Top Gear presenter, said of Mr Hammond - who was nicknamed "Hamster" by Mr Clarkson: "Richard has no fear and that is his most wonderful quality. It is a huge, huge tragedy... the fact that he tries absolutely anything once, may have been the reason that he has overstepped the mark a bit."

He told BBC News 24: "He is irreplaceable. He has turned Top Gear into a gang show with Jeremy and James and the three of them have wowed audiences all over the world. We all hope he is going to get better very soon. But this underscores the danger of raising the game as shows like Top Gear have."

May, who co-presents the show, said he was devastated to learn his "old mate" had been injured. His agent, Annie Sweetbaum, said: "James is devastated. He's really shocked, his words to me tonight were: 'He's such a good mate, I'm so upset.' He said as soon as he's allowed, he wants to go and see Richard."

The BBC has launched an investigation into the crash. A spokesman said: "The circumstances of this accident will be fully investigated by the BBC, and this process began last night.

"We will, of course, be fully co-operating with any investigation by the police and the Health and Safety Executive.

"Until the BBC's investigation is complete, it would be inappropriate to comment on the details of what happened."

The spokesman added: "We are pleased to hear that Richard has improved slightly overnight, but we continue to be concerned about his condition and we are keeping in touch with his family."