Two summers ago, Richard “Hamster” Hammond experienced an unfortunately familiar event while filming Amazon’s The Grand Tour: He lost control of his supercar and crashed into a Swiss mountain range, barely escaping the vehicle before it was engulfed in flames. (It was so bad, co-presenters Jeremy Clarkson and James May believed he had died.) Filming was temporarily put on hold while Hammond recovered from a fractured knee, and now, with the show’s third season completed, his relentless affability — the perfect everyman yin to Clarkson and May’s sardonic yang — somehow makes you forget he was almost paid an early visit by the grim reaper, lingering knee pain be damned. And with trips slated to everywhere from Detroit to Mongolia and China for The Grand Tour’s latest season, which premieres on Friday, his presence is not only a joy, but doubles as the embodiment of what international relations should be.
With The Grand Tour’s future now up in the air with its three-season Amazon contract fulfilled, Vulture called Hammond up in England to discuss the future, his post-crash recovery, and, of course, his new signature facial hair. (Watch out, Al Pacino: We may have a new goatee icon.)
I have to start by saying I actually named my first car, Oliver, after your Oliver from your Top Gear days.
Oh, that’s very sweet to hear. I still have Oliver, he lives at home in my garage. He’s a bit old and feeble now, but he’s still going strong.
Is he getting any mileage?
Oh yeah! Not a lot, he’s not exactly quick. Smallest engine ever. But he’s still with me. Who was your Oliver? What was your car?
A white Mazda 6. He definitely looked like an Oliver.
Excellent. Sometimes, you just know.
I thought it was fitting that this season began in Detroit, as it’s been nice to see you traveling more around the U.S. since you began working with Amazon. Now that it’s been three seasons, do you think you were successful in cultivating a bigger fan base stateside?
I feel we have been, yes. It’s nice that Amazon has global reach and that’s one of the reasons we love working with them — and one of the reasons they wanted to work with us. We’re lucky to resonate with places and people around the world. We love filming in the States, and we did enough of it this season, that’s for sure. We had a fantastic time in Detroit. It films fabulously. That’s the place you go to if you got petrol or gas in your veins, and we’ve been romping around elsewhere in your country, too.
When I talked to Jeremy last year, he said that America is still the country where you’re least-known. I wonder if you agree with that, and if you do, why you think that is?
I don’t know if it’s that extreme. Imagine Jeremy talking in extremes? [Laughs.] Those of us outside the States, us Europeans, tend to look at America and think of it as one big place. But it’s full of different and disparate places, and it’s enormous. Therefore, to resonate in all of the States is quite a big ask. There’s always been hotspots of people who know us and people who enjoy what we do. It’s incredibly gratifying, obviously, to learn that people are watching it. I was in New York a couple of months ago, and in Los Angeles last weekend, and more and more and more people are coming up and saying how much they like the show. For whatever job you do, you want people to come and praise you for it. It feels good.
The biggest misconception I’ve stumbled upon is that American viewers believe it’s only a car show, when it’s more fundamentally a social and travel program.
It’s essentially about people and places and three middle-aged men who should know better but don’t. You don’t have to be a car geek to watch the show. We are car geeks, of course. I’m obsessed. I’m really excited today because I just got my 1968 Mustang 390 GT returned from a guy who’s been fixing the exhaust. My house has more cars than people. They live better than I do. The three of us are fearless car geeks, but you don’t have to be one to watch the show. That’s been the strength of what we do for a long time. It’s rooted in our love of cars, no doubt about it. For us, it’s about the cars. For viewers, it’s about cars and people. For most folks, cars aren’t that interesting until you involve people. Because then it’s about what cars say about you, [how] you interpret somebody else’s car, and what cars can do.
Were there any challenges or segments you chose not to participate in this season, owing to your recovery from your near-death crash?
I don’t think there was anything, no. I took some pills and got on with it. I think I managed to do everything despite my knee problems. There’s the lingering worry of having to telephone my wife and tell her I had another accident — I’m too scared to do that. I’m more scared to do that than have another accident. [Laughs.]
The quickness of your recovery, given the severity of it, was remarkable. The closest I’ve come to an accident was almost hitting a car on the highway, and I avoided driving for months.
Don’t forget, it’s my job! I’ve got to go to work.
When did you know you were ready to return to work?
Once I could stand. I took off for a few weeks and I was in a wheelchair for a while, and then I was on crutches, which I still use occasionally. Anyone who’s hurt their knees knows how much of a nuisance it is. It was a while before I could get around properly. But I could still talk, and that’s one of the most important things for the job at the end of the day. I can’t go running, though. I really miss that. It’s very annoying. The one thing I’ve done all of my adult life was run. Not competitively, God, no. Just for me. When we film somewhere, I’ll take a pair of running shoes in my bag and get up a little bit earlier and go for a run for an hour. I can’t do that now, which I miss.
There’s always power-walking.
No way, I’d look silly. [Laughs.] I look silly enough in my shorts as it is.
I read that the celebrity interviews were cut this season because Amazon analyzed its data and concluded that viewers didn’t care as much about those segments. It’s cool that technology allowed them to do that, I guess, but does it give you pause knowing the show’s creativity could be determined or deterred by algorithms?
I think the opposite, actually. We’re in the business of making TV that we want people to watch and enjoy. Any tool available to us can help us serve up what people enjoy best. We’re making entertainment and we want people to enjoy it. If there are bits of things that perform better, we’ll do more of those bits. Obviously, it would’ve been awkward if they came back and said, Sorry boys, nobody likes any of this. We couldn’t do that even a few years ago. Most of TV analytics is guesswork, really. They ask 100 people and they’re suppose to tell you what 100 million people think. Whereas Amazon can tell you exactly who’s watching and what they’re watching.
Did Amazon give you any other data that informed the new season?
Not really. I always say they’re amazingly good at leaving us alone, but you know it’s not that amazing. They’re not a bunch of idiots, for crying out loud. It’s a big organization. They worked out, We want these guys because the show is popular. Why would they buy us in and mess with it and risk spoiling it? They look forward to seeing what we sent them, but they don’t mess with it. They’re braver than I’ve been!
That’s true. I guess the skeptical side of me is wondering, If Amazon decides viewers don’t respond well to car company X or car model Y, will they tell you to avoid them in the future?
I see your point. They’ll never do that, I’m sure. They only talk to us in general brushstrokes, and it’s genuinely useful information. We want the show to be popular and enjoyed, you know? If you cook for somebody, you want to find out what meal they like. If you can get any help doing that, you’ll take it.
What would be your ideal format for the show moving forward, now that your contract is up? I know Amazon hasn’t confirmed anything, but it seems you three want to stick with them.
We love working here and we’ll continue to work with them as long as we can. In the future, we’ll probably concentrate on the bits people love — for instance, we know from feedback, without using Amazon’s incredibly clever and huge data-gathering abilities, what’s slowly evolved to be our “signature dishes.” Those are the specials. When we go on a big adventure, the three of us going to one place or the other in these ridiculous vehicles.
Over the years, we focused on that more and more and honed our skills. Don’t forget, doing those trips includes a huge team. We’re meeting Hollywood production standards without actually being in Hollywood, thanks to the skills of a bunch of men and women out in the field with us. If we’re sleeping in tents in a jungle, so are they, only they’re sleeping next to a generator charging all of their camera batteries and getting up two hours before us to reassemble all of their cameras and do the work. It’s a privilege to be part of that team. I’m sure they hate us, but we’re privileged regardless.
How many people travel with you behind-the-scenes on those trips?
A smaller trip might be around eight, but when we go out on the really big specials, we have 30 or 40 people with us, and about 20 vehicles. When we were shooting in Mongolia this season, we couldn’t take the massive unit there, because where would we put them? They’d usually stay in an hotel around the corner, but in Mongolia, there aren’t any! You need tents, you need food, you need chargers, it’s crazy.
I’d watch an episode that just films the crew filming a special.
I don’t think you actually want to see what they get up to, trust me. [Laughs.] They’re wild. Let me tell you, they invented this game to play at airports to kill time called “the watch game.” A gang of them will go on one of those moving walkways, and they’ll stand behind a bunch of strangers. One of them will say very loudly — say, it’s 9:30 in the morning — No, don’t worry we’ve got ages, it’s only half past ten! And then they look for the strangers’ panicked reactions. They once arrived on a location with us still giggling, because they did it behind a row of pilots. The pilots started to run and knock over a bunch of bags immediately. They’re a bunch of idiots, but I love them.
My last question is the most important: What encouraged you to grow a goatee after all these years?
I don’t know, weirdly. My daughter recently found a photo of me from 30 years ago, when I had hair all the way down to my elbows, and I had pretty much the exact same goatee. I’ve grown them on and off [since] I was younger, but once I grew it at the beginning of season one, I had to keep it for continuity. Plus, it’s got gray bits in it, which stops people [from] accusing me that I dye my hair. I don’t! Maybe that’s the main reason I do it.
It’s a chic Al Pacino look. You pull it off.
Al Pacino is in his 70s! Why do I always get that?! [Laughs.]
He’s the gold standard!
He is, it’s true. He’s the leader of all goatee wearers.