In a lay-by half way up Switzerland’s Gotthard Pass, Richard Hammond is pressing buttons.
“We must get a microphone in to record all of these Buck-Rogers-in-the-25th-century sounds,” he says, as he plays around with the Rimac Concept One, an all-electric, all white Croatian supercar. “I need a whole new lexicon to describe it,” he goes on. “I don’t know if that noise – beep, pss, wheow – means we’re about to take off or the wheel’s falling off.”
The wheel isn’t falling off, which is lucky as Hammond is about to take the Rimac up one of Switzerland’s most famous roads, through a set of rocky switchbacks and across a bridge over a ravine. While he’s looking at the Rimac – a car so complex that Rimac have sent their own team of engineers along with it like a human User Manual – James May and Jeremy Clarkson are giving their chosen vehicles the once over. For this film in The Grand Tour series two, Clarkson will be in charge of a bright yellow Lamborghini Aventador SV, a low, skulking monster, styled like a fighter jet; and May a red Honda NSX, stealthy and sleek. This is the first of ten days’ filming in Switzerland during which they will try and determine, through road tests, drag races and ultimately a hill climb, which car is best.
Producer Gavin Whitehead speaks from experience when he describes how it might go:
“There’ll be a large amount of bickering and then at the end nobody will be any the wiser.”
The film, like most of the The Grand Tour location pieces, has a theme.
“It’s the past, the present and the future,” says Clarkson. “So you have the Rimac, which is electric, the NSX, an electric-petrol hybrid, and the Lamborghini, which is petrol. I can’t fit in the Rimac and in any event I am the resident dinosaur so it was obvious I should drive the dinosaur. James likes to maintain – hilariously – that he’s modern enough because he doesn’t like old-fashioned stuff. So he wants to drive the NSX and anyway he likes it and I don’t. Then that left Hammond in the Rimac.”
James May is satisfied that his NSX is ready for action and walks over to offer his two ha’penny worth before the roadwork begins.
“The story, basically, is do we like the past, present or the future. I’m defending the present on the basis that humanity can only be in the present – the past has gone and the future is out there. Only the end is clear as The Clash, I think, once said. Obviously Jeremy is a relic from the past – I mean just look at him. And Hammond likes to think of himself as a modernist but that doesn’t explain why he lives in Gloucestershire.”
Hammond, meanwhile, sets off on his first road test, driving the car up the Gotthard Pass. A week ago the road was closed because of snow. Today it is closed for The Grand Tour to film. The Swiss authorities have granted them all of ten minutes. This being Switzerland there is a man in a uniform with a stopwatch.
The car is laden with mini-cams, inside and out, and radios so that Hammond can be filmed, heard, and can communicate with Clarkson and May at all times. The film crew go ahead, in modified Discoverys, with further cameras mounted in the boot, facing backwards. These same cameras can be unmounted and put on the cameramen’s shoulders for handheld work when required.
Cameraman Ben Joiner says the setup suits the trio’s preferred presenting style. “You can take the same camera that’s rigged in the Disco, go to handheld coverage of, say, a breakdown, and always stay with the performance. It keeps the energy going. The one thing they [the presenters] really hate is if they have to wait for us. That kills the spontaneity.”
There’s no waiting this morning. We drive ahead with the first camera car to the snowline, as one by one the presenters and their cars roar, or in the case of the Rimac, whir, up the hill. The cameramen look for the shots they need – the cars looking beautiful, basically – and then something extra. It might be a piece of atmosphere or colour that “makes it a beautiful show, even if you don’t like cars,” as Joiner puts it. Several of the camera operators find hard to resist a road sign back down the valley that reads ‘Grand Tour.’
The Rimac comes past first – “it’s unsettling, you only hear it when it’s next to you,” says Joiner as he swings his camera round at ankle-level. Then the NSX – louder, a little less refined, like a concept car from the early 90s and then the Lamborghini – loud, throaty, fire-breathing – a true Clarkson of a car.
For a show that can appear to be devil-may-care in its approach, it turns out that The Grand Tour always has one eye on the rules. One pass by Hammond is deemed unusable because he takes a racing line and the Rimac strays onto the wrong side of the road – even though the road is closed. This, they worry, might appear to be endorsing irresponsible driving. Hammond dutifully does it all again.
Then the police turn up, wanting to know who are these men with their cars and their cameras. There’s a language issue but the permits are found. The policemen smile– and start filming the cars on their phones.
With the ‘beauty shots’ done they head to the top of the pass and do ‘the walkaround.’ The cars are polished to a gleam and Clarkson, Hammond and May argue about which is best, and whether or not it matters that the interior leather comes from Bulgaria, or that the name ‘Rimac’ reminds Clarkson of an depilatory cream. Twenty minutes later they have reached a unanimous conclusion, which they happily share with one another: “You are wrong.” “No, you are wrong.” “No, you are.”
All three of the cars have a weakness, however, one that becomes apparent the next day in the narrow streets of old Lucerne. On a clear morning with just the odd wisp of cloud over the lake, it’s not hard to find The Grand Tour team: “Follow the noise.” as one sound engineer says. Sure enough, there in the backstreets sits Clarkson’s Lamborghini, revving furiously, but quite obviously stuck. Then May’s NSX and Hammond’s Rimac get stuck behind it.
Clarkson attempts a three-point turn in a car that’s over two metres wide, in a cobbled street built for horses and carts.
“I told him – it’s just too big,” says May, who can’t move either.
Supercars tend to turn heads anyway – lots of people in Lucerne have been following the noise. But when word gets out that it is The Grand Tour boys a crowd soon gathers. Selfies are requested and given. By the time Clarkson reverses out onto the main road by a bus stop there are more than 100 people pointing and snapping. Three grumpy old-ish men not renowned for their patience turn out to be extremely patient.
“It’s pandemonium,” says producer Gavin Whitehead as the three cars exit the scene. “Which is good.”
Ben Joiner is there all the while with his camera on his shoulder. “I’ve worked with Bear Grylls,” he says. “These guys will stand in the mud all day if they have to. I respect them because they do muck in with the crew.”
Two days in and it’s still not obvious why we’re in Switzerland. Yes, it’s a nice place with some lovely roads and yes, it is the sort of place a tour that describes itself as grand should be touring to. But it turns out there is another reason:
“It’s the only country in Europe that’s got fast charging points,” says Clarkson. “We don’t want to go on like a stuck record going, ‘Oh, you can’t go very far in an electric car,’ but the Rimac is holding us back. I mean that’s just a fact.”
The small town of Kriens, 20 minutes from Lucerne, happens to be home to EVTech, a company that makes superfast electric car charging points. We follow Hammond as he plugs in his Rimac and then… Waits.
Clarkson is impressed, within reason.
“As you’ll see, it takes 40 minutes, which is really quick. It’s just that ‘charging’ a petrol car takes two minutes.”
And so the three of them are forced to do what the crew tell us they least like to do – wait. Which is why we end the day in the Kriens Chess Museum, 15 minutes out of town, with the Lamborghini and the NSX parked outside and the Rimac still back at EVTech. Hammond is showing his co-presenters the recreational delights of Kriens – every single one of them – in order to kill time while his car gets charged up.
“Tomorrow we’re going to the pencil museum,” he declares delightedly to a distinctly undelighted May.
“Even I’m not interested in that.”
“Are you taking us to all of these places because they’re in the the same town and it’s the only town within 40 miles with a fast charging point?” asks Clarkson.
A guilty pause: “Yes.”
And so we end the day at the Verkehrshaus, aka the Swiss Transport Museum, with Hammond showing Clarkson and May some old cars when they’d all much rather be driving some new ones. Needless to say, there is much bickering, joshing and mockery, most of it directed at Hammond.
Is this a low point, I ask Clarkson?
“That comes tonight,” he says. “Hammond’s not only ruined our trip with his ill-conceived planning and choice of car, but we’re staying in… a health farm. They’ll be no drink, nothing that I recognise as food and a lot of people shoving things up our bottoms. We may not have come to an agreement over which is the best car – though of course it’s the Lambo – but we will all have very clean colons.”