By on March 30, 2016

Vojta Dobes with crash overlay

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.

Vojta Dobeš' Chevy Caprice

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.

Drifting a M135i on Wachauring, Austria

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.

Focus ST Wagon, not-crashed.

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?

A controlled case of oversteer.

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.

No wonder people asked what car it was

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.

Yup, that's the engine.

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?

The poor ST being dragged out of the field

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 — — 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.

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64 Comments on “How I Got Fired From Top Gear Without Punching Anyone...”

  • avatar

    Great post.

    I’ve been in a situation that was exactly like yours (and as I think about it, completely 100% different) and know the feeling.

    Your description was spot on.

  • avatar
    cimarron typeR

    Opportunity shined on you , I’m glad you made out OK on both accounts, and also that there was no oncoming traffic. Secondly , what’s lost in this article is why there exists no FOST wag here stateside…

  • avatar

    Glad that you didn’t get other people killed along the way. Good luck in your future, it seems like you have really learned your lesson.

  • avatar

    You know you crashed pretty hard if either:

    A) The car rolled

    You’re lucky to be alive! Now continue that streak and stop smoking.

  • avatar
    Matt Hurting

    Idiot. You did this on public roads? Fucking idiot.

    • 0 avatar


      “I can find a dozen reasons for that crash.”

      I find three, arrogance, stupidity, lack of respect for law and fellow motorists.

    • 0 avatar

      You may not like what he did, but once you can get past that, you can hopefully see that others can learn from this. Overconfidence is dangerous, the quantities of speed don’t always have to measure up. Some dumb kid could just as much harm at 50 MPH in the wrong conditions. Overcooking a corner can happen to anyone once they shed too much fear. Lesson for me: stay just scared enough and don’t lose that mental image of your car strewn in tatters across the road.

    • 0 avatar
      Piston Slap Yo Mama

      SRSLY Matt? He wrote this story with the intentions of being honest with himself. Most yahoos out there would make some BS excuse: a dog in the road, a pelican, wrong tire pressures, sun in the eyes … ad infinitum. Nobody takes responsibility for their own actions – and as a guy whose been rear-ended twice recently by numbnuts who tried to blame it on me, I’m probably the expert on this.
      Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote “Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others.” It’s obvious that Vojta Dobeš follows this creed.
      On a related note, many years ago in New Orleans I was out with my girlfriend for a spin in my Triumph Spitfire. It had just rained and I was following a big, hooptie Ford LTD up a curving on-ramp and figured that any turn a big tank could negotiate on skinny tires would be a cinch for me. Imagine my surprise when we plowed straight ahead over a curb and into a stoplight switching box. So I understand Vojta’s overconfidence as he entered that turn. It’s a hard-earned lesson.

  • avatar

    Great piece. Glad for your two lucky moments. Glad you killed a fungible commodity rather than an old Tatra.

  • avatar
    Kyree S. Williams

    “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?”

    On one hand, reckless driving is reckless driving. On the other hand, things happen. I know it’s a lot of money, but I still don’t understand how this literally escalated to hate from the automaker. It’s just a car. And Ford ought to know that autojournos occasionally get carried away in fun toys; it’s part of the territory.

    Either way, Vojta, thanks for sharing that story with us.

    • 0 avatar

      There is no evidence there was hate from Ford. They provided him with a Mondeo loaner and reduced the out of pocket cost to 1/8th of what could have been claimed. He wasn`t fired for the incident, but because of a merger/takeover.

      He was lucky he didn`t get a criminal record from excess speeding which did cause an accident.

  • avatar

    Great read, thank you.

    Next time pull the key out of the ignition, run away, & report the car stolen. :-)

    Seriously though, I cant believe you walked away with only a head bump. Lucky!!!!!

  • avatar

    New Olympic event: Engine Tossing

    Seriously glad you survived to tell the tale, Vojta! You know, the use of humility is a great introduction to the B&B at TTAC, but this is overdoing it.

    You’ve scared me enough that I’ll be hopping back on my bicycle and working my way back to my car keys. Helmet and elbow pads mandatory.

  • avatar

    Woman drives SUV off the fourth floor of a parking garage, police say

    “Baltimore County police released a surveillance video Thursday showing a 23-year-old woman driving her SUV off the fourth floor of a Towson garage.

    The woman, identified as Lindsay Taylor Cook of Towson, was not seriously injured in the crash, authorities said.”

    Yep yep yep!

    Audi Q5.

    In reality, that’s a minimum of 44 feet straight down into a concrete road, and it’s remarkable

    • 0 avatar

      Already hammered at 3:50, so much so that youre posting random articles seemingly unaware of the discussion at hand?

      Yep yep yep! Guess ya got to get up pretty early…

  • avatar

    When I get close to the limit in my car I get flashes of that feeling…”the odds say that this type of driving will eventually catch up to you” whether by mistake or unexpected road conditions.

    “Corner” and “130mph” frankly never coexist in my driving habits. I have more fun by creating G’s at reasonable speeds rather than sheer velocity but still there are corners I hit everyday where a bit of gravel or sand would result in a totaled car.

    • 0 avatar

      Any time I begin to lose touch with how fast chit can go pear-shaped, I watch Russian dash cam videos. Sobers me right up.

      Low- speed g’s FTW, but only when no one’s nearby.

  • avatar

    Great piece about humility and what brought you here.

    The most important thing is that you lived to tell the tale which in turn may yield safer driving practices for us. Thank you.

  • avatar

    I couldn’t even imagine attempting a corner at 120MPH. Great post and thanks for sharing.

  • avatar

    “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.”

    It is strange indeed. I was in a similar, but much less severe, situation recently, when I lost control on a highway overpass, but managed to stabilize the car a few moments later. I don’t know how quickly it happened, but the seconds seemed to last forever. There was no time for fear. All I could think of was how much I don’t want the car in the barriers and how to save the situation. It’s scary, but it also makes you feel really alive.

    I enjoyed your piece very much, because my experience was just intense enough to have an idea how it felt, while at the same time not being even close. Also, the title is awesome.

    • 0 avatar

      I had driven 300 miles like a champ when i hit black ice 3 miles from home this winter. Lasted a single second, but that’s a strange kind of fear i don’t experience often.

      Before it was over, “wow ESP JUST SAVED MY ASS” is what flashed in my mind. I might have initiated it by disabling cruise at 70 mph near mid-corner in a relatively tight corner of a 50 mph road. Not rwd but close, quattro.

  • avatar
    Matt Hurting

    How about this headline: “How I got fired from Top Gear for driving like an idiot and endangering the lives of everyone else on the road?”

  • avatar

    I wonder if Ford’s automatic front inside tire braking had anything to do with the accident. I watched quite a few STs at an auto-x this weekend and you could see the front inside brake changing the direction of the car. It could have startled him (since he doesn’t remember what caused him to stab the brake).

  • avatar

    I have fairly split feelings about this post – love the honesty, and how you portray the insight dearly bought from what happened. On the other side, do you remember the public outcry about Mercedes’ test drivers in Germany a couple of years ago? One of them killed some innocent people.

    Driving too fast, too recklessly on public roads? I’m a firm believer that idiots on their free time may exceed the speed limit a bit (can’t show a clean sheet myself – 100% is extreme though), but professionals…they should know better. Testing cars for “consumer advice” is so much more than handling and extreme speed. And that part should be done on a track.

    Are press loaners usually not insured? That sounds like a weak link par excellence. These cars get a lot of hard mileage, and you’d think they are properly insured, too.

  • avatar

    “Except I was going really fast and ESP was still turned off.”

    Ford stability control engineer slowly shakes head.

  • avatar

    I was lucky/unlucky enough to have a series of accidents directly after passing my test, a couple involving other cars but most just me screwing up. I learned early on that bad choices result in problems, I think you would’ve been well-served if you’d had the same experiences that I had early on, maybe you’d have a little more respect for yourself and driving in general.

  • avatar

    Good read.

    This is why I love winter driving. You can drive at the limit all you want, at low enough speeds that nothing crazy happens.

    The idea of playing around on dry pavement public roads always seemed crazy to me. I never did any at-the-limit cornering on clean pavement until after a week at Bondurant. After that, I still stick to straight line braking at higher speeds and slow-in, fast-out on the faster curves. There’s too much potential energy involved at dry weather speeds, and the suspension, chassis, and tire motion during high grip transitions can bite even an experienced driver at high speed.

  • avatar

    This is perhaps one of the greatest TTAC “been-there-done-that” stories ever. The photo of the engine laying in the field is icing on the cake.

    Live and learn…

  • avatar

    Rule #1 we teach at HPDE is if you lose the car do NOT try to recover. It almost never ends well for the reasons mentioned above. Once the car regains grip the opposite lock you have dialed in will send you flying in (guess what…) the opposite direction. This will occur nearly instantly and without warning. Then really bad things start happening. Rule #2 is don’t turn off the traction control, as its WAY smarter and faster then you. Rule #3 is if your not scared when driving hard then something is wrong. Because once you lose that fear you’ll either become really fast (IE: professional race car drive dude) or you’ll crash for sure. Fear is a built in protection system to keep us from doing stupid stuff. I like when my students are scared and admit it.

  • avatar
    Master Baiter

    “I barreled into the corner at an impressive rate of speed.”

    Redundant, as speed is a rate. It’s the scalar of velocity, which is rate of change of position.

  • avatar

    I always say: “the most important accidents are the ones that don’t happen”, like in close calls. You obviously did not pay attention to those close calls. You were stupid then and lucky to survive. Hopefully now you’re only lucky!

  • avatar

    Vojta, I’m glad you made it out of this crash alive, and I am making my teenage son read your article.

  • avatar

    Whew ~

    A sobering read , this .


  • avatar

    I had my “similar” incident to this when I was 16. Luckily, the only damage I did was to bend the wheel hub spindle on my great grandmother’s 1970 dodge dart. When I bought my 427 Cobra (9 years ago), I promised myself that I would NOT end up in a U-tube video that showed me wadding-up my car. 615 horsepower in a car that weighed less than 2300 pounds was a recipe for disaster… and the Cobra was beyond my driving abilities… and I knew it. My friends were always commenting that they were waiting for a “REAL” ride in the Cobra. Told them they would NOT be getting that type of ride from me. I may hang it out a little when I’m out by myself, but not with someone else in the car. I was lucky… never had an incident with the Cobra. Just sold it a few months ago. Good read tho… I applaud your honesty & assessment of the situation. And remember… things could’ve been a LOT worse.

  • avatar

    Not that this kind of speed can be justified on a public road, but at least it looks and sounds like it was done somewhere with few people/things that could be affected by Mr. Dobes’ risk-taking. This is less reckless in my mind than the (presumably untrained in high speed driving) police officer who went nearly as fast down a busy 35 MPH city street.

    Many of us have done things that could have ended just as badly, or much worse. I myself have done similar speeds through rush hour traffic on my bike, in addition to worse things, before a thankfully minor accident (ironically, at a time when I wasn’t even doing anything stupid) made me decide to quit while I was still ahead.

    The guy had the courage and humility to come out and tell the Internet how he messed up, in addition to providing us with an interesting story and pictures. No matter what you think about his driving, you have to give him some respect for that.

  • avatar

    You’re lucky I wasn’t a judge or prosecutor on your case. You’d do a bit of jail time. On a race track you can go as fast as you want, but on a public street, even one that APPEARS to be deserted, you must at least exercise reasonable prudence, and you didn’t. You were reckless and you are lucky you didn’t kill somebody. Just look at what happened with Deputy Fritz.

  • avatar

    And who of us hasn’t driven fast and crazy at one point in life?
    We learned our lesson and Vojta learned his. Makes me laugh that you guys harp about as if you drive the speed limit on every road every day in your life.

    Great article.

  • avatar

    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.

    • 0 avatar

      Ah, the “I disagree with what was written, so I’m going to pretend that the publisher had no right to publish it” poster. Your kind is relatively rare here. Thanks for speaking for me, one of the readers, by the way.

      There are many here, however, who appreciated and enjoyed this honestly-written piece. Maybe you should sit quietly and clench your fists really hard until the anger passes?

      • 0 avatar

        It’s not about disagreeing. This article basically amounts to glorifying what was a tremendously stupid and potentially deadly stunt. Anyone has a right to publish anything they want, I’m just saying I would expect this kind of crap from one of the advertising-driven rags who service the consumer who has never pursued anything beyond what education was mandatory, follows NASCAR like a religion, and thinks the “professional wrestling” on TV is real. What I’ve come to appreciate from this site is the unexplored side of automotive news, well-written, and thoroughly researched. The lighter features are usually also well-written, and bring out the humor in the automotive world. Risking people’s lives is never funny. What he did was reckless. He doesn’t deserve to write about it.

        • 0 avatar

          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.

  • avatar

    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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