Top Gear is back! Officially the worlds Most Widely Watched Factual TV Program, the car show, which was really more about three middle aged blokesand their controversial adventures, lives on, with a new season kicking off this weekend.
The blokes in question are Jeremy Clarkson, James May, and Richard Hammond, who jointly left Top Gear after Clarkson punched a producer and was effectively fired. (The trio signed a deal with Amazon Prime to make their own car show, to premiere later this year.)
Top Gear has long been a spectacle, with lofty production values, inflated budgets, and the ensemble cast that made it more than a show about wheels and engines. But those three are out, and a new crew is in. We will now be (hopefully) entertained by British TV and radio host Chris Evans, along with Matt LeBlanc. As in Joey, from Friends.
LeBlanc isn’t a total stranger to the show. He appeared on Top Gear in 2012, when he set the fastest lap time in the Star in a Reasonably Priced Car” segment, which is just what it sounds like. He says he didnt realize how widely watched the show was until that episode aired, and he got calls from all his friends congratulating him on driving aKia around the Top Gear track in record time.
LeBlanc is the first American to host Top Gear, which has been running in one form or another on British airwaves for 39 years. Historically,the show has featured experienced automotive journalists, not sitcom actors, talking about the latest metal, but LeBlanc is happy to defend his “car guy” credentials.He sounded tired, but excited, when WIRED caught up with him. He was in London, filming both Top Gear and his TV comedy Episodes.
I love cars, I know quite a bit about them, he said. I like things that have engines in them,” he continued, getting more and more animated. Im fascinated that you can take a collection of inanimate metal objects that are machined to fit together like a giant jigsaw puzzle, and theyll harness an explosion made by fuel and air compressed together, and use that energy to roll a set of tires down the road. I just think thats one of the coolest inventions ever.
Combustion chemistry is one thing, but it was the chemistry between Clarkson, May, and Hammond (aka Clarkson, Captain Slow, and the Hamster), that was key to “old” Top Gear’s success. A US spinoff with different hosts has made it into its sixth season, but doesnt attract the same level of attention as the original, which reaches 200 countries.
The British tabloidswould have us believeEvans and LeBlanc have already fallen out, but LeBlanc denies it. I get a kick out of him, he cracks me up. The UK press is out to get him, but I dont see any of that, hes a good guy.
Feuding or no, Evans and Leblanc will be joined by Eddie Jordan, who has a background in Formula One racing (hes a funny guy—he knows so much about the evolution of performance engines!), Chris Harris, who has a large YouTube following (boy he can drive a car sideways! I dont know if hes capable of driving a car straight!), German racing driver Sabine Schmitz (Shes the queen of the Nrburgring! Shes an excellent driver, shes absolutely fearless!), and Rory Reid, who came in via an open audition process.
The new crew gets to stack up the same level of frequent flyer miles as their predecessors, it seems. LeBlanc struggled to remember everywhere the shooting schedule had taken him. I was in the new Rolls Royce Dawn, along the Atlantic Way in Ireland, I was driving a Porsche Macan in South Africa, I was in the Ariel Nomad in the desert in Morocco, I was in the original Willys Jeep in Blackpool on the beach, I was riding shotgun in Ken Blocks Hoonicorn all through London with the streets shut down.
That last one has already won Top Gear some negative publicity. Facing accusations of being disrespectful after stunt driving in front of London’s Cenotaph war memorial, Chris Evans apologized publicly on behalf of the team. LeBlanc apologized as well. That was unfortunate, he said. Then again, it wouldnt be Top Gear without some controversy. Previously its been accused ofencouraging stupid driving, infantile humor, andoffendingGermans, Mexicans, and Poles, to name just a few.
Beyond the early dramas and rumors, there’s a bigger question: Is Top Gear a poisoned chalice? A brand so sullied by the behavior and departure of the previous hosts that it can never recover? LeBlanc isnt fazed by that, or by the idea that he has some pretty big shoes to fill.
Im used to big pressure. Friends always had huge expectations. You have to block all that out. You surround yourself with good people, you have good material, and you do the best job you can.
The Amazon show featuring the original Top Gear trio will be called The Grand Tour, and will arrive on screens sometime in the fall of 2016, so there will be some competition.
However its Top Gear that has traditionally set the standard that all other car shows, and perhaps other TV programs, are judged by. The new season premiere, which hits BBC America May 30, will be our first chance to judge if it can live up to its heritage.