The Version Interview.... Chris Evans and Matt Le Blanc on the return of Top Gear.
The world’s biggest motoring show is back, featuring an all-new presenter line-up and more petrol-powered action than ever before.
Chris Evans and Matt LeBlanc are joined by German racer Sabine Schmitz, YouTube star Chris Harris, BBC F1 pundit Eddie Jordan and motoring journalist Rory Reid to put the world’s finest cars from across the globe to the test.
The new six-part series sees Top Gear’s new presenting team undertake a series of on- and off-road challenges: chauffeuring superstar musicians to the top of Africa in 4x4s, journeying across Britain in roofless three-wheelers, hitting the Rolls-Royce campaign trail in western Ireland, and battling off-road baddies in a car made of scaffolding.
You’ll also find tests of the very latest cars, from Ferrari’s fearsome F12 TdF to the McLaren 675LT, from BMW’s pugnacious M2 to the screaming Aston Martin Vulcan.
Plus, of course, the biggest celebrities tackling the all-new test track every week, and the return of Top Gear’s enigma wrapped in a riddle wrapped in a race suit: The Stig.
Chris and Matt tell us more...
What can viewers look forward to in the new season?
Chris: The production team sorted out some brilliant locations, amazing vehicles, and to be honest we wouldn’t be putting one second of it out if we didn’t think it was worth watching - so enjoy every moment. It’s like when The Simpsons or Friends comes on – your favourite shows are over much quicker than your clock says they’re going to be, so hold onto every moment.
Top Gear is obviously about cars, but are we going to see any other modes of transport?
Matt: A motorcycle, a drone and a Paramotor in Morocco, and a water taxi in Venice.
Which of the Top Gear filming locations was the most exciting to drive in?
Chris: I’m not a big traveller, so going to South Africa was amazing and The Ring of Kerry in Ireland was glorious too, where Matt and I compared old and new Rolls-Royces.
Matt: Morocco and Venice were fun. Blackpool was great – I’ve never been and it was so fun, we had a lot of laughs there. It’s a bit like Atlantic City!
Tell us about the set of Dunsfold? Are viewers going to be shocked?
Chris: There aren’t going to be any shocks in terms of the look of the studio - it will be fresher, cleaner but you should still be able to tell it’s Top Gear.
Matt: Coat of paint, and mop the floor!
Chris: We’ve both got buckets!
Do you have any stars you would want to see on the show, or have you had anyone asking to be a guest?
Matt: I got a call from Formula One driver Romain Grosjean - he wants to come on the show and so I said I would pass it up the chain of command as it’s not really my department. He’s a friend of mine who doesn’t have a snowball's chance in hell of getting on. Stephen Mangan wants to come on - that would be fun, as he is super competitive. Oh my god, he is a great guy but he wants to beat my time so bad, so I’m going to practise on the new version of the track and set down an amazing time. He says he can drive, but we’ll see.
You have described your pairing as the ‘modern-style odd couple’ (completely different on first impressions but actually have an awful lot in common). Aside from cars, what joins you two together?
Chris: We are both male, both about the same age, both been working in this mad show business world for a long time and both had our ups and downs.
Matt: Neither one of us takes ourselves too seriously, we both like to have a laugh and at the end of the day, we’re both aware that we are not working on the cure for cancer, we’re just making a car show. I think we have a very similar work ethic – you leave your ego at the door and you come on in and collaborate.
In terms of your roles as co-hosts, you’ve mentioned that when a problem needs fixing, Detectives Evans and LeBlanc will call on the rest of the team of presenters as and when. What do you mean by that?
Chris: So there are seven of us on the show – six faces and one helmet (The Stig), but Matt and I co-host the show every week. We are the hosts of the show and other people make films and then come in and talk about those films. So production will dispatch who they think is the best for those films, it could be one person, two people, three people. So for example, Matt and I have done a film together; Matt, myself and Eddie Jordan have done a film together; Matt, myself and Sabine have done a film together. But the constant is Matt and myself – so the whole show is a two-hander with a back-up cast.
Matt: The interesting thing about that back-up cast is that they are all experts in their field, they are all true professionals in their arena of motorsports. They are the real deal. Sabine – real deal. Chris Harris – real deal. Eddie Jordan – real deal. Rory – real deal. The Stig – real deal, apparently… nobody really knows. But he can drive the heck out of a car - I have seen it. I think it gives a validation to things when it comes to critiquing automobiles.
Chris: Chris Harris is Mr Sideways, that’s what he is. He was born sideways. He is very uncomfortable with anything being straight on - including himself.
Who would you say is your racing legend?
Chris: I would go Jim Clark.
Matt: For me it’s a toss-up between Senna and Valentino Rossi.
What is the first car you learnt to drive in?
Chris: A Mini 1000. Blaze orange.
Matt: 74 Datsun pickup, very rusty stick-shift, I think it was four-speed.
Did you pass your driving test first time?
Matt: No, I was 12. It was just my dad’s truck, he taught me how to drive it. I took my driving test in an AMC Javelin, which was even rustier.
Do you find it easy to switch driving on the left side of the road in the UK, as opposed to the right in the US?
Matt: It’s getting easier. The first time I was ever on Top Gear to do the lap in the left-hand car there was only one other time I had driven a left-hand shift. That was in 1997 and I was here doing a film, so I rented a Porsche 911 for the weekend and went to Bath with my girlfriend. But nothing since then. When I drove the car, I had a really hard time. It went well and I set a good time, but it’s tricky - it’s the downshift from third to second because it’s down and away, instead of down and towards you. So I kept going towards me and going into a turn in third and coming out in fourth – that’s not the quick way to exit. But it’s getting easier.
Chris: Well I’ve always been confused, as most of my cars have been left-hand drive cars, but in Britain as they’re old Italian cars. So I’m just confused generally. So that’s a reason to get a McLaren F1, as the steering wheel is right in the middle.
What was the appeal for you to co-host Top Gear?
Matt: For me, it was a great opportunity to be a part of something that I was already a fan of. It was a no-brainer!
What happened when you broke down en route to Blackpool?
Chris: We were 28 miles outside of London and had been on the road for four hours, we were in High Wycombe.
M: And my car broke down. It’s funny that – it’s a British show with a British crew and that challenge was Brits against Americans both in British cars and mine breaks down. Interesting.
C: He smelt a huge Union Jack rat there.
M: So my car spent it’s time to Blackpool on the back of a truck, as did I.
Did you get a good chance to meet the locals?
M: We had fried chicken at Cannock services – we took selfies with everyone in that town I think while they were changing the radiator and the water pump, which then blew up again immediately.
What is the fastest you’ve ever gone in a car and when?
M: 55 – the speed limit!
C: Me too! 110 between us then. I have gone just short of 200mph in a car, either in a McLaren 675LT or a Ferrari, but when you’re going that fast you’re not looking at the speedometer so I can’t tell you for sure.
M: I have never gone that fast. The fastest I have ever gone is on a bike – a Ducati 999. It has a big digital display and I happened to glance down and I’ll never forget it said 173mph. That’s quick on a bike.
What does it feel like when you’re going that fast?
M: It feels just how you’d think. You think about changing lanes and you’re already in the next lane. You wouldn’t want to have to do anything dramatic. It was funny because my friend and I were side by side and there was a stop sign coming, so we slowed down. We were out in the desert so I have no idea why there was a stop sign, as there is not even a road crossing it. As soon as we stopped we put our visors up and said “How fast were you going? Yeah me too,” and then coming the other way at that stop sign was a motorcycle cop!
C: Well unless there are any white lines to give you a perspective in the middle of the road, you don’t feel like you’re going that fast. Both my experiences have been on a track, not a public highway.
M: It wasn’t a public highway, it was a side street!
C: I wasn’t talking to you! But you only really feel it when you go to brake, and if you have ceramic brakes and you haven’t braked for a while and they’re not hot enough and don’t really work, then that’s a bit of a worry too.
What is the best car you’ve ever driven?
M: I have a Porsche 911 GT2 RS that’s pretty great. I really like that car. The first time I came to do Top Gear, I drove the McLaren MP4-12C. I turned up at Dunsfold in the limousine, got out of the car and up pulls The Stig in the McLaren and he says hop in. I got right from one car into the other and did two sighting laps. Then he got out and I got in the driver’s seat and I did one sighting lap then one hot lap. And then got into the reasonably priced car. Maybe that’s why I set a good time! Out of the McLaren and into that thing…
C: Oh, you never mentioned that before! I’d say Nick Mason’s Ferrari 250 GTO, which was a joy as it’s my favourite car in the world. I got to drive a McLaren F1 recently and Fangio’s World Championship car was pretty special, but I couldn’t drive it as it had a crash box, so I was really bad.
What was the first car you drove, and how old were you?
M: It was a ‘74 Datsun pick-up truck, stick shift and I was 12.
C: A Mini 1000, and I was 17.
What is your earliest car memory?
M: Going camping with my grandparents, and being in the back seat of the station wagon - what you call an estate here - and my grandpa whistling to classical music on the radio as I handed him a beer.
C: Mine was when my dad changed a car for another car, and he changed it for a Ford Anglia and the rear screen slanted the wrong way, so it sloped inwards towards the boot. This was a freaky car and everyone thought it was a freaky car so people on our street were interested in us for about a minute. That was a big deal.
What was the first car that you bought for yourself?
M: The first car I brought for myself was a 1978 Chevrolet Blazer, which was kind of like a big Jeep thing. It had a lift kick, big balloon tyres, four-wheel drive, it was a big mud monster thing and I loved it, it was cool. So cool.
C: Mine was a Triumph Spitfire Mk3. It was green and I painted it red. And I absolutely loved it - I used to leave it open every night so the vinyl roof didn’t get slashed.
How many cars have you owned since?
M: 20 or 30.
What is your all-time dream car?
M: Reliant Rialto for sure! One that runs!
C: McLaren F1.
What is your favourite public road or track to drive on?
M: That would be one by my house in California – from LA to San Francisco on Highway 1. It’s nice, beautiful views, challenging, I mean tricky – it will bite you if you’re not careful.
C: I would say the exact same to be honest. Highway 1.
M: Going North on it you can carry more speed, but going South you can scare your passenger more.
You’ve been to South Africa, across Europe and to some incredible places. Trying to get so much into each day, how taxing has filming been?
Matt: The hours are long, but I think for me, I always say ‘find something you love to do and you’ll never work a day in your life’. It doesn’t ever feel like work when you’re driving cool cars, having a laugh. Chris and I putting our heads together with some other smart guys in the production and saying ‘What’s funnier? This or this?’.
Matt, now that you’re in it, are you surprised by how big the beast of Top Gear is, in terms of people watching it and scrutinising it with expectations?
Matt: Well, it hasn’t premiered yet and in a weird way it feels like it has. It’s such a monstrous entity and it’s bigger than we are. Chris had a great analogy that we’re just babysitting it. Top Gear has such a giant following, and people are so excited and love it. Everyone has a connection to the automobile. Men, women, old people and young people. Everybody has memories that are associated with cars and lots of them. Your first ambulance ride when you broke your leg, getting your license or taking a girl on your first date. That’s the special thing with cars, they have a built in relatability which is hard to describe.
Chris: Cars are like an unofficial diary for our lives. Our cars have seen everything that we do, or are part of something we do, or are the results of some things that we did - whether we wrote them off, or they were the trophy bought with the first pay cheque.
Matt: For me, a lot of things I’ve been associated with have had so much pressure around them. All Chris and I can do is make the best show we can, so there’s no sense worrying about something that’s out of your control. So I do my best. I hope people like it.
Chris: I’m getting less and less nervous to be honest. Because we’ve been doing it for so long, and most of it is in the can.
Who is the better driver between you two, who is more superior?
Chris: There is definitely one clearly, annoyingly more superior than the other, and it’s not me.
Top Gear returns Sunday, 8pm on BBC Two.