Fast lane or cul-de-sac: can Chris Evans rev up Top Gear?
It's back on the BBC tomorrow night, but is there life after Clarkson for controversial show, asks Ed Power
When a tired and frustrated Jeremy Clarkson punched a Top Gear producer last year, little could anyone have predicted the forces that would be unleashed.
All is changed utterly as the swashbuckling motoring show returns tomorrow, with Clarkson and his anorak-clad co-presenters replaced by the unlikely tag-team of motor-mouthed breakfast DJ Chris Evans and laid-back Joey from Friends (occasionally known as Matt LeBlanc).
But can the BBC's £50m cash cow truly survive without Clarkson and his reliable conveyor belt of controversy? Will Top Gear even be Top Gear minus those trademark Little Englander outbursts and tirades against cyclists/Americans/Scottish people?
Extraordinarily, before a second of the new series has been broadcast, Evans has already furnished critics with a lifetime supply of ammunition. His long-time creative foil, producer Lisa Clark, left TG 2.0 after less than five months, fuelling rumours that Evans was a control freak incapable of compromise (the final straw, it is said, was a polite suggestion from Clark that they hurry up and record more segments before time ran out).
This was followed by mutterings that Evans was ill-suited to the more taxing aspects of the gig. He was, for example, said to have lost his lunch after a routine afternoon driving around a test circuit in California.
"It would be unfair to expect him to be perfect right from the word go," an eyewitness to the incident told the media. "But how can someone who gets car sick possibly host Top Gear?"
More worrying yet were reports that Evans was unable to drive and talk to camera at the same time, tricky when a key part of your job is driving and talking to the camera at the same time.
And what of the decision to hire six new anchors to replace the swashbuckling trio of Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond? Alongside Evans and LeBlanc, the new series will feature a rotating cast of occasional hosts, including Irish ex-Formula One boss Eddie Jordan, German test driver Sabine Schmitz and motoring journos Rory Reid and Chris Harris (plus returning mystery driver The Stig).
Is this overkill? Even in the petrolhead universe, it is by no means clear that bigger is always better. The other question, of course, is whether we even want Top Gear back in its latter-day incarnation.
Among fans, the show has long stood tall as a brave beacon of straight-talk in a world drowning in political correctness.
But just because that formula worked with Clarkson at the helm and the rumpled May and Hammond in the wheelhouse, is there any good reason for extending it beyond what might have been regarded as its natural lifespan?
Evans is certainly no Clarkson, for good or ill. When 'Jezza' went off on a rant, there was a temptation to dismiss his ravings as the crazed witterings of someone who had never got over the demise of Empire.
However, the new host lacks the befuddled, high-trousered cuddliness of his predecessor and can come off snide when he aims for hard-hitting. People considered Clarkson juvenile and infuriating. Yet he was never truly despised in the way Evans can seem to be.
Still, in the new presenter's defence, it is clear he understands how steep a challenge awaits.
Say what you will about Evans, but nobody can accuse him of going into Top Gear in the naive hope all would go smoothly.
"They took the component parts of a car show, and they said, 'Okay, we could build this, or we could build a nuclear bomb,'" he said of Clarkson and company in an interview this week. "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."
Thus far, it is tempting to conclude the new team have tried a little too hard to emulate Clarkson's outrageousness. There was, for instance, an outcry when LeBlanc was seen spinning 'donuts' at the Cenotaph in London.
Meanwhile, Evans' nerves were apparently on full show at the recording of the studio section of the first episode last weekend. With opening-night jitters very much in evidence, the 30 minutes of links and "improvised" banter took over three hours to record. Audience members were said to have begun trickling out, perhaps stung by Evans' admonishment that they should take their hands out of their pockets.
"Don't fold your arms, don't have your hands in your pockets," he is reported to have ranted. "Don't be quiet. Talk among yourselves."
There is also speculation that Evans and LeBlanc aren't quite as close as Top Gear would have us believe. Evans was reportedly livid over LeBlanc's Cenotaph stunt, which required him to issue a detailed apology.
Moreover, the hamster-like radio veteran and the swaggering American actor are said to lack the chemistry that made Clarkson, May and Hammond so right on screen (they'll be back together with The Grand Tour, their new Amazon Prime show due in the autumn).
The claim is angrily denied. "All this stuff that Chris and I are at war with each other is a big load of b*******. We've never had a rift," LeBlanc told the Radio Times."We're hanging out, having a laugh, doing our best."
What should fans expect going into the first of six episodes tomorrow night? Well, apart from the new line-up, changes have been kept to a minimum.
The Star In A Reasonably Priced Car section has been re-christened Star In A Motocross Car (Jesse Eisenberg and Gordon Ramsay are the first to try their mettle against the new circuit). But the tinkering is otherwise cosmetic.
There will still be endless globe-trotting, with the opening episode featuring LeBlanc zooming around a desert in Morocco and Evans participating in a bizarre tribute to Top Gun in Nevada (because nothing screams 'Tom Cruise' like a middle-aged Brit toddling around the scrub in a sports car).
The biggest difference Evans promised is that there would be no Clarkson-esque grudge held against certain automobile manufacturers (Jezza was notoriously dismissive of French and American cars and inevitably gushing towards anything German or Italian). The new Top Gear is to be equal opportunities in the praise and vitriol is it dispenses.
"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," explained Evans. "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."
Top Gear, BBC2, tomorrow, 8pm