Tiff Needell

We caught up with Tiff Needell at Hampshire’s Thruxton Circuit where for four days a month he gives the public an opportunity to sit alongside him in a BMW M4, for three laps of the country’s fastest circuit – sideways!

We experienced an exhilarating ride where the car was taken through it’s paces. Your body is experiencing the speed and G force that Thruxton circuit has to offer. Your brain is also taking in a corner by corner commentary by Tiff which gives a real insight into the circuit and the drivers approach to corners and car positioning.

A brief time to recover and we sat down for a chat.

What prompted the experience days and what do you most enjoy about them?

I’ve managed company launches, track day events and spent years doing these types of track events. Thruxton is my local track and I’ve come here a few times, personal appearances, corporate days, but we discovered what people wanted was me to drive them round for a few laps.

I do three or four days a month and it’s great fun, I really enjoy doing it. I love interacting with the public and I love showing them what a normal road car can do. When I say this is a standard BMW M4 straight out of the showroom they can’t believe it! The thrill, the excitement.

I take four year olds on booster seats and 84 years olds. I had this lovely woman from Yorkshire who at the end of the ride said “It was the best thing I’ve done in my life” and she’s 84. To have someone say something like that is really rewarding. It’s a lot of fun to do.

It takes a lot of organising and thankfully we borrow a car from BMW and get help from Pirelli with the tyres because it’s quite an expensive operation. We couldn’t do it without the help from them.

Over the last nine years I’ve taken five and a half thousand people on that three lap ride.

Thruxton is a track you’re passionate about. What do you think are the track’s best features and what do you like most about it?

It’s fast and flowing, that’s the simple thing. All the modern tracks have been chopped up with stupid chicanes. The formula 1 cars, they go too fast and when they have a shunt they say, ‘let’s slow the track down’, not, ‘maybe we should slow the cars down’.

Eau Rouge at Spa is a great test of driver and machine, which now every driver is full throttle through, so now there’s no challenge. We talk about Spa as the classic high speed circuit (which Thruxton is also).  There’s one corner (Pouhon) where one driver has been full throttle through those two lefts, so if every driver goes full throttle through there, the great Spa ends up being two hairpins and three second gear chicanes as the only challenge to the driver, and the rest of the circuit is at full throttle.

At Thruxton, a Formula 1 car would just eat it up and Damon Hill back in 1993 did it in 57 seconds. He was full throttle from the complex to the chicane without any real driver skill required. Whereas for Touring Cars and Superbikes, where they don’t have the grip, they have to brake for the high speed corners still, like they used to when the track was built. So the track is a great challenge because you can’t go full throttle, so it’s a fantastic flowing circuit.

Thruxton is the only track that is still the same shape as when it was made, everything else has been chopped or changed in the name of safety or whatever.

How did you first get into motor racing?

By going to racing drivers school driving single seaters at Brands Hatch – I did that for a couple of years and then won a car in a magazine competition (a Formula Ford Lotus 69F).

What was it like lining up for your first race?

Terrifying… magical and terrifying. First time I was in the middle of a 30 car pack and qualified about 15th, cars everywhere. The first lap with so many cars was a magical, magical moment, absolutely wonderful.

What was your favourite series?

Single seaters was the favourite as that was the ultimate driving challenge, Formula 1, Formula 3, but then Le Mans sports cars. I had a great career there and raced at Le Mans 14 times . Single seaters is what every racing driver wants to do because it’s designed to go fast – everything else is a compromise (you sit on one side, you’ve got door pillars and obstructions). The group c series of sports cars which ran from 1980 – 1992 (12 years of Le Mans) was a great era and I was lucky I was right in the middle of that.

Who was your favourite motor racing idol and why?

Jim Clarke, Gentleman Jim Clarke… The most naturally talented driver but also a gentleman, a wonderful personality. In those days they would race in saloon car racing, sports car racing and formula one all in the same day. I’d watch them at Goodwood, clinging to the fence. My dad took me as soon as I could walk. I was a proper race fan.

What’s your current favourite series to watch?

Formula 1’s got very technical so I criticise it a lot. I still love Formula 1 but it’s now 95% car, 5% driver whereas when Jim Clarke was driving it was 50% car 50% driver, even 60 or 70% driver. A lot of people think that Formula 1 should be the pinnacle of technology, which I battle against. They banned traction control, they banned ABS brakes… hold on a minute, two of the pinnacles of technology that save our lives on the roads everyday and they don’t even have them. I think now we’ve got to this dividing point where we have to accept that motor racing should be an entertaining sport and we have to move away from this ‘pinnacle of technology’, because otherwise the pinnacle of technology is autonomous cars.

Ok, we’re going to have electric cars in the future, they might be autonomous, so our motorsport has to be entertaining to…

a) give driver satisfaction

b) for someone on the bank to watch it go by and think “wow, look at that sideways, tyres smoking” it’s entertainment.

I actually think Indycar is better to watch now – they’re all in the same car, so Indycar is 50% driver now – they’ve taken a lot of the technical stuff off them.

In F1 they obsess with keeping the manufacturers in to pay the bills, but the manufactures just push the budgets up so privateers like Williams and McLaren can’t compete. I hate that word “We NEED Manufacturers.” The best time in Formula One for me was the mid 70s when everybody bought a Ford Cosworth DFV engine. You buy an off the shelf engine and there are eight teams that win races in a year, Ferrari were there as well. So we don’t have to have manufacturers in our sport, and to my mind they ruin the sport as they push costs up and up and demand this regulation and that, and then they leave. All of a sudden the board of directors will say ‘we’re pulling out now as we’ve been caught cheating on dieselgate’ or something and so all of a sudden you haven’t got those manufacturers, but you’ve raised these cars that cost too much.

In Indycar, they’ve taken aero off – they’re taking grip off whereas on F1 they’re putting it on.

What’s in the pipeline?

Fifthgear is back on the 6th September on Quest. (Freeview 114 (37),Freesat 167, Sky 144 and Virgin 217)

Lovecars. I’m really enjoying that and it’s a different style to Fifth Gear – if you fluff lines you just keep going. With real television you do retakes to be perfect and correct, so I quite like just chatting and if I make a mistake you’ve got a chance to correct it as you’re involved with your audience all the time. I really enjoy Lovecars.

What’s next racing wise?

Goodwood Revival, not sure what I’m in yet but I’ll be there. Having been spectating from the fence since 1953 I couldn’t miss Goodwood.

Goodwood Revival starts on Friday 7th September.