After what feels like an eternity, everyone’s favourite motoring trio is back. Over 18 months after Clarkson’s infamous producer punch-up led to the untimely demise of Top Gear, everyone’s favourite motoring trio Clarkson, Hammond and May have returned to our screens in their new astronomically-expensive show The Grand Tour on Amazon Prime. Any memories of this year’s ill-fated, Chris Evans-fronted Top Gear reboot are now a distant memory.
Clarkson’s fate was uncertain last year when his BBC contract wasn’t renewed, but the message is clear: being freed from the shackles of the BBC was the best thing that could ever happen to him.
The symbolism in the first episode’s introduction wasn’t exactly subtle, but it works well. We see Clarkson leave a BBC-esque building in a rainy London, before hopping into a Mustang and arriving in sunny LA with Hammond and May alongside him, all to the upbeat soundtrack of ‘I Can See Clearly Now’ by Hothouse Flowers.
We are then treated to a gloriously grandiose scene that could have been mistaken for Mad Max Fury Road, as the three cars are joined by a convoy of vehicles of all shapes and sizes racing through the desert. And then it turns into a scene out of Forza Horizon, arriving at a ‘Burning Van’ festival complete with a live band, cheering crowds and fighter jets soaring overhead. Now you can see why this is reportedly the most expensive TV show ever made.
It was an appropriately grand entrance for a team with such a mass global following. Within minutes, you remember why you’ve missed their blokey banter: Hammond describes Clarkson as “a shaved ape in a shirt,” they all quibble about who has had the most firings in their career and Clarkson, clearly relishing his new-found freedom with Amazon, slips in a joke offending gipsies.
The Grand Tour continued exactly where Top Gear left off. Before its untimely demise, Top Gear’s final series was building up to a shootout between the holy trinity of hypercar hybrids: the LaFerrari, Porsche 918 Spyder and McLaren P1. Getting every manufacturer’s consent proved difficult for the BBC show, so starting The Grand Tour with the long-awaited hypercar comparison was excellent fan service – even if Chris Harris already beat them to it last year with the same cars on the same track.
Set at the Algarve International Circuit in Portugal, the cinematography was flawless. With an increased budget (each episode reportedly costs £4 million to produce), each shot had a more cinematic quality compared to Top Gear, which was already one of the best-looking shows on TV, although the editing was a tad too frenetic at times and the segment was overlong. This was vintage Top Gear at times, though, with all the banter, powersliding and humour you remember from the previous show.
Less successful were the scripted studio segments in the new globe-trotting tent. Often a weak point in Top Gear, you got the impression the presenters were straining under the pressure. You can’t blame them for wanting to meet fan expectations, of course, but it made for uncomfortable viewing at times. Increased interaction with the audience fell flat – Clarkson must have relished the opportunity to lecture the American crowd about their lexis, but it’s all material we’ve seen before. The staged ‘fight’ with the audience over the Royal Air Force was cringe-worthy.
Then there were the bizarre celebrity cameos. It seems the presenters weren’t very fond of Top Gear’s ‘Star in a Reasonably Priced Car’ where a guest would set a time on the track in a modest car, as they killed it off in a new segment called ‘Celebrity Braincrush’.
The first episode featured appearances from Jeremy Renner, Armie Hammer and Carol Vorderman (much to the bemusement of the American audience who have probably never heard of her), only for them to ‘die’ before they make it to the studio. Watching Renner plummet to his death during a parachute stunt was unexpected and mildly amusing at first, but the joke had outstayed its welcome by the time we saw Vorderman slumped on the floor. I sincerely hope this doesn’t become a running joke in every episode.
I also didn’t care for The Grand Tour’s new "Eboladrome" test track. The UK-based circuit was certainly unconventional compared to Top Gear’s airfield track in Dunsfold, and each corner has already been assigned its own name such as ‘the Isn’t Straight’ and Old Lady’s House (because it happens to go past a house which an old lady lives in), but for such a big budget show it was underwhelming. I'm also not convinced that some corners will showcase the cars capabilities at their best.
The worst part, however, was The Grand Tour’s new racing driver apparently enforced by Amazon. Replacing the silent Stig is a very vocal Nascar driver called Mike Skinner. Simply known as ‘The American,’ Skinner repeatedly showed his disdain for every car he drove, but it was more irritating than amusing.
If this all sounds familiar, well, that’s because it is. The Grand Tour might as well be a rebadged Top Gear. Every roadtest could easily have been a scene out of Top Gear, while the new segments introduced in The Grand Tour are merely rehashes of the old format. There’s a danger, then, that The Grand Tour is trying too hard to recycle the old Top Gear formula and isn’t using the opportunity to try new ideas. Ironically, this year’s Top Gear reboot fell into the same trap with disastrous results.
And yet The Grand Tour gets away with it because watching the three presenters bicker and drive fast cars never ceases to be entertaining. Indeed, if the goal was to entertain you for an hour and 10 minutes, this episode certain succeeded. The studio segments need some refinement and The American needs to be axed, but The Grand Tour was a fine return to form and a solid start to the series – even if it didn’t offer anything we haven’t seen before other than lavish intro. Hopefully future episodes exploring new locations will rectify that.