We’re just a few weeks away from your second series on Top Gear. How does it feel this time around compared to your TG debut?
I would say cautiously I feel optimisitic. Last year I was involved as a kind of lone wolf, because I was drafted in to do individual reviews of cars, and I only featured in four out of the six episodes. So this season, I’m part of a team of three core presenters, I’ll be in every single episode, and I’ll also work with our contributors Eddie Jordan and Sabine Schmitz. The level involvement is much greater from my side. I’ve had much more input into this series, so all things considered, I’m very much optimistic.
Chris Evans dropped what you might call a ‘bombshell’ at the end of series 23 by leaving the show. When did you find out, and is it something you saw coming?
I found out pretty much at the same time as everyone else. He didn’t come to me and give me a heads up. I heard only just before it went public. It was something that came as a surprise, but as he said in his own words that he gave it his best shot. Some elements of what he did worked really well, others people didn’t really appreciate. He felt, I think, that the time was right to move on and let the show evolve in other people’s hands.
Was he difficult to work with, as a lot of newspaper rumours claimed?
I didn’t have any problems with him at all. On the occasions that I did work with him, he was professional and courteous toward me, so I didn’t have any of the experiences that the press might have reported. I’ve got nothing negative to say about him in that regard, in fact I’ve only got positive things to say about him - when you bear in mind without him I wouldn’t even be on Top Gear. He was the one who decided there’d be an open, public audition - if he hadn’t done that I wouldn’t be in this position. I wish him the best of luck.
One of our biggest disappointments of the last series was only seeing yourself and Chris Harris in four of the six episodes. When did you find out you’d have a greater role this series?
Earlier this year we sat down at a production meeting and we were all going through ideas with the producers about the sort of films we’d like to make. It emerged that the types of films we wanted to make would work really well with multiple people involved, and the producers felt it was the natural thing to have myself, Chris Harris and Matt LeBlanc work more closely together on screen.
How much can we expect to see from Eddie Jordan and Sabine Schmitz this series?
I think they’ll have exactly the same amount of contribution as last year. I think they were in two episodes each, and that’ll be mirrored this time. They’ll be drafted in whenever their expertise is needed. For example I test the VW Golf GTI Clubsport S, and I decide to see how extreme it is and how quick it is around the circuit, so I head to the Nurburgring and she’s the queen of the Nurburgring so she comes and helps out. Eddie Jordan’s a racing expert, so there’s a film where they go racing together, and his expertise comes in handy. Wherever it makes sense to incoporate those guys, we’ll bring them in.
Any spoon-related musical expertise from Eddie this time?
I hope not! I haven’t seen any so far, but personally I hope not…
Have you been watching The Grand Tour?
Yes, I’ve watched it all! I think it’s great that we have two really high profile car shows, and so many car experts with such varied opinions about different cars. If we only had one or the other, it would be a terrible shame, because now we get twice the fun.
You told us last time that you didn’t feel like you’re ‘competing’ with Clarkson and co. Is that still the case?
I think it’s natural that people make comparisons, so even if I don’t feel like I’m competing with them, the rest of the car-loving world will see it as a competition. I guess the truth is probably somewhere in the middle. They make a series, and we make a series, and the people decide which one they prefer. Ultimately, the way I see it is that none of what they have done has influenced us in anyway. We made series 24 without seeing a single frame of The Grand Tour, it was all planned before The Grand Tour was put out. All we do is strive to make the best possible series rather than saying “right, let’s watch The Grand Tour and figure out how we can do something better.”
How do you cope with a lot of the online ‘nastiness’ directed towards what you guys are doing, particularly from hardcore Top Gear fans who haven’t moved on?
“Mostly by ignoring it. Occasionally someone will say something funny and I’ll engage in a bit of banter, but usually it’s not clever banter. It’s just the usual “I prefer these guys over you”, and there’s not a lot you can say to that. The only thing I can possibly do is do my job to the best of my ability and get on with it. Once people see series 24 they’ll decide if they like it, and if not, there’s nothing we can do to change people’s minds. I’ve moved on, and if they haven’t, so be it.”
On a scale of 0 to Chris Harris, how good of a driver do you consider yourself to be?
“Slightly ahead of Matt LeBlanc, on a par with Sabine, way ahead of Eddie, and just behind Harris. So an 8.5, if that scale was a 10…”
We enjoyed seeing yourself and Harris in Extra Gear last series. Will that still be a thing in series 24?
Extra Gear is coming back next season, I won’t be hosting it and neither will Chris - we have a new host. The guy’s name is George Lewis, he’s a very funny comedian, and Chris and myself will be alongside George, revealing behind-the-scenes content. Chris will take a closer look at the cars featured in the main show with a hot lap like he did before, and there’ll be some specially shot films that are exclusive to Extra Gear.
Out of the segments you’ve filmed for the series thus far, which has been the most enjoyable to shoot?
I had a really good time in Cuba, we took some interesting cars over there to compare them to the local cars over there. They’re really into their hot rods, so their cars - when they’re done right - are incredibly quick in a straight line, but what many people don’t know about Cuba is there’s almost no motor racing over there other than in a straight line. We kind of ‘introduced’ the concept of corners, and we had some interesting times racing around and exploring Cuban car culture.
What other segments should we be keeping an eye out for?
You need to look out for episode one when the three of us did a trip over to Kazakhstan, and each of our cars had to have a minimum of half a million miles on the clock. We went on this massive voyage to see whose car was the most reliable. It involved a lot of competitive driving, some racing, and the end scene is something that I don’t think anyone’s ever seen on TV, at least not in the way we shot it.
Out of becoming a Top Gear presenter and beating Alex Kersten in an arm wrestle, which would you say is the greatest achievement in your life?
Becoming a Top Gear presenter, because beating Alex Kersten in an arm wrestling contest was really easy.
It’s still quite a sore point with him, so we like to bring it up as much as possible…
I imagine his arm’s quite a sore point as well.
How will the celebrity guest segment work this time around? We’ve heard rumours a Toyota GT86 might be involved…
There will be celebrities as always, but the way they’re incorporated will change. We want the celebrity guest to be weaved throughout the show. They’re also going to be taught how to drive their lap by The Stig and by Chris Harris. I don’t think I can tell you about the car…
Can you tell us at least that the Mini has gone?
I will reveal that there is a change to the track. I can confirm that the rallycross track has gone, and we’ll be returning to the normal track. So it would make sense not to have a rally-prepared car, let’s put it like that…
What are you driving at the moment?
My current runaround is a Range Rover, Autobiography spec. I used to get about in a BMW i8 but after six months in that it ruined my back, I got chronic back pain from that. First world problems, I know! But I jumped in the Range Rover, switched on the heated massage seats and within three days I was cured! So if you’ve got a bad back, get a Range Rover…
When you did have the i8, we asked you to ‘review’ it in a typically outrageous Rory Reid manner. Is that something you can do now with the Range Rover? I recall something about a ‘casting couch’ last time around…
Well, yesterday my two-year-old son vomited all over the inside of the Range Rover, so now it’s nothing like a casting couch. Unless it’s a very niche form of adult video involving vomit. It smells like sick and ice cream in here. It’s quite a smell…
Aside from what we’ve heard already, what must CTzens absolutely know about the series?
We have some amazing cars we’re going to test. We have the Ferrari FXX K - and that’s an exclusive, no one else has that. There’s another exclusive car which I can’t even tell you about - it’s one of the cars that if you ask any petrolhead in the year 2017 what they want to drive most, this would be at the top of the list [so a Bugatti Chiron?]. The most expensive car tested in the new series is worth £2 million, and the most expensive new mode of transport - not a car - is £4.5 million.
I can also tell you that I had a race with Chris Harris and Matt LeBlanc in the new series, and I won. So how about that! Tune in to find out what it is….
The new series starts on 5 March and will last for seven episodes. Thanks to all those who added to our pool of questions!