Motoring presenters Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond, and James May’s return to the small screen has been a long while coming but, with the debut episode of The Grand Tour, Amazon has certainly wasted no time showing us where vast sums of the reported USD$250 million it spent on its most expensive TV experiment to date have gone.
The Grand Tour picks up in the only logical place it could, with a dejected Jeremy Clarkson schlepping his way out of soggy England in search of a new start elsewhere. It’s ultimately all a bit of silly pantomime, really, but it does work. Clarkson links up with fellow presenters May and Hammond and the three join a Mad Max: Fury Road-esque convoy spilling across the Californian desert to the first site of the show’s roving, pop-up studio. Jets scream overhead as a live band pounds away and the thick crowd parts for the trio’s arrival. For a moment it looks more like a sequence plucked from Forza Horizon than anything from Top Gear. It’s quite a grand (and expensive) statement for a show that’s ultimately still supposed to be about a trio of blokes faffing around in cars.
The Grand Tour quickly trades in the bombast and settles into a familiar and very welcome groove (one that returning fans of Top Gear in its previous form should warm to rapidly) but it doesn’t stop splashing the pot with Amazon’s fat stacks. After a brief sizzle reel filled with glimpses of the exciting and (very) often explosive auto action to come in the series, it’s off to the Algarve International Circuit in Portugal. The reason? The long-awaited hypercar test that never happened on Top Gear.
Clarkson, Hammond, and May discussed the difficulty of filming a proper shootout between the Ferrari LaFerrari, the Porsche 918 Spyder, and the McLaren P1 in their final, truncated season of Top Gear. It stands to reason that their unfinished business with this hypercar holy trinity would be their first task to tackle at their new home. The Grand Tour thus succeeds immediately where Top Gear could not.
The Grand Tour thus succeeds immediately where Top Gear could not.
It’s an entertaining film, shot and edited with all the same flair you’d have expected from the Top Gear days and filled with all the same banter and revolving narration. If you forget for a moment The Stig won’t be showing up to test the cars himself, it’s here where The Grand Tour seems virtually indistinguishable from Top Gear.
Elsewhere it’s still not very far off. Like Top Gear, The Grand Tour has a regular test track which is also based at an airfield and (according to Clarkson) is shaped like the Ebola virus. Like Top Gear, all the features of the track already have silly and yet instantly memorable names, like the Isn’t Straight, or Old Lady’s House (which is a set of chicanes beside… an old lady’s house). Like Top Gear they’ve even conscripted a regular racing driver to set times on it in whatever cars they toss at him.
The driver is former NASCAR champion Mike Skinner, referred to by The Grand Tour as The American. Skinner has the credentials but his quips while attacking the track did feel a little canned. It absolutely makes sense to distinguish The Grand Tour’s regular test driver from Top Gear’s silent and anonymous Stig by a) identifying him from the outset and b) letting him chat; I just think his comments could feel a little more off-the-cuff.
Inside the tent studio itself the show still has a distinct Top Gear feel to it.
Inside the tent studio itself the show still has a distinct Top Gear feel to it, too, despite attempts to distance itself from the once-formidable BBC show with various new segment titles. A comedy skit implying the trio had been brawling with the audience felt a little forced, and I’m not sure where they’re going with The Grand Tour’s celebrity guest appearances (the celebrities all “died” before they could appear in the studio). Still, there’s no denying the rapport Clarkson, Hammond, and May have with each other in front of a camera – whether they’re joking, bickering, or otherwise. That’s something the BBC desperately wanted to emulate with Chris Evans and Matt LeBlanc, but it just didn’t work.
Episode 1 of The Grand Tour has proven what I expect many suspected: that this triumvirate of motoring journalists doesn’t need a familiar logo, a mute man in a white Alpinestars suit, or even a jaunty Allman Brothers Band theme tune to make a fun and accessible car show. It’s hardly a complete reinvention of the successful Top Gear formula but, with the new incarnation of the latter being received like an elevator fart, it never had to be.