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Tiff Needell never really intended to be a commentator, a writer or even a television presenter and with an Honours Degree in Civil Engineering he hadn’t exactly been trained in motor racing either!
When the dream of a full-time Grand Prix seat failed to materialise, Tiff began a move to the World Sportscar Championship in search of a paid drive, while still seeking to further his single seater career in Europe.
Chasing drives meant hanging around race tracks and when Tiff was spotted doing nothing at a Mallory Park meeting that was being televised live by ATV Midlands he was invited into the commentary box to be the expert analyst. It was the beginning of a whole new career…
Tiff’s next appearance behind the microphone would be the beginning of a twenty one year association with the BBC as he joined Murray Walker for the live Grandstand coverage of Silverstone’s Formula Two meeting in 1981.
At this time the BBC had only been covering the full Grand Prix season for a few years and James Hunt had become established as Murray’s sidekick. However, as the BBC’s coverage of motorsport expanded so did Tiff’s involvement.
For most of the eighties, until live coverage was wound down, Tiff was Murray’s regular partner for everything but the Grand Prixes. Together they covered Formula Two, Formula 3000, Rallycross, the Formula Ford Festival and many other assorted meetings.
By now, to further expand his profile – and to start earning some more much needed money – Tiff had also taken up an offer to write Track Tests for Autosport Magazine. Not being the greatest wordsmith Tiff adopted a style of writing ‘as he felt it’, bringing his readers onboard with him to share his experience.
It was a style that would stand him in good stead when Top Gear’s Chris Goffey broke his leg just before he was due to test the new Formula First racing car for the programme in the spring of 1987. The producers had already heard Tiff’s voice and read his track tests so they invited him in to do the driving for Goffey – and, when they discovered he could drive right on the limit and describe what was going on at the same time he was signed on for good!
By the early nineties he had been joined by Jeremy Clarkson and Quentin Willson and the ratings were taking off as over five million viewers would regularly tune in for their weekly dose of car fun.
With Grandstand no longer doing live outside broadcasts of British motor racing, at the start of 1991 Tiff briefly found himself as a live Grand Prix Commentator for ‘BSkyB’ but, after the first three races they lost their transmission rights.
However, come 1992-1993 Tiff was back in the Sky studios hosting live transmissions of both ‘NASCAR’ and ‘Indycar’.
By now the ‘Top Gear’ brand was beginning to expand and when ‘Top Gear Magazine’ was launched Tiff became a regular columnist – a position he would later hold in publications that included ‘Autocar’, ‘Auto Express’ and the ‘Sunday Times In Gear’ section.
From 1995-1998 Tiff headed the ‘Top Gear Motorsport’ spin-off programme, presenting and competing in a wide variety of events, and also appeared in ‘Top Gear Waterworld’ while, from 1997-2001, he co-presented BBC’s coverage of ‘The World Rally Championship’.
Sadly all good things have to come to an end and, with ‘Top Gear’ taken off the air with an uncertain future, 2002 saw Tiff switching over to Channel Five and their brand new motoring programme ‘Fifth Gear’ which is now in it’s eighteenth series. Since this successful switch Tiff has gone on to present the much acclaimed ‘James Bond Special’ as well as a ‘five’ programme series on ‘The World’s Greatest’ engineering feats and a series on ‘Superships’.
Back on Sky Sports he presented ‘P1 Powerboats’ in 2007 and 2008 while in 2009 he wrote and presented a twelve part documentary following the American racing exploits of Lord Drayson entitled ‘Licence to Le Mans’.
The connection with his old friends on ‘Top Gear’ has never quite gone away and in ’03, ’04, ’05 and ‘06 he was centre stage alongside Jeremy Clarkson and either Richard Hammond or James May at the Earl’s Court and NEC Birmingham for the highly successful ‘MPH’ live action arena shows while he also appeared in the ‘James May’s Toy Stories’ series.
The Racing Driver
From the moment his father first took him to Goodwood there was only one thing Tiff wanted to be – a racing driver. As soon as he first experienced the sounds and smells of the brightly coloured machines with their drivers wrestling them through the corners, that was it. Throughout his childhood he would cling to fences watching the likes of Mike Hawthorn, Stirling Moss, Jim Clark, Jackie Stewart and James Hunt roaring past inspiring him to follow in their tracks.
Unfortunately with no family money it would surely always be a dream and Tiff headed for university and a career in Civil Engineering – but he couldn’t let the dream go. Between school and university, in the summer of 1969, he borrowed his Mum’s Morris 1000 and headed for the Brands Hatch racing driver’s school where he would spend all his savings moving through the different levels.
By choosing a five year sandwich degree course Tiff was out working every summer, earning money which, in 1970 enabled him to enter the school’s monthly races. Four wins and fourth place in the championship was a promising start but Tiff desperately needed backing to move on from the school events.
But it wasn’t a chance meeting with a millionaire that would be Tiff’s big break instead his career began in a dream story when he won his first racing car – a Formula Ford Lotus 69F in a competition run by the weekly racing magazine ‘Autosport’. From this beginning he worked his way up through the national racing scene to become a Formula Ford Champion in 1975.
22 wins 24 seconds 28 thirds
2nd in the 1974 ‘Wella for Men’ Championship
1st in the 1975 ‘Townsend Thoresen’ Championship
Special Commendation at the 1975 Grovewood Awards
Up until now Tiff had remained a civil engineer, graduating from the City University in 1974 with an Honours Degree and then taking a full time job as a structural design engineer with George Wimpey – an engineer by day, a mechanic in the evening and a racing driver at the weekend!
The 1976 season though would be the turning point. With a fully paid for Formula Ford 2000 drive, Tiff now used his earnings to rent a Formula 3 car for the second half of the British F3 Championship and ended the year with a stunning second place at the last round.
Formula Ford 2000
8 wins, 8 seconds, 1 third
2nd in 1976 ‘Allied Polymer’ Championship
1st in ‘Dunlop Pole Position’ Championship
Premier Award at 1976 Grovewood Awards
All his efforts came to fruition when he was awarded the Premier Grovewood Award – receiving his prize from newly crowned World Champion James Hunt. The best news of all though was an offer to quit his job as a civil engineer and turn professional with the Unipart Formula Three Team for the following season.
While the Unipart Formula Three Team was a huge leap up in Tiff’s career the British Leyland parts subsidiary obviously had to use one of their engines and the two litre Dolomite Sprint powerplant never quite matched the dominant Toyotas of that time.
Tiff did however finish fourth in the 1978 British Formula Three Championship, behind future Grand Prix stars Nelson Piquet, Derek Warwick and Chico Serra.
4th in 1978 British Championship
4 seconds, 6 fourths, 6 fifths, 4 sixths
Tiff’s success in Formula Three led to him being offered a scholarship sponsored by Durex to move up to the British Formula One Championship for 1979 – and he finished second in his first ever Formula One race.
British Formula One
‘Durex’ Formula One Scholarship winner
2nd on Formula One debut
A year later Tiff achieved the ultimate status of Grand Prix Driver with a couple of outings for Team Ensign. Although only joining the team while they waited for Jan Lammers to be free from his commitment to another team, Tiff’s results in a difficult car were every bit as good as the Dutchman’s.
1980 Grand Prix
Belgia Grand Prix with Team Ensign
Monaco Grand Prix with Team Ensign
Despite a great deal of interest, there were no Grand Prix seats free for 1981 so Tiff switched to Endurance Sportscar Racing to further his career and soon become established in this arena of world motorsport. Contesting the World Championship in 1982 and 1989 while concentrating on the Japanese series in-between.
His best results were two thirds, a fourth, a fifth and a sixth in World Championship events while he has contested fourteen Le Mans 24 hour races with a best result of 3rd place in 1990 from his seven finishes.
1981 Ibec-Cosworth DFV P6 with Tony Trimmer and Ian Bracey1982 Nimrod-Aston Martin with Geoff Lees and Bob Evans
1983 EMKA-Aston Martin with Steve O’Rourke and Nick Faure
1984 Porsche 956 with David Sutherland and Rusty French
1985 EMKA-Aston Martin with Steve O’Rourke and Nick Faure
1987 TOM’S Toyota 87C with Masanori Sekiya and Keiji Hoshino
1988 TOM’S Toyota 88C with Paolo Barilla and Hideki Ogawa
1989 RLR Porsche 962 with Derek Bell and James Weaver
1990 Alpha Porsche 962 with Anthony Reid and David Sears
1991 Kremer Porsche 962 with Gregor Foitek and Tino Lopez
1992 ADA Porsche 962 with Derek Bell and Justin Bell
1995 PCA Jaguar XJ220 with James Weaver and Richard Piper
1996 Lister Storm with Geoff Lees and Anthony Reid
1997 Lister Storm with Geoff Lees and George Fouche
Away from sportcars there were wins in British Thundersports – racing a Chevron-DFV B26 and a CanAm March-Chevrolet 847. Victories in four out of ten races in the Saab Mobil 900 Turbo Championship in 1987 and four out of ten again, driving a Porsche 944 Turbo in the 1988 British Porsche Championship. One-off victories came in the British Touring Car Championship in 1987 and ’89 and there was another win in the one make Rover 216 GTi series in 1991.
As a ‘journeyman’ driver Tiff raced all over the world with single seater outings not only in Europe, but also in Japan, Malaysia, Macau and India where he won the 1985 Bangalore Grand Prix. There have been sportscar events in the USA, including six starts in the Daytona 24 hours and drives in the British Rallycross Grand Prix in both Metro 6R4 and Ford Escort Cosworth.
In 1992 Tiff won his first ever rally in a one-off outing in the Ford RS2000 Rally Sport Series and then finished 30th in his second event – the very much tougher Rally of Great Britain – driving a Group N Sierra Cosworth in this World Championship event. Further rally outings were in a Mini-Cooper in the ’93 Charrington’s Historic Event, the Scottish Rally in a Formula Two Vauxhall Astra and then the Rally of Great Britain again in 1996 in a works Skoda.
With the collapse of the World Sportscar Championship at the end of 1992, Tiff turned to the increasingly high profile scene of the British Touring Car Championship and landed a place with the works Nissan Team driving their Primera eGTs in ’93 and ’94 but the cars were not competitive and the team left Tiff without a drive when they withdrew from the British scene at the start of ’95.
For 1995 Tiff returned to endurance racing, which was now centred on GT cars, and drove first for PC Automotive in their Jaguar XJ220 and then for the works Lister Team which, in’96 and ‘97 was sponsored by the Newcastle United Football Club. Tiff ended his time at Lister with a hat-trick of victories in the British Championship!
1993 – 2002 British Touring Cars and British and European GTs
Drove works Nissan in Britain and South Africa
6 wins, 1 second, 1 third driving Lister Storm
1 win sharing Lamborghini GTR with Mark Hales
Other outings have been in TVR Tuscans, Formula Vee, Lotus Exige, and a variety of historic machinery – most noticeably a 1957 Lister Jaguar in which Tiff has been one of the stars of the Goodwood Revival meetings –while he was back in Europe driving an Aston Martin DBRS9 in the 2006 FIA GT3 European Championship.
1998 – 2009 European GTs and Goodwood Revival Meeting
GT3 Aston Martin DBRS9
Oh yes, and Tiff was the man who helped Nigel Mansell into the wall at Donington Park in 1993
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