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Top Gear host Richard Hammond has claimed the programme team felt a “real chill” when it dawned on them their number plate could cause offence in Argentina.

The presenters of the show and their crew fled the country – where they were filming a Christmas special – as a result of protests over the plate on Jeremy Clarkson’s Porsche which read H982 FKL, which some interpreted as an insensitive reference to the Falklands War in 1982.

Richard, speaking for the first time about the incident, assured viewers that it was an innocent coincidence, echoing comments which have been made by his colleagues.

He said it would have been “a terrible gag if we’d planned it – we wouldn’t joke about soldiers, we simply wouldn’t. That one was a genuine accident”.

Richard, speaking on the Chris Evans show on Radio 2, said: “The whole thing turned out to be a bit crazy. It turns on one moment and I remember it very distinctly.

“There was a tweet from somebody pointing out that one of the registration plates on one of the cars could be seen as having a reference to the Falklands War.

“There was a real chill went through all of us – it was a distinct moment, we all (went) ‘hang on a minute – it’s a bit tenuous but yet it probably does’.

He went on: “That’s when we realised we had to do something about it. That’s kind of why we’ve all got our hands up saying ‘hang on a minute’ – the idea that we’d planned that is pretty much impossible and certainly isn’t true.”

He said it was the choice of cars which came first and Jeremy had decided he wanted a Porsche 928 GT for the trip which saw the team journeying through Argentina and Chile.

“We didn’t look at the plates. I’ve never looked at a number plate that we’ve used on a car for a special. Not with that kind of cynical outlook. You just get the car you want. There were only two of those 928 GTs for sale in the UK at the time – one of which was the one that we got.”

He went on: “We do spend quite a lot of time sailing quite close to the line. We know that, our viewers know that and sometimes we only know the line is there when we look back over our shoulders and say ‘oh we’ve gone over it’ and we put our hands up – ‘fair enough, we got that wrong’.

“On this occasion we were very keen for our viewers not to think that we would have done that gag, that it was deliberate, because it wasn’t. We want them to know that it isn’t,” Richard added.

The show has been at the centre of a number of recent controversies with presenter Jeremy having already been given a final warning by the BBC.

Asked if he and fellow host James May would also leave if Jeremy were to go, Richard said: “We’re a unit. I don’t want to speak out of turn, I can’t speak for James certainly. But we’re a unit, it’s happened the way it’s happened. What happens subsequent to it is part of the story. It’s been a riotous adventure for us. It’s ending, whenever and however that comes, is part of that story.”

Jeremy has been accused by Argentina’s UK ambassador Alicia Castro of “fabricating” his version of events.

Writing in The Independent today, she expressed doubts about his story and said his tale was “designed to portray Argentines as savages”.