I suppose if Top Gear were a car it would be powered by a frenetic three-cylinder engine. It would be supercharged and turbocharged, still with plenty of go, though misfiring at times. It would have a slightly weary superstructure, suffering from a little metal fatigue and the odd spot of corrosion. Nothing serious, you understand, but in need of attention.
So the first of the latest series (its 33rd) is very much the typical formula, with all its strengths and weaknesses. The lucky trio of presenters – Freddie Flintoff, Chris Harris and Paddy McGuinness – get to explore the car culture of Thailand, which is just as fascinating as you’d expect. Funnily enough, I reviewed the new Isuzu D-Max pick-up myself recently – a tidy enough drive for a diesel commercial vehicle – but never dreamt it could be raced and rallied with quite the aplomb it clearly is in the beautiful jungles of Indochina.
They sell more pick-ups per head in Thailand than anywhere else in the world, and make large numbers of these simple beasts of burden, so it’s a bit of a national symbol, and the Top Gear lads have their usual quota of fun in them. Obviously, they try to break their respective Isuzu, Toyota and bespoke BMW pick-ups by overloading them and driving them up a mountain, but that sort of puerile lark is what you expect on Top Gear.
It puts me in mind of one of the infamous Top Gear specials from a few years ago, featuring the previous generation of presenters, when Jeremy Clarkson and his sidekicks went to Burma and just took the mickey out of the place, lobbing in at least one racist joke. By contrast, Flintoff et al are much more respectful, indeed awed, by the people they meet, and there isn’t much condescension.
They are rightly impressed by the “Formula Hmong” wooden go-kart hill racers of the country’s deep interior, whose vehicles are powered by gravity and adrenaline. Harris, the only proper driver of the three, comes off and hurts his hand, a timely reminder to us all that mucking about with cars (even the sort without engines) is a dangerous game.
Harris is also put in charge of a 2,000 horsepower electric supercar, the Croatian Rimac Nevera. It outruns a Lamborghini Aventador, and thus proves the actual superiority of the new technologies – also something the “old” Top Gear could never quite bring itself to admit. It’s refreshing.
Poor old Flintoff caught Covid during filming, so McGuinness and Harris got on with the rest of it, but it isn’t for that reason that the show feels a little like it’s firing on only two of its three cylinders. There’s not enough variety in the elements to change the pace – to go up and down the gears, so to speak. No “cool wall”, no star in a reasonably priced car, no celebs to be gently mocked. The banter, the wit, the camaraderie between the three presenters can and should make the show stick together much better. The spark isn’t igniting the mix, and the joshing just doesn’t get going.
Even when Harris and McGuinness are togged out like gimps for the go-kart racing, the obvious opportunities for childish humour go begging. There’s not much wrong with Top Gear, and still a lot that’s right – such as the sharp editing and routinely gorgeous cinematography – but it could do with a service and perhaps a model refresh.