Fast Talk.ERS: Tiff Needell races through his personal motor history as F1 returns

“People think you have to be brave to drive a racing car. You don’t. If it didn’t scare you, you couldn’t do it.”

As the Formula 1 season gets underway again and the world watches its elite drivers lining up on the starting grid, it’s worth reflecting on these words of wisdom from Timothy “Tiff” Needell.

One of the most familiar faces in motorsport over the past few decades, we caught up with the former presenter of Top Gear and Fifth Gear in his garage (where else?), where he keeps the iconic Formula Ford Lotus 69F that he used to race in.

“Funnily enough,” Tiff tells us, “My first car of all was a very rusty Morris 1000 Traveller which I used to tow the Formula Ford to its first races, before it proved too much for the Morris and it collapsed.”

Tiff is keen to remind us that, while each F1 season brings a new injection of technology and innovation, that doesn’t mean racing drivers don’t form longstanding attachments to their vehicles.

“The Formula Ford and I have been on a strange journey together. I actually won it in a magazine competition, then began racing in it, but sold it two years later as my career continued to progress. Finally, I was able to buy it back four years ago. It made my dream come true – this car was the beginning of my journey up to the ladder to the top of motorsport.

In fact, Tiff prefers the classics to the cutting-edge vehicles he used to review on primetime television every week. Why? “Put simply,” he tells us, “it’s because the classics have history attached.” It’s clear that history and personal connection count for a lot in Tiff’s eyes. He prefers Brands Hatch to Britain’s most famous race track, Silverstone, for no other reason than, “Brands Hatch is where I first drove a racing car.”

F1 may dominate the motorsport headlines, but for Tiff, the spectacle of motor racing’s premier global event still comes second to the gruelling endurance test of the Le Mans 24 hours race. “Le Mans has always been the most memorable for me,” he recalls. “I did the race 14 times and even managed to finish third back in 1990. There’s nothing like it.”

And for a man who gives the impression of someone who has driven pretty much everywhere there is to drive what’s the iconic or as yet untried ideal. “I’ve never actually driven down the iconic Route 66 in the US,” he admits. “I’m 66 this year… wouldn’t that be quite something, to drive down Route 66 listening to hard rock, cranked all the way up to 11!”