Top Gear returns to our screens this Sunday, March 5, and, after what can be best described as a difficult transition from the Clarkson, Hammond and May era, it’s all change once again.
Chris Evans has gone, Matt LeBlanc has moved into a more central role, and now it’s actually got a point of comparison with the debut season of The Grand Tour having now aired on Amazon Prime.
While many will shudder at the thought of the Beeb continuing to flog what’s seen by many as a dead horse, others will see positives in the revamped presenter lineup that’s familiar yet different.
Chris Harris and Rory Reid, bit part players in last year’s presenter-heavy set-up, return as LeBlancs wingmen. Sure, it’s all a little bit Clarkson, Hammond and May in terms of set up, but it’s one that the new trio seem happy with.
“There’s a lot more drinking now,” LeBlanc quipped ahead of the show’s return. “[Producers] Alex [Denton] and Claire [Pizey] are now in charge, and they’re very collaborative personalities.
“It really feels like ideas are welcome and things are discussed a little more openly than last year I’d say. Outside of that, a lot of it feels the same.”
Just because it all feels familiar to LeBlanc doesn’t mean it’s not the same for everyone though. While LeBlanc is used to being a frontman, Reid is only just getting used to his time in the spotlight.
Questioned on whether the dynamic feels different, he replied: “For me, definitely, yeah.”
“Last series Chris and I mainly operated as lone soldiers who came in and plugged our segments into the main series. This year we’re doing a lot more together and doing challenges as a trio, so in that sense it feels very different.”
As we saw last year with six presenters, the Star in the Rallycross Car section and Evans’s unstoppable need to shout, different for difference's sake isn’t always the right approach. According to Reid though, this is more than that. This year’s Top Gear is a calculated step in a direction birthed by learning from past mistakes.
“The position we’re in now is better than last series,” he said. “Not because we’re not going up against the heritage or The Grand Tour, but because we’ve figured out what things worked last season, and what things worked less last season.
“We’ve been able to fine tune and distill it into this new series and build on it with the experience we now have as a team.
“The things we’ve learned in series 23, will ultimately make this a better show, regardless of who you stand us alongside or what’s come before.”
The changes in presenter set-up - one’s that fans, critics and hemorrhaged viewership figures alike will tell you were needed - were brought on by Chris Evans’s decision to resign after just one year behind the wheel.
Despite what Evans and some media reports at the time would have you believe, however, it wasn’t LeBlanc who forced the redhead out. According to the man himself, he didn’t even know the overly excitable Radio 2 DJ was jumping ship.
“I did not know that was coming,” the former Friends star explained. “What he said in the press, I read that in the paper, I didn’t know that was coming, and he went and resigned.
“I read in the paper that I’d forced him out, and that’s not true. I didn’t have anything to do with it. He’s got a lot on his plate, so whatever his reasons were, he said in his statement, so it’s all pretty clear.
Although the crew believes the upcoming season of Top Gear has learnt from last year’s mistakes, critics and those fans who actually return to the show will ultimately get the final say. Despite widespread criticism having been heaped on the showing 2016, at least one of the presenters isn’t too worried about what’s said this time out.
Instead, Chris Harris, a former internet car reviewer, insists that nothing the national press could say would be as bad as the scorn of faceless internet commenters.
“I’m from the internet. If you think the press are harsh, try YouTube commenters, the press are amateurs,” he told us.
“It’s the way it is. There were bits of the last series that were better than other bits, but ultimately if you go back and watch it now, some of the VTs are really, really good.
“We all knew we were in for a hard time whatever happened. We could have produced the single finest programme on television and we probably would have had some grief for it because of the legacy issues. We went into it knowing that.”
So, with big changes coming in up front, what else can we expected from the second new look Top Gear in as many years? Well, from what we’ve already seen, faces aside, this is going to be a very familiar show.
Your Sunday night car porn session will still slather the screaming rubber with beautiful cinematography and a hearty dollop of humour. That’s what Top Gear’s supposed to be though. Hopefully this really is a return to form for the once iconic show. We’ll find out at 8pm on Sunday when the first new episode airs on BBC Two.