Celebrities had the chance to take on Top Gear’s ‘Star in a Reasonably Priced Car’ segment, but so did a smattering of F1 drivers – leaving a particularly unique opportunity to answer the question of what some Formula 1 drivers could do in *exactly* the same car.
It might not have been an F1 car, a Suzuki Liana not quite the same animal as a Ferrari F2002 of the same year, but it offered a chance to see drivers take on the test track at the BBC’s flagship motoring show prior to the abrupt departure of Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May in 2015.
One driver did stand tall above the rest, however, and he did so extremely gleefully.
How seriously did F1 drivers take their Top Gear appearances?
Well, for some of them at least, very. (They are true competitors, after all).
At its peak, Top Gear drew global weekly audiences of 350 million people, one of the most popular shows in the world and a huge platform, even though the show’s production was (perhaps deliberately) made to look like it did not cost the earth.
The Stig, Top Gear’s so-called ‘tame racing driver’ and in-house professional, later revealed to be Ben Collins (not Michael Schumacher, sadly, despite Schumacher ‘unveiling’ himself as The Stig when he appeared as a guest for an interview), set a target time around the test track at Dunsfold in a 1:44.4, which initially, none of the F1 guests could match – albeit with extremely limited practice.
The guests were only given a handful of laps around the track to learn the layout around the airfield, with Mark Webber, Damon Hill, Kimi Raikkonen, Jenson Button, Lewis Hamilton and Nigel Mansell all coming close and missing out (though some had varying conditions on their runs, blaming rain, oil, heat and anything else that slowed them down).
The first driver to beat The Stig’s time was Rubens Barrichello, clocking a 1:44.3 in the Liana.
Despite its capabilities only allowing it to go from 0-60 in around 12 seconds, Barrichello was clearly thrilled, as Lewis Hamilton explained on his second appearance on the show, saying: “I remember when Rubens came and did the time, we went to the drivers’ briefing in Germany and he had bought everyone a shirt.
“And he gave himself ‘I beat The Stig’, and everyone else ‘The Stig beat me’!”
Who was the fastest F1 driver around the Top Gear track?
Having appeared on a ‘wet and oily’ track on his first appearance in 2008, registering a 1:44.7, Hamilton actively asked to go back on Top Gear to try and improve his time when the track was dry.
By this time, Sebastian Vettel had moved onto the top of the leaderboard with a 1:44.0 – having asked the crew to check the tyre pressures on the Liana, to ensure they were up to scratch – with this coming just after Hamilton had announced his move to Mercedes.
In the same car, Hamilton took an enormous chunk of time out of Vettel’s benchmark on a 1:42.9, with a later appearance from Vettel’s Red Bull team-mate Mark Webber putting him just behind on a 1:43.1 on his second appearance on the show, with ‘Aussie Grit’ having managed a 1:47.1 in monsoon-like conditions previously.
But the fastest F1 driver in a reasonably priced car was in fact a fresh-faced Australian about to head into his second year at Red Bull.
Daniel Ricciardo headed onto the show after beating Vettel in their year together as team-mates at Red Bull, taking three victories as the only non-Mercedes driver to win a race in 2014.
After joking his way around and taking his hands off the steering wheel as he went on the straights, growling as the camera cut to him behind the wheel, genuine nerves appeared on Ricciardo’s face as Clarkson was about to reveal his time, with Hamilton’s 1:42.9 to beat.
Slumped in his chair, the Australian said: “Just do it slow, like one number by one number. If I lost, I want to lose slowly…”
But then the numbers started to be read out: “One, forty…
Ricciardo: “Please say two.”
After Ricciardo punched the air, Clarkson added: “My hair’s standing on end, because it’s another two.”
So, a 1:42.2 for Ricciardo’s efforts, seven tenths quicker than Hamilton – 1.8 seconds faster than Vettel – and he stood on the table next to him punching the air in celebration.
Not quite a Formula 1 podium, but that’ll do in the moment.
It wasn’t the most scientific experiment, of course, but it gave us a rare glimpse of seeing Formula 1 drivers from multiple teams – and different eras – driving exactly the same car around exactly the same track.
Following the departure of Clarkson, Hammond and May in acrimonious circumstances, no F1 driver has appeared on the programme, with different presenter line-ups having proceeded with the show in a tweaked format.
The BBC confirmed recently that Top Gear won’t be returning to screens “for the foreseeable future”, following a serious crash in 2022 for current presenter, Andrew ‘Freddie’ Flintoff.
What was the F1 driver leaderboard on Top Gear?
Daniel Ricciardo – 1:42.2
Lewis Hamilton – 1:42.9
Mark Webber – 1:43.1
Sebastian Vettel – 1:44.0
Rubens Barrichello – 1:44.3
The Stig – 1:44.4
Nigel Mansell – 1:44.6
Jenson Button – 1:44.7 (hot)
Kimi Raikkonen – 1:46.1 (very wet)
Damon Hill – 1:46.3
[Weather stipulations in brackets as written on the Top Gear leaderboard, slower wet attempts for Hamilton, Webber and Button removed]