Lunch with... Tiff Needell

An extraordinary stroke of luck paved Tiff Needell's way into racing, and committed him to a happy life of ducking, diving and hustling


James Mitchell

Over the past seven years, on your behalf, I’ve had Lunch With… more than 80 motor racing characters. But this is the first in whose career I can claim to have played a small but significant part. In the 1960s Tiff Needell was just one of many thousands of teenage enthusiasts who had a burning desire to be a racing driver, but entirely lacked the wherewithal to begin the process. Then in January 1971 the weekly magazine Autosport, of which I was the youthful editor, organised a readers’ competition to win a new racing car.

With the help of Ford and various other indulgent sponsors, we managed to scrape together a pretty desirable prize: a new Lotus 69 in Formula Ford spec, with race-ready Holbay engine; a trailer; a helmet and full set of race clothing; and a course at the Jim Russell school at Snetterton. to indicate how far the cost of a brand new race set-up has changed in the ensuing four decades, the blurb I wrote announcing the competition put the value of the whole package at £2000. Contestants had to put 10 attributes of a successful car in order of importance, from suspension set-up to engine tune, from correct gear ratios to choice of tyres. as a tie-break, they had to state in no more than 15 words why motor racing was worthwhile for the participant. entries poured in by the sackload. As judges I recruited Ford’s motor sports director Atuart Turner, team Lotus F1 mechanic Eddie Dennis, and the most successful Formula Ford driver of the day, Colin Vandervell, who had just won the top Grovewood award for promising young drivers. tSuart, much occupied with affairs of state at Ford, and Eddie, flat out preparing the team Lotus 72Cs for Kyalami, agreed that if I came up with a proposed winning order of attributes, they’d be happy to approve it over the phone.

Colin, however, took his role as a judge very seriously and, having won 29 Formula Ford races in the previous year in the ex-Emerson Fittipaldi Merlyn, spoke with authority. He totally disagreed with my order and turned it on its head, requiring more phone calls to get Stuart and Eddie on board. Then I drafted in batteries of temps to scan every one of the thousands of entry forms. Amazingly, just two of them had the same order of attributes that we’d finally agreed. The tie-break slogan decided that our winner was a 19-year-old student engineer from Weybridge with the unlikely name of Tiff Needell. I got his parents’ phone number from directory enquiries, and rang him up. “I’ll never forget that phone call,” says Tiff now. “It was Thursday evening, I was watching Olivia Newton-John on Top of the Pops, and suddenly I had you in my ear telling me I’d won. When my mum came into the room I’d gone white with shock, and she thought the police were on the phone, because I was always in trouble for speeding in her Morris Minor. My worry was that it was one of my friends winding me up, so first thing next morning I called you back, to make sure it was all true.”

From the archive

That teenage student is now past 60, and since my phone call he has managed, one way or another, to spend his life behind the wheel of an extraordinary variety of cars. In fact, he reckons he has raced and tested over 100 different types. He made it – just – into Formula 1, and he climbed the podium at the Le Mans 24 Hours. Achieving his boyhood ambition hasn’t made him rich. It’s been a lifetime of ducking and diving, and at times he has been almost on the breadline. But it’s certainly kept him happy. Now we’re talking over smoked buffalo and dover sole in a delightful Wiltshire pub, The greyhound in Stockbridge, not far from the village where he lives with his wife patsy and three sons.

Tiff was christened Timothy, but when he was born his three-year-old brother had trouble getting his tongue around the name and pronounced it Tiffamy, and it stuck. “Dad was a freelance naval architect, but never seemed to make any real money. Mum was a needlework teacher. We lived in a rented flat, no telly, no washing machine, no central heating. It wasn’t until my grandad died and we moved in with my grandmother that we lived in a house. But dad was mad keen on racing, even though for most of my childhood he didn’t have a car. From when my brother and I were very small we’d all squeeze into our only transport – Mum’s pre-war Austin 7 – and make pilgrimages to goodwood, stopping at the foot of the downs to take on more water because we’d be overheating.

“My earliest memory is seeing peter Collins in the Thinwall Special Ferrari” – presumably the September 1954 meeting, when Collins won the formule libre race. Tiff was then not quite three, but clearly it made a deep impression. “From that moment all I ever wanted was to be a racing driver.” Other goodwood memories are Jim Meikle demonstrating his jet-powered Cooper single-seater in 1957, and Jean Behra’s BRM smiting the chicane in 1958. “And we did the Boxing day Brands Hatch meetings, rugs over our knees, flasks of hot soup. The night before we were going to a race meeting I was always too excited to sleep.

Of course the man I really idolised, the man I’d watched coming up through Formula Junior to lead the Lotus F1 team, was Jim Clark. When I was 16, on our way home from the BOAC 500 at Brands Hatch, we called in to see my aunt. We hadn’t heard the news, but she had: the man we’d expected to see driving the Ford F3L at Brands had been doing a Formula 2 race in Germany instead. And had been killed. I’ll never forget the dreadful shock of hearing that.“

As I got older I did holiday jobs – petrol pump attendant, Christmas postman, anything I could – saving every penny towards my dream. As soon as I left school in the summer of 1969 I went to the racing school at Brands. In those days £10 bought you ten laps. Whenever I had another £10 I’d do ten more, and you could work your way up to doing school races at £30 a time, just four cars on the grid. I’d now been accepted on a five-year sandwich course in civil engineering at City university, six months a year there, six months working at builder george Wimpey’s: and when I was working I was paid £45 a month. That summer I was doing spec housing in Essex. My rent cost £10 a month, and if I could live on £5 a month that left £30 to do a race. I’d hitch-hike home, or jump on trains and buses without a ticket and jump off again before I got caught. Mum’d give me a square meal and some clean clothes, and I’d borrow her old Minor to get me to Brands.”

But, back at university for the winter term, Tiff’s money was all gone, and he had just a few school races to show for it. The only option was to enter the Autosport contest, and hope.

Having received the life-changing news that he’d won, first he had to find a tow car to collect his prize: £75-worth of rusty Morris Minor Traveller dealt with that. Wimpey now had him in Gloucestershire, doing 12-hour days on the construction of the M5, but he took a week’s sick leave to do the Jim Russell course. Two of his fellow pupils were a young Belgian aristo called Patrick Marie Ghislain Pierre Simon Stanislas Nève de Mévergnies, who as Patrick Nève was to get as far as F1 for a brief spell; and a New Yorker called Leigh Gaydos. Six weeks later, in their third race together, Gaydos hit a marshals’ post at Mallory park and died instantly.

Tiff’s first race in the Lotus 69 came at Snetterton. “I couldn’t afford different sets of ratios, or the new trick Firestone Torino tyres that the quick boys were using. But I was fifth in my heat and 10th in the final, so I was under way. The Lotus soon lost its smart red and white colours when someone got sideways in front of me at Snetterton’s Russell Corner, which was nearly flat in top in those days, and I cartwheeled over the bank. It took a month of graft to get it more or less straight.”

None of this diminished Tiff’s dedicated determination. In two and a half seasons he managed a remarkable 90 races in the Lotus, with 82 finishes, 22 podiums – and three wins. The car was kept in a lock-up without lights or power, and the chassis was set up with a length of string and two tin cans. “For engines I built a friendship with Doug and Alan Wardropper, father and son stock-car racers who ran Scholar Racing Engines. They were very kind to me, lost bills down the back of the sofa, did me lots of good turns. But the Lotus got more and more uncompetitive, so in mid-1973 I managed to line up a cost-price Elden chassis, plus a loan engine from Doug and Alan, and sold the Lotus to an Austrian racer.”The Elden brought some success in 1974, but the 1975 factory-loaned Mk 17 that replaced it was an ill-handling disaster. Dividing his time between City University and Wimpey, Tiff was still penniless: any money he could scrape up went, of course, on racing. “I was working five days a week, preparing the car in the evenings, then I’d set off after work on Friday evening in a rusty old Transit which I now took the car around in, and slept in at the track. A lad my age would pull alongside in his new Ford Capri, smart Seventies sweater, dishy Friday date at his side, eight-track stereo playing. I had holes at my elbows, a bungee cord to stop the gear-lever jumping out and I couldn’t afford a car radio. But I was following my dream. I was a racing driver – even though with the Elden I was struggling to finish in the top ten.”

From the archive

The Crosslé 25F WAS now the FF chassis to have, and in June 1975 Tiff saw Chris Hyatt-Baker’s 25F advertised for sale, at an unattainable £1600. Hyatt-Baker was an amiable good-time guy who’d shown occasional speed but never taken his racing very seriously, and was now getting into other pastimes, like bungee-jumping off the Clifton suspension bridge. Somehow empty-wallet Tiff persuaded Chris to let him take the Crosslé away, and only pay for it when he sold it on.At once, with a properly competitive car, Tiff’s career took off. he won 12 of his next 13 races, took the Brands-based Townsend-Thoresen Championship, clocked up poles, wins and lap records at other tracks, and won a Grovewood Award commendation. he beat rising star Derek Warwick in the Brands Boxing Day meeting – no doubt watched by youngsters in the stands with rugs over their knees and mugs of hot soup – and then the Crosslé was sold and the patient hyatt-Baker got his £1600. Tiff had also attracted enough attention to be offered five races in a works hawke FF2000, garnering three wins and a second; and that secured him a works FF2000 hawke seat for 1976. The dream was on its way at last. “I’d spent five years in Formula Ford, and done over 200 races. I’d scraped together a bit of sponsorship here and there, but it was always a struggle: ups and downs, dramas, setbacks, a steep learning curve. I was still an FF driver when I was 23. Today’s young drivers have had 10 years’ racing by the time they’re 18, because they start in karts aged eight. In my view, few of them have grown up enough when they reach the big time. They’ve got the race experience, but they haven’t got the life experience. There’s so much pressure on them to perform, all the money invested in them, the public spotlight, the media interviews, and some of them don’t do as well as they might three or four years later with more maturity. Of course fashion dictates what the sponsors go after, and extreme youth is attractive these days.

“I’d got friendly with most of the journos on the British weeklies, and Chris Witty was a great supporter of mine. My first big race of 1976 was on the Brands Hatch Grand Prix circuit, supporting the Race of Champions, and all the F1 circus was there. Chris said to Frank Williams, who was always meant to be on the look-out for new talent, ‘Make sure you watch the FF2000 race. There’s a young lad you should know about called Needell.’ Chris told me what he’d done, and I was determined to put on a good show. The track was greasy and partly wet, and we were all on slicks. I’ve always loved conditions like that. I was on pole and I led from start to finish, winning by a massive 38sec. I was power-sliding all the way from Bottom Bend to South Bank, imagining Frank was watching my progress from behind the pits. After the race Witty said to Frank, ‘What did you think of the FF2000 race?’ Frank said, ‘Really boring. Some bloke pissed off into the distance, and I stopped watching.’”

After that things didn’t prove quite so easy, and after a tough season Tiff lost the FF2000 title to Ian Taylor by just one point. But he did win that season’s top Grovewood Award, ahead of F3 champion Rupert Keegan and European FF champion Derek Warwick. And he had three Formula 3 outings for the little Safir team, finishing second in the British F3 Championship final at Thruxton. That led to a really exciting deal for 1977: an F3 works drive in the two-car Unipart March team. “With a £40 a week retainer and a Triumph TR7 company car, I was a professional racing driver at last. Wimpey agreed to keep my job open for two years, but as things turned out I’d finished with civil engineering for ever. My new team-mate was my FF2000 nemesis Ian Taylor, and so we could get to know each other team manager Alan Howell took us down to the pub for a game of bar billiards. That’s how it was in those days – you didn’t go to the gym, you went to the pub. The only way we kept fit was by racing. Ian was a shy man, but very aggressive on the track, hated being beaten. We became close friends, and remained so until his tragic death at Spa in 1992.”

Obliged by their British Leyland-owned sponsor to use the Dolomite engine rather than the torquier Toyota unit favoured by most, and despite much driving on the ragged edge, neither had a great season. And 1978 was little better, apart from a fine second to Nelson Piquet at Cadwell and a great run on the Österreichring, when Tiff opted for less rear wing for straight-line speed and was lining up to pounce on Guido Pardini for the lead in the final laps when the battery went flat.

Meanwhile he had talked his way into a couple of Formula 2 drives. The first was at Donington in 1977 in a Fred Opert Chevron: battling with Elio de Angelis, his engine broke. “I loved the extra power. After F3 it felt really quick.” Then came a ride in the spare Toleman in the final round of the 1978 European Championship at Hockenheim. The race was run in two 20-lap parts, and in the first Tiff finished a fine fourth among the cream of the day’s F2 men. In the second part he was running a magnificent third, having just passed Manfred Winkelhock, when the Toleman’s BMW engine exploded. “As I walked in that massive Hockenheim crowd applauded me. I don’t mind admitting, I was in tears under my helmet.”

From the archive

For 1979 things looked bleak. “Unipart offered me a third year, but I knew the Dolomite engine was never going to work. And at 27 I had to move on from F3. So I gave up my paid drive and my free TR7 and put myself out in the wilderness again.” No F2 drives emerged, but Graham Eden was running his F1 Chevron-DFV B41 in the 12-round Aurora Championship and decided to spread the seat among three drivers. At the first round at Zolder, running in his favourite conditions – slicks on a damp circuit – Tiff finished second, failing to catch David Kennedy’s Wolf by 0.2sec. The other three races were dry, and produced little in the way of results.

The ultimate goal of a real Formula 1 drive beckoned when Derek Daly left Morris Nunn’s little single-car Ensign team mid-season and, days before the French Grand Prix, Tiff was offered the seat. But the FIA’s bureaucrats decided he was ineligible for the necessary superlicence and the drive went to Frenchman Patrick Gaillard – who failed to qualify. Much better was an offer from Robin Herd of March to race an F2 car at Suzuka. It was Tiff’s first visit to Japan. “Finding the cheapest route meant a 20-hour trip via Moscow on Aeroflot. But after I’d finished fourth at Suzuka I was handed an envelope full of crisp new 10,000-yen notes. It came to about £1000, the first time I’d earned real money from one race. I went back east for a race in Malaysia in an ancient March 76B, courtesy of the local Unipart franchise, and then Macau, when I got it up to fourth and had a good dice with Riccardo Patrese before the gear linkage sheared, probably due to old age.”

IN MARCH 1980, WITH NOTHING TO drive and no deals in the offing, Tiff was lying in bed listening to the American Forces Network radio coverage of the Long Beach Grand Prix – the only way to follow the race in those days – and heard the description of Clay Regazzoni’s dreadful accident. The brake pedal on Clay’s Ensign broke and he hit the wall, sustaining injuries that not only ended his career but confined him to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Every anxious racer desperate for a seat knows the inner conflict of hearing such news as this: sympathy and regret for the injured man, but a glimmer of hope that it might provide an opportunity. “I’m afraid that’s how it was in those days: drivers got hurt, other drivers got chances. It’s different now: drivers don’t get hurt, and they never seem to retire.

“I didn’t know how badly hurt Clay was, but even a broken ankle would keep him out of the next race. Rather than approaching Mo Nunn direct, I got in touch with Ensign’s sponsors, Unipart, whom I knew well after my two F3 seasons with them. The result was half a day’s testing at Donington. Even then, when ground-effect was very much in its infancy, I’d never experienced grip like it, with the steering getting heavier and heavier as the speeds went up. Next thing I knew, I was at Zolder for the Belgian Grand Prix. Ten years after winning that competition, my first real Formula 1 race! “Of course the Ensign was far from being a front-runner. Clay had qualified 23rd at Long Beach, so I was pleased to equal that with 23rd in Friday qualifying. Saturday was wet and didn’t change anything, so I lined up on the back row ahead of Emerson Fittipaldi, with Mario Andretti, Alain Prost and Keke Rosberg on my side of the grid just in front. Grown-up stuff. It all went fine and I’d done just 12 laps, behind Emerson and ahead of John Watson, when the engine rattled and stopped.”Two weeks later came Monaco. “Driving an F1 car round that track, launching up the hill from Ste Devote to Casino Square, over the blind crest and plunging down the hill to Mirabeau, then the tunnel and the harbour, it just blew my mind. Until I got the hang of the place, I felt my brain was being left behind. And 26 cars were fighting for 20 places on the grid. For Thursday qualifying it was wet, and at the end of the day I was in: 19th quickest, ahead of Mass, Jabouille, de Angelis, Patrese. Nobody remembers that, why should they, but I rate qualifying on that circuit, in that car, in the wet, as my greatest motor sport achievement. I prayed that it would rain even harder on Saturday.

“But it didn’t. It was dry, all day. In the morning session I clouted the kerb at the chicane, and back in the pits they discovered a broken suspension pick-up point. I had to switch to the spare car. For the afternoon qualifying session I could give you plenty of excuses, but nothing went my way and in the end I spun the bloody thing leaving the swimming pool. I chugged back to the pits with the rear wing hanging off, and that was that. DNQ. After that they put Jan Lammers in the Ensign. He didn’t qualify for five of the next six races.”TIFF’S oNLy oTHEr EFForT AT top-line motor sport in 1980 was another disappointment. Ian “Baked Bean” Bracey asked him to join Tony Trimmer in his DFV-powered Ibec at Le Mans. But under that year’s rules a car’s qualifying time was the average of the best lap by each of the three drivers, and the slowest two cars in each class got dropped. Although Trimmer qualified the Ibec 11th fastest, and Tiff was quick in the wet, patron Bracey’s times were too slow and they were out. But it was Tiff’s first taste of the magical atmosphere of Le Mans, a race he was to do 14 times in the next 17 years.

“Le Mans was different then. It wasn’t the professional circus it is now, with motorhomes, special diets, masseuses, fresh overalls for every stint. It was just like a big club race, with tents tied to the trees. In 1984, when I did the race for Kremer Porsche, the team had no catering. I existed through the 24 hours on croques monsieurs bought from one of those little wooden huts at the back of the paddock. It was baking hot, so I suggested to Erwin Kremer that water bottles in the car might be a good idea. He said, ‘you are paid to drive, not to drink.’

“In 1981 we were back with the Ibec, and we got in this time, but the gearbox – the only bit of the car Bracey had had rebuilt since the previous year – broke. In 1982 I drove the Aston Martin Nimrod with Geoff Lees and Bob Evans. I’m not superstitious, but we were in pit 13, we started on the 13th row, and on the 13th lap of one of my stints the rear bodywork came adrift when I was doing 205mph on the Mulsanne Straight. It was a massive accident and the car was destroyed, but I got out oK. In Steve o’rourke’s EMKA Aston in 1983 with Steve and Nick Faure we actually finished, down in 17th place. In 1984 in the Kremer 956 a bolt dropped out of the suspension and I hit the barriers. But I kept the engine running, graunched the car back to the pits, they spent an hour fixing it and we finished ninth.

“There are stories from all my Le Mans outings. In the 1985 Emka Aston I actually led the race, thanks to a demon short-fill pitstop strategy from team manager Michael Cane. There were no radios then, so I didn’t understand why our stop had been so quick, but for five glorious laps I was getting the P1 signal each time I passed the pits. It was the first time an Aston-engined car had led Le Mans since the DBr1 won in 1959. After a delay with a fractured fuel line we finally finished 11th. I did the ’89 race in the richard Lloyd Porsche 962 with Derek Bell and James Weaver, and it went up in a ball of flame as I approached the pits. I realised bringing a burning car into a crowded pitlane would be less than sensible, and drove further up the straight before punching the extinguisher button and leaping out.

“The next year, 1990, the chicanes had been introduced on the Mulsanne Straight. I was down to drive the Japanese Alpha racing 962, and I suggested to the car’s owner, Mr Nanikawa, that my co-drivers should be Anthony reid and David Sears. Three impecunious Brits in one team. We opted for a short-tail body configuration, reasoning that with the new circuit layout the better handling would offset any disadvantage on the straight, and it turned out to be a good choice. It was incredibly hot that year, but the car ran like clockwork. As I took over for the final stint we were lying fourth behind the two Silk Cut Jaguars and the Walter Brun Porsche. And, with just 15 minutes to go, the Brun car’s engine blew. So we were third! Heart in mouth, I did those last laps behind the Jaguars to take the flag in a formation finish. A few minutes later I was with Anthony and David on the pit balcony – the last time the old podium was used – with that mammoth crowd below, savouring one of the most memorable moments of my life.

“In 1995 I was in a Jaguar XJ220C with James Weaver and richard Piper, and we got up to fourth overall at one stage. We were still sixth when the crank broke at 4am. Then Geoff Lees persuaded me to go and meet a lunatic in Leatherhead who was running some mad seven-litre V12 Lister thing painted in black and white stripes, because he’d got sponsorship from Newcastle United. This was Laurence Pearce, a real character. His ebullient enthusiasm about everything was incredibly infectious. I had several wonderful seasons with him, Daytona, Nürburgring, Spa, Suzuka, and of course Le Mans. In the 1996 24 Hours the gearbox broke, but we struggled home to finish. But in 1997, which was to be my final Le Mans, co-driver George Fouché crashed on his first lap.

“But I hadn’t finished with Laurence. For the 1998 British GT Championship he came up with the most bizarre plan. He suggested that if I drove for him for free, he’d take out an insurance policy against me winning the championship, £12,000 at 50:1. So if I won, I’d get an insurance payout of £600,000! My co-driver was Julian Bailey, and in round 1 at Silverstone he crashed the car into the pit wall at the start. We finished third in round 2, and in round 3 I put the car on pole and we won. We went on to further wins, and by the penultimate round at Spa we were on target for my £600,000. Then a pace-car period muddled our strategy, and my big pay-out slipped away.“Soon after my brief time with the Ensign team I’d had to accept that Formula 1 was never going to happen for me. So I made it my philosophy to say yes to anything and everything I was ever offered. I never earned any proper money racing in Europe, but Japan was good to me: it was in 1983 that I first raced a Dome in their Group C series with Eje Elgh, and we lived for months in Tokyo. I earned about £20,000 that year. They put us in horrible little tin-box apartments, but then we said ‘pay us what they cost and we’ll find our own lodgings’. And we pitched camp in a cheap hotel, grandly called the President, which gradually became home from home for all the European drivers racing in Japan. Jim Crawford and I went to India to put on two demonstrations in a couple of Formula Atlantic Chevrons – we agreed that he should ‘win’ Madras and I should ‘win’ Bangalore. I did the 1986 Silverstone 1000Kms in a Kremer Porsche with Jo Gartner, and finished third behind one of the Silk Cut Jaguars and the Bell/Stuck factory Porsche. Jo was super-quick and super-likeable, and it was a tragedy when, four weeks later, he was killed at Le Mans.

From the archive

“In 1991 Tom Walkinshaw organised a one-make series in Jaguar XJR-15s supporting the F1 Grands Prix at Monaco, Silverstone and Spa, and I drove David Warnock’s car. So I finally got to race at Monaco, and I finished seventh. At Silverstone the race developed into a bit of a crash-fest, but I finished sixth with a few battle scars, and then at Spa John Watson spun and I hit him. I think the XJR-15 was the worst car I ever raced: no downforce, a high centre of gravity and that big lump of a heavy V12. After three laps your tyres were rooted.

”There was some touring car racing, too, most famously at Donington when Nigel Mansell was making a guest appearance, and Mansell’s Mondeo hit a bridge parapet after contact with Tiff. Nigel told the world that Tiff did it deliberately, but Tiff says the Mondeo was already out of control and coming back across the Vauxhall’s path when he hit him. Five years later, at Brands Hatch, they met again, Mansell in a Mondeo, Needell now in a Nissan. Going up to Druids the Mondeo hit the Nissan, hard, up the boot. Afterwards Tiff suggested to Nigel that he was trying to get his own back for Donington. Nigel, for his part, accused Tiff of brake-testing him. These touring car drivers…..

“I raced anything else I could get myself into, from a Porsche 944 to a Can-Am March. I raced a Saab at one point, and my team-mate was Damon Hill. That was at a time in his career when he’d say yes to anything, too. One of my Nimrod-Aston drives was at Daytona, with two big US stars, A J Foyt and Darrell Waltrip, who was reigning NASCAR champ then. The engine didn’t like the banking, and ate its sump baffles. To earn a few quid I did endless laps of Thruxton giving prospective BMW customers rides, and I did a lot of testing for March developing the 83G with a young engineer called Adrian Newey. There was some stunt driving for TV commercials, driving through blazing cornfields, and I began to write for magazines, I-was-there pieces about my races, and then track tests. That got me into lots more kit, from F1 to Group B rally cars and even a 9000bhp top fuel dragster. I was still living at home with Mum and Dad until I was 33, but finally I scraped together the down payment on a two-up, two-down. My long-suffering girlfriend Patsy moved in and, after a nine-year courtship, I married her in 1988.

“And then came TV. First the BBC got me to stand beside Murray Walker for the lesser races that James Hunt wasn’t interested in doing, and this led to some track-testing spots on Top Gear. Before long I was part of the regular team with Chris Goffey, Quentin Willson, and a lanky, curly-headed kid called Clarkson.”

Tiff spent 15 years on Top Gear. At the end of 2001 the show was canned and then relaunched, by which time Tiff had moved to Channel Five to be part of a new show, subtly entitled Fifth Gear. This lives on still on Discovery. Tiff’s TV career has taken him to more places around the world, put him in more strange vehicles and made his face far better known than motor racing ever did.

“My last three proper races were in the British GT Championship in 2000. I drove David Warnock’s Lister Storm at Donington, won there in the wet, then Dave Clark’s Lister at Spa and Silverstone, and won those. That seemed a reasonable point, at the age of 48, to stop – but then Tom Alexander offered me some rides in his Aston Martin DBRS9 in 2006. And then there’s the Goodwood Revival. I’ve done every one, many in Chris Lunn’s glorious Lister-Jaguar, but also in Cobra, Corvette, Project 212 Aston, E-type, Cortina and Jaguar Mk 7. That big, lumbering Mk 7 is a hoot.”

And now the wheel has come full circle. Tiff was sure that the prize Lotus 69F, the car that started it all in 1971, had long since gone to the great paddock in the sky, probably written off in some Austrian hillclimb. But no: it has reappeared, totally rebuilt by Classic Team Lotus – and Tiff has bought it back. So, 42 years on, he’s back in Formula Ford again (Historic FF now) in the very same car. “It’s totally immaculate, in its original red and white colours, and I raced it at the Easter Thruxton. My engine was a bit down on power [don’t racing drivers always say that] but with some demon out-braking into the chicane on the last lap I got third. Brilliant fun.

“I was so lucky to win that competition, and I’ve been so lucky ever since. I know I missed out on a Grand Prix career, and I didn’t get rich like those guys do. But I’ve had a rich life. I’d always rather have been a Brian Redman or a Derek Bell than a Nigel Mansell or a Lewis Hamilton.”