Why ‘Top Gear’ hired Matt LeBlanc as its new co-host

Matt LeBlanc, Chris Evans and the mysterious Stig

It’s a momentous day for “Top Gear.” The show is getting its first ever non-British host, and it’s going to be Matt LeBlanc — yes, that Matt LeBlanc. He’ll be joining Chris Evans (no, not that Chris Evans) in the revamped show that’s hitting the BBC in May, following a series of scandalous incidents.

Evans announced the development Thurday morning on Twitter with a photo alongside LeBlanc and the Stig (that’s what they call the dude in the suit).

LeBlanc and the BBC confirmed the news. “As a car nut and a massive fan of ‘Top Gear,’ I’m honored and excited to be a part of this iconic show’s new chapter,” the former “Friends” star said in a statement.

Before looking ahead at what this means for “Top Gear,” let’s briefly look back at the embattled recent history of the program. The series is one of the biggest in Britain, and has a major following worldwide, too, with an estimated 350 million viewers around the globe.

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The show, which first aired in 1977, became a massive hit after Jeremy Clarkson helped engineer a reboot in 2002. For most of that version’s run, his co-presenters have been Richard Hammond and James May, and the three fell into an entertaining rhythm.

“Top Gear” was still ostensibly a car show, with plenty of eye candy for gear heads, but there were also bizarre races, between a car and a plane, for example, and quirky challenges where the hosts would try to build the cheapest electric car imaginable or host a race using only reasonably priced cars. Viewers tuned in as much for the dynamic between Clarkson and his buddies as for the engine-revving.

The problem? Clarkson had a history of saying really inappropriate things. There’s a difference between being a crusader against politically correct speech and using racist language, and Clarkson crossed that line on occasion. His words, however, aren’t what got him fired from the show. BBC refused to renew his contract after he verbally and physically assaulted BBC producer Oisin Tymon.

The fate of the show was in question, especially after May and Hammond announced that they wouldn’t continue on “Top Gear” without their buddy.

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Taking a stand paid off, as popularity always wins: Clarkson, May and Hammond were signed by Amazon to start their own, new car show. (Disclosure: Jeff Bezos, who owns Amazon, also owns the Washington Post.)

Details are scarce on the series — what the format will be, what the title will be, etc. — but it will likely premiere later this year.

Which brings us back to the current state of the BBC’s “Top Gear.” Many fans were not happy about Clarkson’s departure. More than a million people signed a change.org petition urging the network to reinstate the host. Alas, it wasn’t to be, and last June, Evans was hired as a new presenter.

Evans is best known as a radio DJ, television host and former tabloid fixture, all of which could bode well for fans. But the man doesn’t always give a lot of thought to the things he says out loud. For example, he once admitted on air to overdoing it with some magic mushrooms, which drew the attention of the police. If Clarkson’s lack of filter drew viewers to “Top Gear,” the BBC is hoping that Evans can provide a similar lure.

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Evans is also a major car enthusiast. Among his collection: A 1961 Ferrari 250 GT California Spyder, which once belonged to Steve McQueen and James Coburn, and the original Chitty Chitty Bang Bang car.

There was a lot of talk over who else might host the show, either instead of Evans or alongside him. Even — gasp! — some women seemed like they might be front-runners.

Instead, it’s going to be the man best known for playing Joey Tribbiani. LeBlanc was clearly hired to play the straight man role — the down-to-earth guy to temper Evans’s loose cannon. But LeBlanc also has a well-documented love for cars (and not just based on that “Friends” episode when Joey pretended to own a Porsche). He’s been a guest on “Top Gear” before, in 2012, and has a Ferrari of his own.

Meanwhile, LeBlanc will continue to star in the Showtime series “Episodes.” The new season, which has, conveniently, been shooting in London, airs this year.