Life in the fast lane: Tiff Needell

Motorsport driver and presenter Tiff Needell tells Viv Micklefield about the thrills and spills of rediscovering Hampshire

Life in the fast lane

Motorsport driver and presenter Tiff Needell tells Viv Micklefield about the thrills and spills of rediscovering Hampshire

According to Tiff Needell, “Everyone says, if you work hard you’ll get what you seek but not everybody does. You can dedicate yourself to sport and get nowhere. You need those little bits of good fortune to come your way.” It’s a philosophical thought from one of this country’s most popular motoring presenters, who as an aspiring racing car driver, grabbed the opportunity to get into life’s fast lane with both hands.

A self-confessed child of the fifties, Timothy “Tiff” Needell was born at a nursing home in Emsworth. “Mum went home to ‘mum’ in those days because dads didn’t get involved.” And although his parents brought up their young family in Weybridge, Surrey, Tiff’s connections to Hampshire remained strong. Early memories of exploring the great outdoors, include, scout camps in the New Forest and trips to the Fairey Marine yard on the Hamble, owned by great uncle, Sir Richard Fairey.

Boats certainly run in the blood. Tiff’s grandfather was employed by Red Funnel Ferries and his father, a former naval architect, was, “A big honcho,” in British powerboat racing for several decades. As a scrutiniser and rule-maker for the inaugural Cowes to Torquay race, Needell senior encouraged his son to compete in junior boats as a teenager. Tiff recalls, “I was 16 when I last raced myself, although we had Top Gear Waterworld in the 90s and I drove quite a few powerboats then.” He continues, “I’m now presenting Powerboat GP, so I’m almost going back to my roots.”

But it was a love of fast cars, again instilled in him by his father that led to Tiff’s interests taking a new direction. “He took me to watch Stirling Moss and Mike Hawthorn, and clinging to the fences at Goodwood, I knew, I wanted to be a racing driver. As soon as I was 17, I dropped the boats and headed for the cars.” 

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Initially, the budding driver struggled to pay for lessons at the Brands Hatch racing drivers’ school, alongside studying for a degree in civil engineering. His luck turned when, aged 19, he entered a competition in Autosport Magazine and hit the jackpot, winning a Formula Ford Lotus 69F. “I was already spending all the money I had pretending to be a racing driver. Then all of a sudden I won a racing car and I BECAME a racing driver!”

As an amateur racing at weekends, Tiff’s life did not change overnight. “I was a full-time civil engineer until I was 27. I worked for George Wimpey & Co. and built a few multi-stories. Basingstoke was my last, in fact I’ve heard they’re pulling down one of the five-storey office blocks.” He laughs, “I’m very upset if it’s mine. Perhaps I could press  the button!”Having turned professional, Tiff worked his way up through the national motor racing scene to become Formula Ford Champion in 1975. Second place on the starting grid in the Belgium Grand Prix was the highlight of his foray into Formula One racing.

Comparing the drivers’ competition for seats to other sports, Tiff says, “There are only 24 drivers in the world which is less than every English Premier League football squad, so few get that far.” In a career spanning over forty years however his success as one of the UK’s top rally and touring car drivers is indisputable. Having competed in numerous Le Mans 24-hour races and British Championships, are any of Tiff’s three sons showing an interest in joining his father behind the wheel? “My 16-year-old would love to be a racing driver but he knows there isn’t enough money for it. He also knows that it’s so hard to progress. Hopefully he’ll do a bit of racing for fun when he’s old enough to pay for it himself.”

Asked what the best thing is about being a professional racing driver, Tiff replies nonchalantly, “Oh, just the travel, the glamour and the fun!” Continuing, “It’s a dream life really. I’m now on television and that’s almost as good. I’ve had the lucky breaks.” 

And the best car he’s ever driven? “The best road car was the McLaren F1 that I drove at Goodwood. It’s one of those Top Gear stories that everyone remembers. It kicked off the new image of Top Gear in the early 90s.”

These days, Tiff might find himself racing historic cars one day and road testing the latest supercar the next. But away from the adrenaline fuelled life on the circuit, it’s the quieter side of living that has been Hampshire’s draw. His own family’s early move to West Harting, near Petersfield is remembered with fondness. “It was wonderful. We moved thirty miles down the road, south, and it was like moving thirty years back in time. The pubs still had their original names. They hadn’t been changed and you walked into the pub and they knew what you wanted to drink.”

And as he describes watching the deer from the window of his current home near Romsey, Tiff continues to be bowled over by what the county has to offer. “There’s so much in Hampshire. Beaulieu Motor Museum is wonderful, I try and get down there when I can with my boys it’s a brilliant family outing. You’ve got the water and the beaches, and, of course, Southampton Football Club which must be mentioned.

“I’m a season ticket holder this year. It’s the boys that have taken dad along really but I must admit when I first walked down to the ground with my three sons in tow, it seemed like the sort of thing that dads should do. We very much enjoy going to St Mary’s, it’s a wonderful atmosphere, a great club and they’ve got a lot of family support.

While filming for TV’s Fifth Gear can take him across Europe, Tiff spends several days a month at Thruxton race circuit. “I take people for passenger rides in a high-performance BMW M3 where they get a video taken of them screaming and shouting, and enjoying themselves, so that’s a lot of fun.” 

It’s the cue to ask the question that’s on everyone’s lips. Was he really the Top Gear Stig? Tiff replies without hesitation, “I was the replacement Stig.” He goes on, “Stigs were short in supply for a couple of weeks, but I only ever appeared as myself, I’ve never worn the ‘uniform’.”

His on-going association with Clarkson, Hammond and May at the Top Gear Live shows - “The Three Amigos” as Tiff calls them, continues to fuel the speculation. What’s the give-away? “There’s me and the Stig appearing at the same time in the same room, so it proves it could never have been me!”

Tiff admits to having enjoyed the experience of teaching a celebrity new driving skills on the TV show. “I taught Danny Boyle. Danny was a pleasure. I would have liked to have done more.” Asked which famous face he would most like to accompany, he ponders for a while before replying, “Michael Parkinson, because through him I could meet everyone!”

The occasional drive on a golf course is another of Tiff’s pleasures in life, particularly if it’s in aid of the charity Sparks. Speaking about the life-saving research into conditions affecting, babies, children and mums-to-be, Tiff says, “It’s just a fantastic charity. I think, what’s brought me and my wife Patsy the greatest joy is our three boys and we are very lucky to have three healthy sons. I suppose it [having children] is the most basic thing we do as human beings and it’s the most rewarding.”

With the next series of Fifth Gear already in the can, Tiff’s looking forward to a well-earned break before Christmas. “I’ll be able to go to more Southampton matches and cheer on The Reds,” he chuckles. Perhaps hoping that some of the good fortune he’s enjoyed, rubs off on his beloved team.  So, where does he predict they might finish the season? “Mid-table, we’ll be fine.”

Tiff Needell is currently appearing in Fifth Gear, Mondays at 8pm on Discovery and Discovery HD. Tiff Gear, The autobiography of Tiff Needell published by Haynes, is out now.