TV Review: Top Gear
After the mediocre series opener, it was a relief to see a much better episode of Top Gear tonight, with much to like. Not everything was perfect. As with last week, the news section was dominated by masturbation jokes, although the difference was that tonight there were also some off-kilter jokes about people with growths on their faces. I’m not going to pass comment on this, other than to say it was not hilarious.
The guest star, Matt LeBlanc, looked old, sounded boring, said basically nothing and then drove the fastest ever lap in the reasonably priced car, pipping Mr Bean himself, Rowan Atkinson, by a tenth of a second. Friends finished eight years ago (gosh), and in new series Episodes he plays ‘Matt LeBlanc’, so I suppose he’s had plenty of time to practice. A reasonably big name, but snooze-tastic.
Better was the review of the €241,000, Mercedes SLS AMG roadster, a fine-looking car with a brute of an engine and, by the look of Clarkson’s slipping and sliding, a refreshingly un-Teutonic attitude to handling.
“It’s as in tune with its times as a blaze in an oil refinery, and I love that,” was his unsurprising verdict.
The best bits were the features at either end. Richard Hammond began things with an informative and entertaining look at Nascar, the American stock racing championship responsible for 17 of the 20 best-attended sporting events in the world. The track Hammond visited, the Texas Speedway, seats 191,000 people. Take that, Silverstone. His interviews had impeccable credentials: champions Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon, and convert from Formula 1 Juan Pablo Montoya. A bit like explaining Formula 1 by interviewing Michael Schumacher and Sebastian Vettel.
Nascar’s reputation over here suffers from terrible Formula 1 snobbery. The cars go round in a circle, goes the thinking, and the fans are all mayonnaise sandwich-munching rednecks. As Hammond demonstrated, it is much more exciting than that. The cars are all more or less identical, so it’s a test of driver skill rather than who spends the most on engineering. The average speed is 190 mph. There is constant overtaking, frequent crashing and the occasional fistfight. Before the race, drivers take fans for rides in the passenger seat. If Formula 1 is motor opera, Nascar is a rock concert. I know which I’d rather pay to watch.
The only anomaly, given the subject, was that Hammond didn’t at any point mention the sad death of British Indy 500 champion Dan Wheldon last October. Indy and Nascar are cousins, rather than brothers, but both involve similar cars lapping circular tracks at constant high speeds. Wheldon was a rare animal: a British champion in a foreign world.
Bringing the hour to a close, Clarkson and May visited China, where a car is bought every 2.3 seconds, more than in all of Europe combined. As they showed, it is a strange place for motorists, rife with imitations and dodgy engineering. But it's refreshing to see the presenters unafraid to take on a big subject, rather than simply racing each other across Europe while making bad jokes. Nothing to say there can't be jokes too, of course. The kung-fu Stig was excellent. “It’s interesting he’s attacked the [Chinese] starter,” Clarkson said implacably. “I thought it was a racist thing.”
An hour of television that made me laugh and taught me about cars; good to know Top Gear can still do that.