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'This may just be the biggest accident you have ever seen' EXCLUSIVE TOP GEAR'S HAMSTER ON THAT TV CRASH.

Byline: by RICHARD HAMMOND

WATCHING the moment that could have left my wife Mindy a widow, bringing up our kids alone, took my breath away.

Knowing, as the tyre explodes and then disintegrates, that this particular clip can only end in disaster.

And knowing that it was me inside the car, that the white crash helmet just visible above the bodywork contained my head and that the accident about to unfold was going to turn into one of the biggest events in my life.

I'm used to seeing myself on TV. It's part of the job. You have to watch yourself to see what happens when you do it right - and when you do it wrong.

When I sat down to watch this particular clip for the first time, I knew how it ended. What I didn't expect was to be watching a bloke who didn't seem like me talk about a jet car.

But then the bloke I was watching hadn't yet crashed a jet car at 288mph and so wasn't really me at all.

What really will strike a chord or two when it is finally screened on Top Gear next week is the number of prophetic things I say immediately before driving it.

At one point, I remark that this might just end up in "the biggest accident you've ever seen".

And then it does.

I felt oddly detached as I watched myself talking about the car at Elvington airfield, near York.

Apart, that is, from the moment I confessed to feeling scared.

Because that wasn't TV posturing - I WAS scared.

You don't unleash the power of 10 F1 cars without a little trepidation.

The brain doctors who did such a brilliant job of saving my life on September 21 last year - and keeping me sane afterwards - were a bit nervous about me watching the footage of the crash. They were worried about emotional responses to seeing the crash that so very nearly killed me.

After all, it's not normally the case that people caught up in a car accident have the opportunity to watch it afterwards on TV. Perhaps understandably, I took the experts' advice and gave the film footage a wide berth for months.

Even after I had started popping into the Top Gear office to re-acclimatise, I would stay away from the edit suite where I knew they held the tapes of the Vampire jet car crash.

In the end, I saw it almost by accident.

I was at a meeting, chatting about the crash and the event surrounding it.

They asked if I had seen the crash footage yet. I told them no. They told me that we could watch it then and there if I liked and I responded that, if I did have a horrible reaction, scream like a banshee and leap out of the window, it would be pretty ironic, given the office I would be leaving in such a manner.

They put a DVD into the laptop and there it was - the very crash that had, just a few months earlier, come close to leaving my wife Mindy to raise the kids.

There has been much speculation about what caused it in the first place.

Did something drop off? Did something essential break on the car?

Jeremy Clarkson put it down to me being a crap driver. Well, at least we can put that one to rest now, if you don't mind. Because we know what happened.

On the final run of the day, just as I was approaching the point at which I was due to pull the parachute and stop, a tyre blew up. It disintegrated immediately and spectacularly, as can be seen clearly on film.

The exposed wheel rim then digs into the tarmac, slewing the car around and off the track. It speeds across the grass, flips and rolls in the mud. My head, protected by a crash helmet and rollbar, is forced underground where my eyes and ears are filled with mud and debris.

Sudden deceleration and the violence of being thrown around and banging against the rollcage are what cause the damage to my brain.

The crash helmet, rollbar and harness prevent the damage from being fatal.

I didn't have a terrible reaction to seeing it. I didn't break down or faint either. But it was very, very strange.

After all, if it didn't kill me at the time, it was hardly going to kill me just watching it. But to see the car, to see the track and to see details like the crash helmet that saved my life and the harnesses that stopped me being smashed into pieces took my breath away.

What has been useful to me is to see how well the actual crash ties in with my blurry memories. I always believed in my heart that it had been a tyre blowing that caused it - and I was right.

If there is one thing I shall take away from seeing the footage, it's the knowledge that things can and do go wrong.

There wasn't a worse car to have a tyre blow out and there wasn't a worse tyre to blow on the car than the one that did.

But that wasn't enough to stop it happening. That's not a lesson I shall forget in a hurry.

If seeing the footage helps a single other person to learn that lesson then it is worth showing.

Full story and more pictures in Top Gear magazine, on sale today.

features@mirror.co.uk

CAPTION(S):

BEFORE: I talk about the Vampire' HORROR: The car rolls over' ACCOUNT: Top Gear mag
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Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Jan 18, 2007
Words:940
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