About nine or so months ago, I sat down with close family to watch the first episode of a wholly revamped Top Gear. I wanted it to be good. I wanted to believe the show could work without Clarkson, Hammond and May. I wanted to have two amazing car shows to watch: this, and The Grand Tour. It didn’t work out quite how I’d hoped.
I’d almost go so far as to call it a train wreck. Chris Evans was a sort of loud, annoying caricature of Jeremy Clarkson, the celebrity segment was painfully awkward, the Reliant Realto feature was an aimless, boring mess, and Chris Harris and Rory Reid - two of the new line-up most qualified to talk about cars - were nowhere to be seen. I’ll never forget the cringing glances I exchanged with my brother, whom I’ve watched Top Gear in its many iterations with since childhood. We struggled to recall an episode quite as disappointing - or shouty - as a this one.
The series had flashes of brilliance as it went on, but it wasn’t enough to stave off rapidly declining viewing figures. After a suspicious no-show from Chris Evans on the final ‘Extra Gear’ instalment of the series, the veteran broadcaster threw in the towel, stating he’d given it his best shot.
Fast forward to last Sunday, and I was just as hopeful, but that hope was backed up with the knowledge that all the right ingredients were there. With Chris Evans - the weak link of series 23 - out of the picture, Top Gear had refocused on Matt LeBlanc, Chris Harris and Rory Reid. The cinematography was set to be stunning as ever, and judging by the trailer, quite a roster of cars was set to feature. There was even talk of the Star In The Rallycross Car segment getting chopped, replaced with the ‘old’ track and a Toyota GT86.
All this paid off, and then some. After a brief look at the slick new studio, proceedings kicked off with a jaw-dropping feature on the Ferrari FXX K from Chris Harris. Sure, he’s been forced to dial back a touch on the raw technical detail we know and love him for, but there’s always Chris Harris On Cars for that. In ‘Top Gear trim’, Harris is able to relate some of the nitty gritty of driving impressions with a sizeable dash of emotion.
In the Kazakhstan high milers segment, the camaraderie and chemistry between the newly established trio felt surprisingly well forged. Yes, there were awkward moments, but it felt on the whole very genuine. It was just three blokes quite clearly having a damn good time in some old and leggy motors.
Back in the studio, the switch to the GT86 seemed like a good move. Back when Top Gear first ‘relaunched’ in 2002, the Suzuki Liana proved to be a hilarious little car to chuck the celebrities into, such was its rolly-polly handling. But over the years more and more competent Reasonably Priced Cars arrived and took the fun out of it. Adding the complication of rear-wheel drive to proceedings should provide more spice than the Rallycross Car ever could have.
Was the episode perfect? No. I’m not convinced about wheeling out the celebrity guest more than once, and there were a few times the interaction between LeBlanc, Harris and Reid seemed wooden.
Then there’s the nagging feeling that the concept of three blokes in cheap old cars driving through some far-flung part of the world is just a little too familiar to the work of the trio now found on The Grand Tour. I’d like to see LeBlanc and co try a different direction, but then again, it’s hard to argue with how entertaining the results were, nor how promising a start it represents for what’s effectively another new format. And here’s the thing: as a whole, I found the episode more enjoyable than any one instalment from The Grand Tour.
Yes, I know that daring to utter such a thing on the Internet will cause much weeping and gnashing of teeth, and potentially a death threat or two directed toward my cat, but despite some brilliant moments, no one episode of TGT felt quite so complete as what I watched last night. Where Top Gear comes across as surprisingly natural and honest, it feels as though the work of Clarkson, Hammond and May has become more over-the-top and conspicuously scripted than ever before.
It’s not a competition, of course, and preferring one over the other is sure as hell not going to stop me watching both. I reckon the best is yet to come from TGT, and we should be ecstatic that we have two high-profile, high-budget programmes about cars to enjoy. But the best one for true car lovers, rather than the casual observer? That’d be Top Gear.
Roll on episode 2….