Top Gear versus The Grand Tour: the inside story of British TV’s ultimate drag race

Will Chris Evans and co cut the mustard? Has the BBC hired the right man in Matt LeBlanc? And who will win the battle with Jeremy Clarkson? Ben Dowell is on the inside track…

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When the first of the new-look Top Gear airs on BBC2 this Sunday, it’ll kickstart TV’s biggest drag race to date. Roaring off on Sunday is the revamped Top Gear, a multi-million pound Rolls-Royce of a show with an impressive pedigree, made by the world’s leading public service broadcaster.

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Then, in the autumn, hot on-demand service Amazon Prime is expected to broadcast weekly instalments of The Grand Tour, a new show with Top Gear’s former presenters Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond signed up on a reputed $160m three-year deal. Old versus new, Auntie versus brash rich US operator. Who will be the Ferrari and who the jalopy?

For Top Gear, the BBC has put its faith in Chris Evans and Matt LeBlanc in the front seat, supported by the former F1 team boss Eddie Jordan, racing driver Sabine Schmitz, motoring journalist Rory Reid and YouTuber Chris Harris.

It’s a big ask. The Clarkson-era show was watched by a global audience of 350m and brought the corporation’s commercial arm, BBC Worldwide, around £50m in annual revenues. That’s probably worth a Night Manager, a Line of Duty and four more of your favourite dramas with a bit left in small change.

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The first new Top Gear will air in 83 countries within 48 hours of its UK broadcast. A new deal with Netflix (which already shows the Clarkson Top Gear back catalogue) is also expected to be finalised soon, allowing the streaming service’s estimated 5.2m UK subscribers (81m worldwide) to watch Evans and co. It will give the BBC a headstart on The Grand Tour, where Amazon’s global ambitions are restricted to just five countries (the UK, US, Germany, Austria and Japan). It has “tens of millions” of worldwide customers (and around 2m in the UK) paying £79 a year for the service. The Grand Tour is unlikely to be sold to a terrestrial broadcaster.

It’ll showcase plenty of epic journeys familiar to Top Gear fans, including the Middle East, France, Germany and Barbados. Audience recordings will be shot in a giant tent — hence the name Grand Tour, an inversion of the capitals T(op) G(ear), as eagle-eyed fans haven’t been slow to point out.

When the new show was announced, Clarkson said working on it made him feel “like I’ve climbed out of a bi-plane and into a spaceship”. Ouch! But Evans has hit back, insisting last week that Clarkson and co will be getting “ten times the cash with a fraction of the audience”. He has also compared the show’s former presenters to Bungle, Zippy and George, the hapless soft toy trio from 1980s kids show Rainbow.

But Top Gear has also spent big on a budget that some informed insiders say has spiralled in the absence of an executive producer (Lisa Clark quit midway through filming). Changes to the show’s racetrack at Dunsfold Aerodrome in Surrey, where guests test their driving mettle as the Star in a Reasonably Priced Car, have cost £250,000, according to one source and revealed by RadioTimes.com.

The pressure on Evans, an unknown in the US, to give a show with so many new names instant global appeal is intense. But LeBlanc must prove himself, too and some doubt whether he will cut the mustard despite his international fame.

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The BBC had serious doubts about hiring him at the beginning, said a production insider and was initially opposed to the idea which Evans pushed through: “They seem to think they’ve booked Joey from Friends when in fact they have booked Matt LeBlanc.”

A production source added that Evans was very keen to hire motor racing star David Coulthard for the main presenting gig but his plans were scuppered when Channel 4 waded in and offered the driver big money to front its F1 coverage. Evans’ thoughts, I am told, then turned to LeBlanc who it was felt would offer the right international appeal.

“Chris Evans’ main problem is that he has to introduce himself to the world – plus a host of other presenters. Matt is a big box office name, but it’s hard to start a show when you have to familiarise an audience with such a large number of people.”

Another problem that the production has been forced to grapple with is the kind of show it will be. The whole presenting line up are avowed petrolheads but many in the BBC are fearful that it could become “just a motoring show”, says a source, and not something with wide appeal.

“It’s entertainment first and foremost and it needs to be entertaining. Yes, it is a car show and it is fronted by people who know their stuff. But the magic of Top Gear was that people who had no interest in cars loved it as well, thanks in large part to the chemistry between Hammond, May and Clarkson. Will the new show have the same chemistry?”

Top Gear, you see, has to be all things to all people.It has to be a car show that knows its onions and is loved by everybody. It needs to be watched by UK licence-fee payers yet also make money from the international market. The stakes are extremely high and failure is not an option as far as the BBC is concerned.

Start your engines and strap in… It’s going to be interesting.

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Top Gear returns to BBC2 on Sunday May 29 at 8pm