Andrew Flintoff: From Preston to Peru and my craziest stunt ever
Top Gear returns to the nation’s TV screens tomorrow and it as madcap, as ever Lancashire’s own Andrew Flintoff reveals
Andrew Flintoff has come along way since his early days as a schoolboy at Ribbleton Hall High School.
Peru in fact. The South American country is the latest place the former England cricketer can tick off from what is becoming a world tour since he signed up for television’s Top Gear.
The 42-year-old might not have been the obvious candidate to step behind the wheel of the nation’s favourite motoring show, but his easy Lancashire charm has won an unlikely new fanbase among Britain’s legions of petrolheads.
Since teaming up with fellow northerner Paddy McGuinness and actual car expert Chris Harris they have breathed new life into the show with their four wheeled exploits around the world.
Top Gear returns tomorrow night and Flintoff is in no doubt as to his favourite moment of the new series.
He says: “We went to Peru, which was amazing. The Incas built the roads years ago. They were so far ahead of their time that I’m inclined to believe it’s actually aliens because some of the structures and the roads are so regimented, I just don’t think it’s possible. It’s almost like the Egyptians with the Pyramids. The really nice thing about Peru is the people. They are so welcoming, they’re so proud of their country and so eager to show it off.
“It might sound like an old thing to say, but the country was so clean. So clean from your pollution and plastic and litter. They have real pride in their country. I love Peru.”
The journey to South America sees the Top Gear team back on familiar ground as they set off on a road trip with all sorts of madcap tasks thrown in their path along the way .
Flintoff explains: “It was the original American road trip, so we had to get American road trip cars. The premise is that you’re lead down the route of believing you’re going to be on Route 66 doing an American road trip, but instead it’s an original one in Peru. So Chris has got this Dart, which is an American muscle car. I went with a 1980s VW Campervan. Even though it’s not an American car, it’s perfect for an American road trip, and I’ve always, always loved them. I had never driven one before, so I thought: ‘This is the chance to do it.’
“It did amazingly well, without giving too much away. We were going up this mountain that was 15,000 ft up. I’d never otherwise go to Peru and drive round it for a week. It was an incredible, incredible trip.”
Despite being crowned the King of the Jungle in the first series of the Australian version of I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here! and enjoying a brief career as a heavyweight boxer, the new Top Gear sees Flintoff taking on perhaps the oddest challenge of his career since hanging up his cricket whites in 2010.
For reasons best known to the producers, he takes part in an extraordinary bungee jump in a Rover Metro Cabriolet from the top of a high dam in Switzerland.
Flintoff explains: ”The bizarre thing was, I was quite relaxed about it. I’ve done stuff like that before. Then, they hoisted me up in the car, and I just thought: ‘‘What am I doing? Why?!’
“I’ve done bungee jumps before, and they’re actually alright. The problem with that one was that if you’re doing a normal bungee jump, you’ve got a rope around your feet and you know you’re attached. But in a car you can’t feel anything – you are just sat there. I was trying to style it out a little bit but…
“My main concern was that it’s not attached to a fixed thing. It’s a crane. Also if I had seen that crane driver before I did it, I’m not sure I’d have done it. He looked worried, he looked like it was his first day on the job!
“I was also worried about the crane and the thought of something like seven tonnes of that coming down. I just imagined this crane toppling over, that was my main concern – all for TV!”
If that was death defying it was right up there with the recent Top Gear Christmas special filmed in Nepal when Flintoff, Harris and McGuinness took on some of the most hair-raising roads to be found anywhere.
It is moments like this when it is handy to have a comedian on board to help defuse the tension, and McGuinness have formed a great partnership since teaming up on screen.
Flintoff says: “He makes me feel so clever! No, we’re from similar areas, both from Lancashire, not brought up in too dissimilar a way. We’ve probably got similar values as well from when we grew up.
“I love Paddy’s enthusiasm for things. One of the nice things about travelling with him is that, by his own admission, he wasn’t well travelled before. He’d been to Portugal and I think he’d been to America once.
“So when you go to countries with him now, he’s like someone who’s opened their eyes for the first time. And that’s kind of infectious, isn’t it? He also loves cars. And he’s funny, isn’t he? Let’s be honest.”
But when all’s said and done, Top Gear is a show about cars as much as it is about the relationship between the hosts, and in this Harris is more than just a stooge for the two Lancashire lads. As a motoring journalist and racing driver he has the knowledge Flintoff admits he brings to the party, not to mention occasionally jaw dropping driving skills .
He says: “Yes. I feel I’m learning all the time. I love cars – I always have done since I started driving. But I just listen to him; he talks about auto stuff and I don’t even know what he’s on about. It’s a great learning curve. I’m asking him questions all the time – like you would in a cricket team where you’ve got someone more senior and you try learn as much as you can. I think you do that with Chris. You see him drive and it’s unbelievable.
“He can do a piece to camera when he’s got a Ferrari 488 going sideways and he’s just talking as if it’s the most natural thing in the world. He is amazing.”
And after 28 series, Flintoff is only to happy to agree it is the cars which keep people tuning in on a Sunday night.
He says: “People love cars, people really do. I know the world is changing in what people want to drive and electric cars are coming in, but people genuinely love them. I think Top Gear is also an entertainment show. So it combines quite a few things that people actually really like.”
It is a far cry not just from life growing up in Preston, but also Flintoff’s stellar career as one of English cricket’s greatest all-rounders. Back then he never imagined his life would see him step in front of the camera as a television presenter.
He agrees: “Yes, although it isn’t what I thought I’d be doing. I finished playing cricket at 31, and all I ever wanted to be was a cricketer. Then I’ve stumbled into TV presenting, and, I’ll be honest with you, I’m not quite sure what I’m doing! I just turn up and just do whatever. I think I’m going to get found out every day!
“I just see it as an opportunity to do stuff that I’d never get the chance to do otherwise. I think of all the places I went playing cricket, which were amazing. But since retiring, I’ve been to places and actually seen them, rather than just visiting a cricket ground and a hotel.
“Driving the roads of Peru, say, which is an unbelievable country. Yes, it’s for a TV show, but the thing that excites me more than anything is just having the chance to go to these places. I never thought I’d get the chance.
“I look at my life, I’m from Preston, and now I’m driving round Nepal and Peru and doing bungees in Switzerland. It’s bonkers!”
* Top Gear returns for its 28th series on Sunday, January 26 at 8pm on BBC 2