How I Got Fired From Top Gear Without Punching Anyone

Vojta Dobe
by Vojta Dobe

On September 11, 2012, my career as a print-magazine motoring journalist came to a semi-abrupt end. And unlike my much more famous colleague in the UK, I didn’t have to punch anyone to get fired from Top Gear.

That’s not to say I didn’t go out with a bang.

I was on my seventh year of writing for the Czech editions of Autocar and Top Gear magazines, and on my fourth year as a road tester. This meant 20-something Vojta exchanged driving various dilapidated old jalopies classic cars and youngtimers in favor of an endless stream of brand-new press loaners. With a focus on driving experience, handling, and all the other fun aspects of car ownership came some mandatory spirited driving.

Not that I was particularly sedate driver before that. As you can expect from someone who spent much of his early 20s behind the wheel of an old, hot-rodded Chevrolet Caprice (with a 305 and some Edelbrock parts that could burn through more rubber than a Czech-export porno film), I was quite familiar taking cars past the limits of grip.

The press cars, however, were on another level. For the first time, I regularly got my hands on metal that could handle. And for the first time, driving fast was part of my job. Taking cars for a blast around my favorite back roads was a natural part of my week. I even managed to get some track time now and then, and was trying to learn as much as I could about driving. I understood the importance of an apex. I could heel-and-toe. And rear wheels sliding around were a sign of fun — not of a crash about to happen.

But I still didn’t think I could really drive. I rode with my colleagues who were on another level entirely. I read articles and watched videos by people like Chris Harris or Steve Sutcliffe — journalists with abilities of professional racers. I was fascinated by the videos of real legends, such as Ari Vatanen’s heroic trip up Pikes Peak in Climb Dance or Stefan Rösler in the Faszination Nürburgring. I knew that — compared to these people — I drove like shit.

At the same time, I knew I was able to control a car better than the 99 percent of those other drivers on the road who never put any thought or effort into improving their driving acumen. I was driving fast, but I was always aware of my limits. My vivid imagination kept my speed at bay. I always saw what was going to happen if I screwed up that next corner — the mangled metal, broken bones, humiliation, and guilt if I hit someone else.

Until, one day, I wasn’t afraid anymore. It didn’t come overnight. But slowly — day after day, week after week — an idea started to grow somewhere deep inside my mind: I can actually drive. I’m that good. When any of my fellow speed freaks came along to ride shotgun with me, they weren’t scared, but they were impressed by my abilities.

There were stories to tell at a bar: Getting an Audi S5 Sportback into four-wheel drift on the back roads. Drifting a Genesis Coupe around a roundabout for more than one circle non-stop. Ripping through the forest in a Maserati Quattroporte GT S. Hitting 170 miles per hour in a Nissan GT-R on a highway through my town at night. Drifting some BMWs on a track in Austria and running a Mini Cooper JCW up and down the passes of the Alps. And getting stuck with a Nissan X-Trail twice in one week, because I’m a shit off-road driver.

I was driving faster and faster. Everything was going well. I’d never made the kind of driving mistake that reminds you of your limits and mortality. I lost the vivid images associated with what if I screw the next one up, and I started believing in my own abilities.

When the third-generation Focus ST debuted, I was really excited. The basic Focus III missed part of its predecessor’s mojo, but it was still a fun car to drive. With an electronic stability program that couldn’t be switched off, the chassis engineers took the liberty of tuning the Focus to be an oversteer-prone piece of kit. Even with the electronics, you could make the tail slide a bit — especially in the longer, tail-heavy wagon variant. And the ST was not only quicker, but also equipped with an ESP off button (or an item in the menu, I don’t remember). Naturally, I asked for the more tail-happy wagon version for the review.

The day when I picked up the press loaner was hot, I was tired, and the two-hour drive home at 75 mph was boring. I switched the ESP off in search for some oversteer fun on highway exits, anxious to get to my favorite back roads.

The first interesting corner was maybe 5 miles after my exit from the highway: a long, flowing right-hander that I knew could be tackled at about 130 mph with second-generation Focus RS. The needle was hovering somewhere around 190 kph (120 mph) as I approached. It was a bit fast, but I managed to take the same corner at more than 140 kph (85 mph) with a tiny, boxy VW Up! a week before.

How hard could it be?

I barreled into the corner at an impressive rate of speed. Then, I either noticed its tightening radius, which is not clear at a slower pace, or there was something else to cause me alarm and make me stupidly let off the throttle. In most modern front-drive cars, it would mean little more than just a slight tightening of the line through the curve. Even in the ST, at some reasonable speed (say, 1.5 times the limit and not twice the limit), it would mean just a little slide of the rear. Dramatic, maybe even fun — but not dangerous. And with the ESP on, even at my crazy pace, it would probably end up with a semi-controlled drift. It would likely be a heart attack-inducing event and call for a stop for a smoke, but it would be okay in the end.

Except I was going really fast and ESP was still turned off. The rear of the Focus stepped out of the line suddenly when I lifted off, requiring about a quarter of a turn of opposite lock. The ‘dab of oppo’ was enough to straighten the car out. Unfortunately, by that time, my right front tire was already on the grassy shoulder.

When it got back to the pavement, my “Oh, shit, this isn’t good” line of thought turned into “Oh fuck, I’m fucked.” The sudden return of grip on the right front tire caused the car to counter-rotate and continue in a straight line, through the unoccupied, oncoming lane (my first lucky moment) and off the elevated roadway into a treeless field (my second lucky moment). I distinctly remember looking through the window of the flying car as I contemplated the depth of shit I was just getting into. It’s a bit surprising that a thought of actually dying never occurred to me. I just thought about how much trouble I was getting myself into. And I couldn’t believe it was really happening. A strange feeling, this.

After some 100 feet airborne, the Focus crashed into the field, went airborne again for maybe 60 more feet, and then rolled. Or something. I don’t remember it very well as I wasn’t able to discern the exact movements of the car. Besides, I hit the driver’s window quite hard with my head.

With the help of some bystanders, I got out of the car, assessed myself — just a dizzy feeling from the bang to the head and sore chest from the safety belt — and then the car. Suffice to say, I had to answer the question “What kind of car was it?” more than once. And my laptop, sitting in front of the rear seat, got squished between the front seat and the rear.

When I fished my phone out of the car’s trunk (it was in the cupholder when I crashed), I started to make some unpleasant phone calls. There was my wife of three months, worried (the time to be furious was to come). There was my boss at Top Gear, angry beyond the point of being furious. And the PR guy from the Ford, who was nice and helpful, but politely reminded me of the ST wasn’t insured (other than mandatory third-party damage insurance). Of course, I knew that up front, but it wasn’t exactly pleasant to hear.

After the ambulance checked me out and the police handed me a ticket, the nice people from Ford in my hometown arrived, picking up the pieces of the ST, and left me with a Mondeo loaner. I went to the hospital to be checked once more, signed a waiver when they wanted to keep me overnight (I stupidly mentioned the speed), and went home under the promise that I’d return tomorrow for a check up. In the morning, I hopped in the Mondeo, reversed out of the parking space and, failing to look out properly due to my sore neck, managed to get my taillight smashed by another car.

The immediate result was having my press car privileges suspended for three months — which, coupled with my Ford Aerostar dying two days after (yup, three Fords in a week), forced me to buy an old, beat up W124 (a stupid idea). After some negotiation between Ford and my boss at Top Gear, I received invoice to a modest sum of $5,000 (a half year’s average pay in CZ), instead of one for the full sticker price of the vehicle (about $40,000).

I stayed at Top Gear and Autocar for a few more months.

Just about the time my three-month press-car ban was about to expire, the publishing house was bought by a German company. Autocar was shuttered almost immediately and people were suddenly in surplus. Who better to get rid of than a freelancer who recently crashed a $40,000 car through his own sheer stupidity and brought the hate of one of the biggest automakers on the magazine’s head in the process?

So, that’s how my career in print magazines ended. I continued to make my living as a translator and part-time copywriter. The next year, I did two things that probably wouldn’t happen without the Focus crash: I started to do reviews for TTAC, and I started trying to turn my blog/part-time fun project — Autickar.cz — into a full-fledged magazine. Now, my magazine is slowly growing into a real business that may, hopefully, make my living one day. Since the crash, I did a lot of important things I probably wouldn’t have done had I continued working for Top Gear.

I also drive slower. Not real slow, mind you – I’m still a motoring journo — but the images of what would happen if I screw up in the next corner came back and are even more vivid now that I lived through it. I think I’m a bit better driver for it.

And the most important lesson? It wasn’t about lift-off oversteer, or even about stupidity of driving so fast on open roads. It was about humility and overconfidence. I can find a dozen reasons for that crash. I was going too fast. I shouldn’t have lifted. It was stupid to switch the ESP off before really finding out how the car behaves. But all of them were the result of the one, core reason: I thought I could drive. I wasn’t even fully aware of that thought, but it was enough. The moment I thought I was really that good, the countdown to a crash begun. It wasn’t if anymore. It was when

Disclosure: Ford provided the vehicle for this, erm, unfortunate incident.

Vojta Dobe
Vojta Dobe

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  • Yankee Yankee on Apr 01, 2016

    Sorry to diverge from all those salavating over the car wreck porn and comparing it to their own lapses of judgement, but I agree with Matt here. Mr Dobes gets my vote for douchebag of the month. Too bad the Ford was so safe, because that means this special breed of asshole with no regard for anyone else's welfare is still able to drive. I'm amazed that a website I held in such high esteem for providing a more reasoned and cerebral side of automotive enthusiasm would even publish a piece like this. What were you guys thinking?!? I expect to read tales of street racing in between the sponsored articles of Hot Rod or Car and Driver, but not here. We, your readers, don't need a cautionary tale to prevent us from recklessly endangering our own or other people's lives by driving triple digits on a public road. We understand basic physics, value our licenses, and have mortgages we would prefer not to jeopardize in a lawsuit because of insane behavior. Why would you even give space for such a self-serving piece of garbage like this, with the author engaging in a feat of twisted logic by attributing his promising career direction to such a ridiculous and dangerous act? Publishing this narrative was jusr as stupid as the actions of its author.

    • See 2 previous
    • CarnotCycle CarnotCycle on Apr 01, 2016

      @Yankee I enjoyed the piece very much, and somewhat agree with Juniper's scorn - but I have to heap that on myself before the author. Never had a blow-out wreck like this; but can recall several occasions where life-continuing-as-normal was game of inches. This story is also far more entertaining than last journo-crash I read about, which was some guy haplessly clowning a 2016 press-pool Camaro into a barrier on a track. This story also makes one think of moments (we've all had them) where the risk of obliteration was far higher than situation author was in, but in much lamer/stupider setup (making that yellow light and subsequent developments, for instance). At least author has some great photos and a bar story out of it. It also makes me realize that the younger, dumber version of me driving the current version's car would have gone zero-to-dead in about ten seconds of high-performance bad judgement.

  • Dswilly Dswilly on Apr 01, 2016

    Two things I learned from my track days and driving schools. 1. Don't try this stuff on public roads 2. Never lift...

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