To say that Top Gear has had something of a difficult rebirth would be an understatement.
The BBC’s gamble on Chris Evans as host for the first series of the show since the departure of Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May was always going to split opinion.
Some felt Top Gear had departed too much from its original format – others felt it hadn’t departed enough. No one really expected the same on screen chemistry as Jeremy Clarkson and co, but there was no obvious alternative TV presenting blueprint for the new team to follow either.
A critical mauling and a slump in viewing figures followed – but for those that stuck with the series, there were some pleasant surprises.
Matt LeBlanc turned out to be quite likeable. Rory Reid had gravitas and passion. Chris Harris overflowed with genuine motoring expertise. Sabine Schmitz proved it was possible to be both funny and German. Eddie Jordan was… well… Eddie Jordan.
Top Gear is now returning for its 24th series – minus Evans – perhaps a little wiser, cleverer and more mature than ever before.
“I thought the last series was good,” mulls LeBlanc. “But we’re very collaborative now. This series it feels like ideas are welcome. Things are discussed a little more openly.”
“I think we were in for a hard time whatever happened,” Harris chips in. “We went in to it knowing that. This is our dream job. We don’t sit around dwelling on what’s been said. I’m from the internet. If you think [the press] are harsh, try YouTube comments.”
The new team seem unfazed by the inevitable comparisons to the Top Gears of old. Since the departure of Evans however, the show’s producers have backtracked slightly. For the new series, the presenter dynamic will more closely resemble the lads-on-tour camaraderie of Clarkson’s heyday.
“In the last series Matt was very much front and centre,” says Reid. “Chris [Harris] and I operated more like lone soldiers, and our films were kind of plugged in to the main thing. This year we’re doing much more challenges together and having fun as a trio.”
‘Obsessed with cars’
As well as having to distinguish themselves from previous incarnations of Top Gear, since the show was relaunched last year the new team must also now contend with a new rival motoring programme – The Grand Tour, fronted by Clarkson, May and Hammond.
“I’ve seen a couple of parts,” sighs LeBlanc. “It is what it is. It’s those guys. They’re great.”
The Grand Tour was an instant hit with hardcore fans – but the elaborate set-ups and dad gags grated against some critics.
The new Top Gear team saw The Grand Tour’s focus on contrived humour as an opportunity to indulge in a level of vehicular geekery not seen since the days of Quentin Wilson and Tiff Needell.
“The car is absolutely central to our approach,” says Harris. “Everything we do begins with the automobile, whether it’s old, new, bizarre, weird, strange, or cool.
“We’re not going out to make a comedy show, and that’s great, certainly from my point of view because obviously I’m totally obsessed with cars and I don’t really like people.”
So will this latest series of Top Gear be entirely void of laughter?
“In my experience, in this business, if you’re having fun making it, generally it’s fun to watch,” says LeBlanc. “It’s fun to find the balance between the car porn and the funny element. The jokes are as important as the cars.”
And what about Top Gear’s reputation as a magnet for controversy? When asked what the most offensive moment of the new series might be, the team eventually agree it’s probably the accidental smashing of an Alfa Romeo windscreen – hardly a front page tabloid scandal.
“We don’t want to damage cars,” says Harris. “People work hard and save money to buy these things.”
As Top Gear continues to evolve, it will no doubt face further criticism from fans sentimental about its past. But it’s a sentimental attachment to the world of cars that the new team believes aligns them with Top Gear’s rich history.
‘I believe in the show’
“The car is such a part of our lives,” adds LeBlanc. “When you go off to work, when you’re arrested they bang you in the back of a car, the first car you ever have, if you go on a date and you end up in the back of a car. That’s why we love cars.”
Since launching in 1977, Top Gear has been through many guises with many presenters. Each time the programme was reborn, it took years for its core audience of car lovers to warm to its new presenters and format.
Whether or not this latest incarnation will become a fan favourite remains to be seen, but its new team are determined to make it work.
“I never thought about walking away,” says LeBlanc.
“I believe in the show. I’m a fan of the show. And if they fire me, I’ll continue to be a fan.”