‘Top Gear’ roars back with Matt LeBlanc, high expectations

Top Gear 2016


LONDON (AP) — “Top Gear” doesn’t do understatement.

If it were a car, the BBC’s hit auto show would be a flashy, precision-tooled racer. Co-host Chris Evans calls it “a car-show nuclear bomb” — and it returns to the screen facing the fallout of former host Jeremy Clarkson’s explosive exit.

The show’s fusion of blokey banter, consumer advice and adrenaline-fueled automotive stunts in far-flung locations made it a huge hit, watched — according to the BBC — by 350 million people around the world.

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The “Top Gear ” formula, fine-tuned over many years under the brash Clarkson, has brought both success and controversy. Clarkson and his fellow presenters left last year after an off-set dustup in which Clarkson punched a producer (he later apologized and paid damages). Now the show is back, fronted by Evans and actor Matt LeBlanc, zooming away from his best-known incarnation as Joey Tribbiani in long-running sitcom “Friends.”

“When I was first starting out, I always wanted my career to take me to exotic places,” LeBlanc said during an interview in London. “And I ended up in a building in Burbank for 12 years with no windows.”

He’s making up for it now. Filming for the six-episode season of “Top Gear” has taken the crew to Morocco, South Africa, Italy, Kazakhstan, the U.S. and the gaudy English seaside resort of Blackpool. LeBlanc has driven an Ariel Nomad dune buggy in the Moroccan desert and raced Evans up South Africa’s treacherous Sani Pass — one of several hair-raising experiences.

“Some of the things we do, it was like, ‘Really? This is all insured? Huh. Because that’s a big cliff right there,'” LeBlanc said.

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“You’re constantly fighting (between) ‘I want to win’ and ‘it’s just a TV show,'” he said. “You want to make it entertaining, but you also want to make it.”

In the new-look “Top Gear” — premiering Sunday in Britain and Monday on BBC America — main presenters LeBlanc and Evans are joined by German driver Sabine Schmitz, former motorsport boss Eddie Jordan, automotive journalists Chris Harris and Rory Reid and anonymous, helmeted driver The Stig.

Evans, a veteran British TV and radio host, says the format has been tweaked, but the essence of the program remains. He say fans — he counts himself among them — “don’t want us to reinvent the wheel.”

Clarkson and his co-hosts James May and Richard Hammond have decamped to Amazon’s TV service for a rival show, “The Grand Tour,” debuting later this year.

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Evans says he is relaxed about the competition, and pays credit to Clarkson and his colleagues for fusing car journalism with the wild spirit of rock ‘n’ roll.

“They took the component parts of a car show, and they said, ‘OK, we could build this, or we could build a nuclear bomb,'” he said. “They assembled a car-show nuclear bomb. And they were just about to detonate it, but they’re not there anymore so now we’ve got to do it.”

Clarkson, a self-styled enemy of political correctness, regularly generated headlines with his dismissive views on cyclists, environmentalists and vegetarians, and insensitive statements about a host of nationalities.

It all made “Top Gear” a cultural touchstone as much as a TV show, and the returning show is under intense scrutiny in Britain. There were outraged tabloid headlines when LeBlanc was filmed performing spins near the Cenotaph memorial to Britain’s war dead. There have been media reports that LeBlanc and Evans don’t get along — firmly denied by the duo.

“We have a great time, and hopefully that translates on screen,” LeBlanc said.

“I’ve been involved in projects that were high-pressure situations before, so for me that’s not really anything new. It’s when they stop talking about you that you have to worry.”

Clarkson was a polarizing figure, and Evans acknowledges the show has some “bridges to build.” A sought-after trip to the Tesla factory may take some delicate diplomacy: The electric-car company sued the BBC for libel after Clarkson slated the Tesla Roadster’s performance.

Evans says the new hosts will take a less ideological approach than the combative Clarkson.

“If it’s no good, we’ll say it’s no good, and if it is a good car then we’ll say that too,” he said. “But we won’t start out with an agenda on a car or a company or an ideology. Because that was his act, and it remains his act, not ours.”

LeBlanc says he just wants to drive, any kind of vehicle — small or large, petrol or electric.

“If it’s got wheels on it, I’m in.”