In the hot seat -- Tiff Needell

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TV racer Tiff Needell on Fleetwood Mac, lacklustre Ensigns, taking on ‘The Stig’, being refused a Formula One Superlicence and being mistaken for a girl…

You hummed Fleetwood Mac’s The Chain (BBC’s GP theme) as you lined up for your only GP. Do you know the theme tune of ITV’s F1 coverage? — James Ellwood, Banbury

No. I understand that it’s based on a famous tune (You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet by Bachman-Turner Overdrive — Ed), but I can’t make it out.

Did you punt Nigel Mansell off on purpose in the ’93 TOCA Shoot-Out? — Simon Dawson, Purley

Sadly not. I was braking to avoid him as he came ‘whingeing’ across the track in front of me, headed for the barrier. I was right behind Steve Soper — the best touring car driver in the world according to you lot — and I went the same way he did. He squeezed through the gap; I didn’t. It was quite a big tap, in truth, and it turned Nigel sharp left. But I was trying to win a motor race. People forget that Nigel had barged me onto the grass with a very late lunge at Redgate just moments before our collision at the Old Hairpin.

What format did the competition that kick-started your career take? — Eric Devin, Shoeburyness

There was no driving element to it. You had to put 10 items in order of importance for preparing a car for a race. There was also a tie-breaker: ‘Racing’s worthwhile because…’ It was run by Autosport. They had run it before, and the guy who won that year stuck his Lotus into the pitwall in his first race, broke his neck — but survived. Thankfully, I did a little bit better than that. My prize was a Lotus 69F, the most beautiful Formula Ford ever made.

Third at Le Mans 1990 — was that your most satisfying result ever? — Martin Keller, Dublin, Eire

Yeah, it’s got to be — especially as it was my car, my team, my game plan. I’d been sharing the Alpha Porsche 962 with Derek Bell in the Japanese Group C series, but he had a works drive for Le Mans and so I had to find some other drivers. I chose a couple of struggling Brits (well, we have to stick together): Anthony Reid and David Sears. The car was prepared by an American mechanic called Gary Cummings and we had worked out that the Mulsanne — it was the first year of the chicanes — was now the equivalent of three Fuji pit straights. We bought low downforce bodywork from Porsche but decided to go with the high downforce set-up. It made us faster, but also made the race more tiring because we were cornering harder. We were an absolutely tiny team — four mechanics from Japan and a couple of American ‘mercenaries’ — and we had none of those masseurs or dieticians or such like. As a consequence, we all single-stinted: one hour on, two hours off. Of the top six finishers, ours was the only privateer entry. The only problem we had was a cracked windscreen.

Who is the best co-driver you have ever raced with? — Ferdinand Hahne, Weissach

Eje Elgh — and James Weaver. Eje was my great mate. We were in F3 together, didn’t quite crack F1 together and raced Dome’s sportscar in Japan together. We were the ones who discovered the President Hotel, Tokyo’s most famous haunt for racing drivers. James was very good, too — another struggling Brit who hadn’t got the breaks. It was me who wanted to go to America, James who wanted to stay in Japan and, ironically, it’s James who’s had the fantastic career in the States.

Why were you refused a Formula One Superlicence in 1979? — Ginevra Stoneleigh, Reigate

Oh gawd, what a pain that was. The FIA had only just introduced it, without really thinking it through. As an F3 driver, to qualify you had to finish in the top six of an international race 10 times, or something like that; I think it was five times if you were an F2 driver. The big problem was that the most competitive F3 championship at that time, the British, was being run under a national licence and so none of us qualified for a Superlicence. I was a test case and they rewrote the rules afterwards. Max and Bernie, bless ’em, tried to get me a licence, but the French said ‘Non’. My compensation was an outing in the BMW Procar race at the British GP. That was nice, but it didn’t make up for the half-dozen GPs with Ensign that I’d missed out on.

Could you beat Top Gear’s ‘The Stig’ in a straight fight? — James Abass, Lower Penn, Staffs

Easily. With one hand tied behind my back.

Why did your single-seater career eventually stall? — Sally Smothers, Croydon

A lacklustre Ensign and no sponsorship didn’t help. Nor did radial tyres; I like to drift a car, and crossplies were better for that. After my F1 spell with Ensign I had another outside chance, with Toleman in F2. Derek Warwick came along with BP money, and Stephen South was supposed to be the other driver. But when they fell out with him they whizzed me to Mugello for a test. I didn’t know the car, the track, Pirelli’s radials —and I hadn’t raced for six months. I didn’t do too well, Pirelli didn’t know me, and so they plumped for Brian Henton.

Who was the first person to call you Tiff? And has it helped having a memorable Christian name? — Richard Wright, Edinburgh

My older brother. When I was born he couldn’t say Timothy, so Tiff it was, right from the start. And yes, it’s certainly been a help to me in the showbiz world.

What’s the story behind you, Nigel Mansell and the Unipart F3 team? — Peter Bailey, Bridgnorth, Shropshire

The only story is that I was offered a third season with the team, 1979, but decided to leave it in order to join the Durex F1 scholarship. The team had to have another British driver and so Nigel stepped into the breach. By such small things are great careers made. The other reason I left was because I knew our Dolomite engine was never going to be a match for that twin-cam Toyota. With 16 valves and just one camshaft, the ‘Dolly’ didn’t accelerate very well. It had its moments, just not enough of them.

Why haven’t you raced a single-seater at the Goodwood Revival? — Clive Denton, Manchester

Because nobody has asked me to. A Lotus 25 would be nice. Please…

Has the racing at the Goodwood Revival become too serious? — Elsa Berezecky, Northampton

I’m a professional driver and so all racing is serious. I think if that meeting becomes stage-managed it will lose its pull. Problems arrive when the amateurs start mixing it with the professionals. That can be tricky. Of course, there is no excuse for two professionals colliding. It’s a difficult balance but the Revival gets it about right.

Did your TV career get in the way, or help you, as you tried to establish a BTCC career in the early 1990s? — James Best, High Wycombe, Bucks

Both. It helped get me in the Nissan in the first place, but when the car proved not to be the competitive proposition I had hoped for, I was soon labelled a ‘telly tart’.

Have you ever met that famous female racer Tiffany Dell? — Jason Eaves, Birmingham

No, but she’s out there somewhere. A young woman from BBC Radio Birmingham rang me very recently and asked to speak to her.

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