From road-testing the new Mini Cooper Sand to examining the trend among celebrities for purchasing large SUVs, to profiling a Lamborghini Murcielago – Timothy ‘Tiff’ Needell gives debameeta bhattacharya the lowdown on a series meant for anyone with a passion for petrol power

FROM the moment his father first took him to Goodwood, there was only one thing little Timothy “Tiff” Needell wanted to be — a racing car driver. But motor racing is a millionaires’ playground and Needell had to initially settle for a degree in civil engineering, before his dream finally came true. The renowned British racing car driver (a former Le Mans winner) is now co-host of Fifth Gear — a world-acclaimed television series currently airing on Discovery Turbo.
Presented in magazine format, the series affords the latest information on automobiles from around the world, highlighting exclusive information about the performance of any automobile, new car reviews, second-hand bargains, industry news and other topical features, including issues surrounding road safety and taxation.
From road-testing the new Mini Cooper Sand to examining the trend among celebrities for purchasing large Sports Utility Vehicles, to profiling a Lamborghini Murcielago — this series is for anyone with a passion for petrol power.
Needell won his first racing title driving a Formula Ford Lotus 69F in a competition run by the weekly racing magazine, Autosport. From this beginning, he worked his way up through the national racing scene to become a Formula Ford Champion in 1975. From there, the only way was up: he finished fourth in the 1978 British Formula Three Championship, behind future Grand Prix stars Nelson Piquet and Derek Warwick; and in his debut British Formula One race he placed second. A lot of driving followed, including Le Mans, the British Touring Car Championship and the Rally of Great Britain. His TV career has seen him behind the microphone on Grandstand , a co-host in the original airing of Top Gear, as well as a founding co-host on Fifth Gear. Excerpts:

Tell us about your association with Fifth Gear on Discovery Turbo?

Fifth Gear is currently in its 22nd season on Discovery Turbo. In this season, what we’re trying to do is expand more of the consumer side of things. All of us (Jason Plato, multiple Touring Car champion; Vicki Butler-Henderson, a racing instructor from the age of 17; and Jonny Smith, serial petrol head and car buyer) are racing car drivers. We are concentrating more on team tests where all four of us look at new cars and argue over them and agree with them and pick holes in them. And the most important part is that Jonny is a car fanatic. We want to bring to our viewers almost every aspect of motoring. We do second-hand cars and look at them, examine crash tests. We look at products that are known to you and are available to widen the market. We have looked at new cars, supercars — we have tried to cover everything. And we try to bring the viewer with us; I think when we’re driving we like to hope that we give a very good impression to the viewer about what the car is like to drive even if you don’t get the chance to drive it, whether it is a racing car or a supercar. So hopefully, we feel we connect very well with car enthusiasts.  We’re all car enthusiasts, not just television presenters.

 What got you to take up this new project?

For a car enthusiast like me, this was like a dream project. What better reason to take up the project. If you ask me, it&’s such a varied programme. We’re very proud of what we’ve produced and how we not only drive supercars but have team tests that look at all sorts of different models right down to Hyundai Velosters and Minis. We also have a second-hand guide as well now, so we cover almost every aspect of motoring.

You used to be associated with Top Gear on Turbo; how has it been different from the current show?

Both the shows are all about racing and cars. Fifth Gear is a light entertainment show and more focused on consumers’ tastes and preferences.

 Mention one of your most memorable moments from the show.

Ah! Too many to recall! In this series I had a fantastic four days in Los Angeles filming four different stories all based around the new Resto Modding scene that takes old classics and gives them new a whole new life. Unearthing new trends is very rewarding. But my greatest Fifth Gear memory has to be getting the honour and trust to race a latest specification 2005 Formula One Williams BMW against Vicki in a BMW M5. The challenge was for me to do four laps of the Rockingham circuit before she could complete three. I’d almost forgotten how incredible a Grand Prix car is to drive. That was indeed a very special day.

 How was your experience working with Jason Plato, Vicki Butler-Henderson and Jonny Smith?

Nothing but trouble! (Laughs). As the “elder” statesman, I have to try and keep these three under control. And that&’s not easy when we are all filming together on our famous team tests. Vicki is forever using her feminine charm to get her way; Jason is obsessively competitive and will do anything to stop me beating him while Jonny is quite obviously from a different planet.

What do you think will be the USP of the show?

Fifth Gear is everything a car enthusiast would want to know. From supercars and SUVs to hatchbacks and hybrids, the show has it all. It is dedicated to uncovering the most exclusive information about the performance of automobiles. The series highlights new car reviews, second-hand bargains, industry news and other topical features, including issues surrounding road safety and taxation.
 
Who has been your role model?

Jim Clark was my all-time superhero and inspiration. More naturally gifted than any other and a true gentleman at all times – although I have to admit the role model of James Hunt looks a lot more fun!

 When did you first realise that you wanted to be a racing car driver?

Well, it was the day my father first took me to Goodwood and I realszed that there was only one thing I wanted to be – a racing car driver

 How do you look at the evolution of racing, as a sport and a career, around the globe in the last three decades?

Money has changed the sport beyond recognition. My brief flirtation with Formula One in 1980 was in a one-car team with two engineers and five mechanics — now each team has hundreds of them. It&’s certainly less of a sport and more a business, with a career not only needing driving talent but serious financial backing from an early stage. The problem is you can’t un-invent science and science is expensive.

 Has your engineering degree helped you in your racing career?

As I was a civil engineer specialising in reinforced concrete, there&’s not much of a direct link. Nevertheless, that basic engineering background certainly helped me in better understanding how a car works and that&’s obviously an important part of a modern day racing car driver&’s requirement.

Your future plans?

I would like to continue doing this show.

Tell us something about your family life.

I’ve got a lovely family. I live in Wiltshire with my wife Patsy and three sons, Jack, Harry and George.