Top Gear returns to BBC2 this February with a new series – technically the show’s 25th, although just the third to feature Matt LeBlanc, Rory Reid and Chris Harris – and sees the trio build the world’s fastest tractor, tackle America’s Wild West in new V8 sports cars and even attempt to land a NASA research plane in a “muscle car”.
High-octane stuff no doubt. But ahead of the return, all their talk is about how this year, the three have finally discovered the “chemistry” that appeared to come so naturally to (whisper their names) Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond.
Harris is adamant that he, LeBlanc and Reid and have now found their groove after the painful Chris Evans era and the fitful (at best) run last year for series 24.
“You can’t arrive and create chemistry, and the first season was, you know, pretty tough. It was diluted because there were so many presenters,” Harris tells RadioTimes.com. “But we now have some chemistry and we know where our funny bones are.”
LeBlanc adds: “What we’re trying to do more of this year is broaden the scope of the show; it’s not just about supercars. So someone who’s not necessarily a car nut can still enjoy the hour of television. We’re adding more side dishes and more comedy.”
In that vein, one upcoming feature sees LeBlanc travel to his native US in search of the mythical creature Bigfoot; in another, Chris takes the Friends star for a drive in rural France in his own Citroen 2CV in an attempt to celebrate a classic motor which, however much you love it, is as far from deserving the description “souped up” as it’s possible to imagine.
The two tease their way through the French film, joking around the idea that the car was designed for tradesmen and doctors working in the French countryside. Its suspension was supposedly designed to cope with being taken across an unploughed field while carrying a basket of eggs, none of which are permitted to smash. So, naturally, Chris and Matt try to do just that.
“It’s probably the best demonstration of the direction we want to take,” Harris says. “It’s taking a subject that, shall we say, another car show would lambast. The 2CV is a figure of fun and we always ridiculed the people that drive them – and understandably so. It was the joke car of the 1970s like the Skoda. But I’m a passionate 2CV owner and I am glad we are celebrating it, not taking the piss out of it. It was a car for the people, it mobilised people in post-occupied France, it was a car for doctors. And we take a sceptical American and persuade him of the power of the 2CV.”
The Bigfoot film meanwhile sees LeBlanc and Harris travel to California in search of the mythical woodland creature.
“I like the idea of believing in it; there’s a mystical romantic aesthetic to it that’s awesome,” says LeBlanc, who admits to harbouring a belief (shared with David Attenborough no less) that the animal might actually exist. “I have spent time up there in the north West of America and you see how unpopulated it is so it’s definitely possible. I love being in the woods, it’s my personal favourite film and we play around with off road machines.
“It works nicely with the 2CV film. Both have real charm to them. Chris believes in the 2CV and I don’t. I believe in Bigfoot and he doesn’t.”
So, as the personalities and the chemistry (what Harris calls the ‘c word’) take hold, it looks like the LeBlanc/Harris double act is developing well. It’s something which pleases Harris, who clearly looks up to his co-presenter.
“I was a student child of the 90s,” he says of LeBlanc. “I spent a lot of time being inactive on sofas watching him on the telly and now it’s quite bizarre that he sends me abusive text messages. He’s just a mate, it’s really weird. He’s wicked fun to knock about with – he told me you can’t make this show unless you get on well together and he’s right. I love working with him, he’s great.”
But does this make Rory a spare wheel in the Harris/LeBlanc buddy act?
Certainly, Rory does seem to shoot more stuff on his own. This includes a film in which he drives a formidable Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE with Sabine Schmitz (the German speed queen still having some cameos). Rory is also the pivot in a series of Japanese sequences – trying out a Le Mans racing car in a country which has what he calls “a unique automotive culture”. He’s also the butt of the other two’s banter when required.
“We have now got all the little inside jokes,” says LeBlanc. “Rory is the easiest one because he’s so focused on how he looks. He should be a model, he really should.”
Clearly all this is not a million miles from the kind of badinage that Clarkson and co made so successful. And BBC Worldwide, which still relies heavily on selling Top Gear abroad in order to fill its coffers, will be hoping that viewers will be convinced.
There are signs that LeBlanc is feeling a little more at home, even down to English slang: “Bits and bobs I say now, we don’t say that in the United States. And I have said ‘knackered’.”
Given the importance of the show, the BBC must be sincerely hoping he’s not too knackered for series 26 – LeBlanc admits he still hasn’t (yet) signed a contract. Whether he does probably depends on how well this series goes down – and how genuine that ‘chemistry’ really is.
Top Gear series 25 starts on BBC2 on Sunday 25 February at 8pm