There are two distinct audiences in the Top Gear camp. In one, you have the passionate petrolheads who revel in watching power tests of obscene cars you're never likely to afford performing endless powerslides on a disused airfield. Then there's those who digest it as enchanting entertainment on a Sunday night, tuning in to witness the comedic car challenges the show has become renowned for worldwide. It’s the perfect respite before Monday morning monotony.
It’s a tricky balance to satisfy both camps when 350 million people are watching, however. Sometimes they pull it off. Other times it's like watching an embarrassing episode of The Last Summer of Wine. Fortunately, after an extended 10 month hiatus, this series opener got the balance spot on. Just.
Despite the long break thanks to the talentless shopping assistants that populate a certain ratings-hogging show on ITV1 every winter weekend, this was, for better or worse, Top Gear exactly as you know it. And from the opening montage that previewed the series, the show clearly has no intentions of changing its winning formula any time soon.
After the usual routine of pretending the producers had come to their senses and turned the show into an outlet for genuine consumer advice, Richard Hammond took to the track in a road test of the Pagani Huayra, the twin-turbo V12 successor to the long-standing Zonda.
Since Clarkson usually hogs these segments, particularly if it involves a Ferrari or an Aston Martin, it’s something of a novelty to see Hammond do a power test. On this occasion he was perfectly casted, though, as his passion for Pagani was abundantly evident. Indeed, Hammond’s review was, predictably, delivered with his usual brand of giddy enthusiasm, but not to the degree that it overshadowed his critique.
Yes, you had the predictable array of shots showing his squealing reactions to emphasise the car’s turbulent velocity every time he went full throttle, but this was a surprisingly informative review for Hammond that was sprinkled with technical details only car buffs will truly appreciate. The crisp cinematography also did the car the justice it deserved given that it’s Pagani’s first new car in over a decade, even if, judging the gratuitous use of flashy filters, it looked as if someone was given too much free reign in Adobe After Effects. It takes a special car indeed to blitz the Top Gear track, too, yet the Huayra managed to set a new lap record, obliterating the previous time set by the Ariel Atom by over two seconds.
Moving onto the news, you would think there would be plenty of imperative car-related news to talk about given how long Top Gear has been off-air. Instead, we were treated to Clarkson capitalising on 50 Shades of Grey and Hammond forging filth out of a tractor book for what felt like an eternity. Cringeworthy doesn’t begin to describe it.
Thankfully, this was followed by the undisputed highlight of the episode, which saw James May carry out an unconventional road test of the Bentley Continental GT Speed. James was in his element here, analysing the merits of the Bentley in a way only his gentleman personality can, but things intensified when rally driver Kris Meeke took the gleaming 2.3 tonne luxury yacht for a spin on a perilous WRC course in Wales.
While the setup was familiar, i.e. James gets driven at high speed by a professional driver as the camera captures his terror, its execution was anything but. Watching Kris majestically manoeuvre around tight hairpins was absolutely awe-inspiring – remember, this was car that weighed 2.3 tonnes equipped with road tyres and no modifications other than the seats negotiating a real WRC stage whilst being guided by an utterly useless co-driver.
Indeed, scripted or not, watching James rambling through the pace notes only added to the on-screen drama, and you could really grasp Kirs’s frustration – “either get it right, or shut up!” he barked, at one point. Granted, Kris was more than likely already au fait with the stage anyway, but this was an effectively entertaining, if somewhat redundant, challenge. In truth, it made me want to go back to WRC3. If it’s not too much to ask, perhaps we could get a Bentley bonus car in WRC 4 if you’re reading this, Milestone?
Because of Top Gear’s phenomenal popularity around the world, it's not uncommon to see Hollywood actors such as Tom Cruise drive the fabled Star in a Reasonably Priced Car, and this episode was no exception as Homeland’s Damien Lewis was this week’s guest tasked to perform a celebrity lap through gritted teeth.
Or rather gritted snow, in his case. Unfortunately for Damien, the UK had come to a grinding halt due to heavy snowfall at the time of filming, so a competitive time was
To balance out the serious car content, the final slapstick segment centred on Jeremy reattempting his quest to find the world's smallest car after his infamous drive in the Peel P50. Its successor was what he dubbed the P45, a custom-built micro-car that made Clarkson look like Buzz Lightyear on a mobility scooter, complete with go faster stripes.
Unfortunately, while it was initially hilarious watching a cramped Clarkson confined in such an undignified, diminutive contraption pootling along London’s public roads and sneaking itno shopping centres, the segment outstayed its welcome, and was the weak point of the episode. Indeed, for a one-joke film it was hard to justify it occupying nearly a third of the entire episode.
I will be the first to admit I absolutely adored the Peel P50 film, whereby Clarkson managed to drive it through narrow corridors and squeeze inside the lifts of the BBC offices, but the P45 felt like an uninspired rehash that did little to expand on the original concept.
Worse still, it suffered from outbreaks of the painfully scripted comedy that so often plagues the show in order to appease its mainstream audience. As soon as he started driving stealthily inside a public library equipped with a silent electric motor, we all knew what was about to happen. And, lo and behold, it conveniently ran out if juice. Cue a disruptive roar of the engine as Clarkson sheepishly sped off amid close-ups of disgruntled on-lookers. All that was missing was a canned laughter track
Jeremy’s last-ditch effort to sell the P45 by pitching it on Dragons Den also fell flat, and came across more like a comic relief sketch than a Top Gear film. Still, Jeremy’s retorts to the Dragons were at least amusing, particularly when he told Debra his sleeves were wet because “they got water on them” and his final bombshell that he couldn’t understand Duncan’s Scottish dialogue.
The P45 film would have perhaps been better if the angle was akin to Geoff the DIY eco-car by giving us an insight into the construction of the car and testing it in a series of challenges. It was apparently derived from a quad bike and designed by some university students in Coventry, for example, and yet there were no mentions of these details whatsoever, sadly.
All in all, despite the ending, this was a balanced and solid start to the series that paves the way for good things to come over the next seven weeks. While the content in the first episode was certainly reminiscent of road tests and challenges we’ve seen before, Top gear is back, and that in itself is cause for celebration after suffering from major withdrawal. Roll on next Sunday.