The UK's commercial broadcasters are poised to enter a bidding war for the services of Jeremy Clarkson, amid suggestions that the Top Gear presenter may quit the BBC even if he is cleared of claims that he punched a producer in a row about food.
Clarkson is suspended from the Corporation for his part in an alleged "dust-up" with 36-year-old Oisin Tymon, apparently sparked by the lack of a hot dinner after a day's filming in Newcastle. The BBC has postponed the final three episodes of the current series pending its investigation.
Questions have been raised over whether Clarkson will now appear in Belfast in just over two months' time as part of the Top Gear Live roadshow at the Odyssey Arena.
Petrol-heads have snapped up tickets ranging from £38 to £100 for a series of shows over three days in May.
Both ITV and Channel 4 have previously tried to poach Clarkson, whose contract runs out at the end of the month.
It's understood that at least one senior BBC executive is keen for the presenter to leave, believing him to be an "embarrassment".
Friends of the presenter said his career at the BBC was probably over. "Can I see him going back to film another BBC series? I don't think so. But he'll be fine. The other broadcasters will bite his arm off," one source said.
Leaving his London home yesterday, Clarkson joked with reporters: "I've been suspended haven't I? I'm just off to the job centre."
Asked if food was the root cause of his suspension, Clarkson said "no, no, no", but he admitted he did have regrets about the incident. He was later seen at Chelsea's Champions League match against Paris Saint-Germain.
By last night more than half a million people had signed an online petition calling for the presenter to be reinstated. Change.org said the "BBC: Bring Back Clarkson" petition was the website's fastest-growing in years.
Clarkson is understood to have told friends that he did not punch Mr Tymon, but that some "handbags and pushing" did occur. Mr Tymon's lawyer said his client would not comment until after the BBC investigation was complete.
Clarkson's co-star James May said the row had been sparked by catering arrangements, but said he was not there when it happened. "I think he's been involved in a bit of a dust-up and I don't think it's that serious," he added. When May was initially asked if Clarkson was innocent, he quipped: "Of being a k**b? No."
The Prime Minister offered stronger support for Clarkson, who has a house in David Cameron's Witney constituency, describing him as "a friend" and "a huge talent".
"I see that he said he regrets some of what happened. All I would say, because he is a talent and he does amuse and entertain so many people, including my children who'll be heartbroken if Top Gear is taken off air, I hope this can be sorted out because it is a great programme," he said.
"I like the show but I don't like Jeremy Clarkson," said the world champion rally driver from Co Tyrone who has previously worked on Top Gear.
"If the show is pulled, then it's the BBC's fault for building the show around him. They've have got themselves in a real sticky wicket any way it goes. I can see how he's good for TV but for me I don't really care for him."
"Top Gear is must-see viewing every week in our house, especially with my two wee boys Lewis and Adam," said the reigning BTCC champion from Portadown. "It's a massive show. All three presenters are great but Clarkson is the real star of the show. But as a licence-payer I have to say that I'm disappointed that I won't see the end of the series."
"Robert and I are over in Spain at the moment and I don't really care about it as I only watch it if there's nothing else on," said the motorcycling racer. "The show is definitely good and I know that some people don't like Clarkson but it's good because of him."
"I've grown up with Top Gear and I was always a fan of the programme, although not necessarily of Jeremy Clarkson," said the five-times Irish tarmac rally champion from Maghera."He's a blithering idiot really, but he's the backbone of the Top Gear programme. "
"I probably would sign the petition to bring him back as the full facts have not been investigated yet," said the tarmac rally champion from Fermanagh. "Clarkson is the main reason why everyone watches the programme, he's the main character in the show, he makes it."
"Clarkson is a very clever guy, he's very successful and runs an entertaining show which interests many people, but not really me," said the former Monte Carlo rally winner. "If I want to see a comedy act, I would rather pay and go and see professionals do it."
"I'm not really aware of what's happening with Jeremy Clarkson and Top Gear as I rarely watch it. I've seen it one or twice and I certainly wouldn't plan to watch it," said the former Isle of Man TT winner, "but I believe in treating people with manners at all times."
"I don't like the man and I never have," said the racing commentator and ex-mentor and mechanic to Robert Dunlop. "I'm not a fan of the show, it has been more about him than motoring. His behaviour over the last few years has not endeared him to me. He's obnoxious."