x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Testing cars is not without risks to life and property

Two recent events show the perils of being a motoring journalist.

Kevin Ash was killed during a press launch. Courtesy The Telegraph
Kevin Ash was killed during a press launch. Courtesy The Telegraph

Two very recent events, which took place at almost exactly the same time, have sent ripples through the worldwide community of motoring journalists. Both entirely unconnected, they strip away the glamour that is often attached to this job and reveal the nasty underbelly that is present in the industry, yet people in this profession choose to ignore.

These past few days, motoring writers all over the world have been thinking a great deal about what we do and how we do it. Because Kevin Ash, who had been the Daily Telegraph's motorcycle correspondent for 15 years, lost his life on the press launch of a new BMW bike in South Africa, and Mark Hales, journalist and expert historic race driver, is likely to lose his house as a result of a court case that has serious repercussions for anyone driving a car owned by someone else in the course of their work.

Ash was an expert rider and a truly talented writer - easily the best I've ever read when it comes to motorcycles. He had a gift and was able to put readers, even those unfamiliar with the world of bikes, in the saddle, so to speak. I met him once on a press event and he came across as a genuinely likeable guy and, reading through some of the deeply upsetting tributes online, he was obviously a devoted family man, too, to his wife and three daughters.

Details about what happened are sketchy but what people who knew Ash agree on is that for him to have died, it must have been a situation out of which nobody could have got out alive. He really was that good.

It's only on the rare occasion that I write about motorcycles but, even when it comes to testing new cars, there are dangers. Because sometimes I have to share high performance cars with others who evidently have next-to-no talent behind the wheel. Meaning that what happened to Ash could very easily befall any journalist, at any time.

There are times when I have been truly terrified, shutting my eyes rather than see the reality of what's going on. But not any more. If I get scared, I ditch the British (and very stiff) upper lip and actually say something. And, if I feel like I'm in imminent danger, I'm quite prepared to have the driver stop the car so I can get out and walk or hitchhike back to base. No job is worth dying for, is it?

The Mark Hales case is also something that very easily could have happened to me during the course of my work. He's a freelance journalist, one of an extremely rare breed who is able to drive like a champion and write with the best and, four years ago, he was driving a privately owned Porsche 917 replica (it had been built using genuine parts) for a magazine feature. During the course of his day, the car suffered massive engine damage as a result of over-revving. The car's owner, one David Piper, sued Hales and the case was heard in a UK court, ending just a few days ago.

Hales claimed there was a fault with the 917's notoriously fragile transmission, while Piper claimed that Hales had selected the wrong gear by mistake. Whatever the reality was, you can rarely expect "fairness" in a case such as this. You can only expect application of the law, and Hales found out, to his enormous cost, that he didn't have sufficient insurance cover. It simply doesn't exist.

I have driven more old and privately owned cars than I can remember, usually flying by the seat of my pants with only the barest insurance cover (cars supplied by manufacturers are insured, thankfully). And I've been extremely lucky because I've never damaged a car while it's been in my possession. But I could easily have done so and, if its owner had been someone like David Piper, I would no doubt have, like Hales, faced going bankrupt and losing my home.

In this job there are many things beyond a journalist's control and the outcome of many a situation could be deeply unpleasant. And we carry on anyway, because it's what we love doing. But these two cases have hammered home the point that, when disaster strikes, it can be irreparable. It could have been worse for Hales. He could, like Ash, have lost his life while at work. And that's all me and my ilk are thinking about right now. Nobody knows what's around the next corner.


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