'We are having so much fun now, it's really amazing'
Aside from an absent Chris Evans, what does series two of Top Gear have in store? Epic adventures, humour... and they've finally got the banter down, writes Susan Griffin.
There was a lot of hype ahead of the last series of Top Gear, followed by plenty of headlines when the new line-up failed to attract large audiences. Now the motoring show's back, minus Chris Evans, but with a returning Matt LeBlanc, Chris Harris and Rory Reid at the helm.
"I think it's going to be a great series. We are all perfectionists and everyone who works on it is really pleased," says LeBlanc (49), who recently admitted he hadn't seen Evans since the radio presenter's decision to depart the show.
In the new seven-part series, the presenters journey across wildest Kazakhstan in cars including a London taxi and a Volvo estate, blast through America's Wild West in the latest convertible supercars and attempt to turn an "ugly" South Korean people-carrier into a luxury yacht.
"Doing Top Gear is amazing," acknowledges Reid (37), who was part of the line-up in last year's revamped show and recently returned from Cuba, where he'd been filming one of the new segments.
"I took part in a massive drive across a country that is so alien to so many people. It was about 30 degrees, while it was minus two back home," recalls the motoring and technology specialist.
"We also looked at their culture over there, and it was a fascinating film to take part in. What's different about this season is we're talking to people and allowing them to have a voice. We want them to share their stories and bring something else to the programme."
LeBlanc's particularly delighted with the tone. "There's lots of humour," explains the former Friends star.
"For example, we filmed a Bond sequence that involves me driving an Aston Martin. I don't want to give too much away, but it centres around two guys poking fun at each other and having a good time. They are chasing each other, and then they are both chased."
The American actor-turned-presenter believes the importance of humour in Top Gear's appeal shouldn't be underestimated.
"You can talk about the technical differential, power shifting, timing, four valves, but people will start snoozing," explains LeBlanc, who says driving the Lamborghini Huracan was a highlight of this series.
"There is a balance in the show. We also talk about cars that are beautiful - the smoothness to them, the fluidity - and we use adjectives that are universal."
Harris, a racing driver and motoring journalist who also appeared in the last series agrees.
"The internet exists for that technical blurb. It is not what we are servicing," stresses the 42-year-old. "I watched it again last night and it genuinely makes me laugh out loud at times."
But ultimately, it is about the motors.
"It all starts with the car," explains Harris, who "had a full, 11-out-of-10 out-of-body moment" when he drove the Ferrari FXX K at the Daytona circuit in Florida.
"If you look at the metal we are squeezing into this season, it is mouth-watering. I would say because of the amount we are including, it's the strongest season of cars Top Gear has ever had."
He credits the "incredible" team working tirelessly behind the scenes to ensure the seemingly impossible is achieved.
"For one film we made, we only had a day to shoot it. That's not enough time, but it was one of those opportunities you would never get again. Only by the sheer excellence and maximum efficiency of the crew did we smash it. And we really enjoyed it," Harris recalls.
"Matt, Rory and I front the programme, but the size of the show behind the scenes is a juggernaut. It sounds so glib, but the three of us can't do it unless everyone else is mega at their job."
Numerous sequences were filmed on Top Gear's famous test track, where a fresh crop of celebrities attempt to impress with their driving skills, and in its rather draughty studio.
There are also appearances from German race ace Sabine Schmitz, F1 pundit Eddie Jordan and The Stig, but the focus is the three-way partnership at the centre of it all.
"What people forget is for the three guys that were on the show before us, it took them a while to build up a rapport," notes LeBlanc, in reference to original line-up of Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May.
"This is now the first season for the three of us and it does take a little while. You take three people, put them together in a room and say, 'It's in your interest to get along', and everyone is open to getting along, but it takes a little while to speed up the shorthand.
"What's great is we're now getting to a point where we're really starting to click. We are having so much fun together."
Harris describes LeBlanc as "a big friendly bear" and "much wiser than people give credit for".
LeBlanc, in turn, says: "Chris has this vocabulary that I need to carry a pocket dictionary around for".
Both consider Reid to be the most competitive of the three of them, which the man himself doesn't deny.
"We are all very competitive, but something has clicked in my brain which says, 'I refuse to lose. Win at all costs'," admits Reid, who particularly enjoyed driving a Volkswagen Golf GTI ("It's not on the level of a Porsche, but in the right hands, it is quicker").
LeBlanc insists he didn't embark on this series "with any pre-conceived ideas", something he's learnt though experience.
"I was more like, 'Okay, what's coming this year?' I have tried to imagine what they are going to throw at me, but I always fall shy."
- Top Gear, BBC Two, tomorrow, 8pm