“If you like travel and adventure, the most spectacular thing is probably what we did in the desert in California, all beautifully filmed to a Hollywood standard,” James May says with a grin on his face, as he describes the lavish new opening sequence for The Grand Tour. “Then there’s the size of Jeremy’s gut. That is pretty remarkable, when you see it. This is the most expensive show I have ever been involved with, by a long, long way.”
Just like all the millions of Top Gear fans around the world, May was livid when Clarkson got himself sacked by throwing a punch at a producer for not ensuring a hot meal would be served at the end of a very long shoot. The show was taken off air, May feared his career was over and wondered how on earth he was going to pay for his new Ferrari 458 Speciale – he called Clarkson ‘a tosser’ in Event a year ago.
But oh how things have changed. May is now sitting in a pub near his home in Hammersmith with a huge grin on his face, and no wonder. “If you’re a real car-head then the most spectacular thing you’ll see on The Grand Tour has to be the three hybrid supercars that go around the track in the first episode,” he says. “We’ve been trying to get our hands on them for years.”
The launch episode. dubbed “The Holy Trinity” will feature a three-way battle between the McLaren P1, Porsche 918 Spyder and Ferrari LaFerrari to try and find out which one really is best – although in the typical cheeky style we’ve come to expect from Clarkson, Hammond and May. But has anything changed between the boys since we last saw them on air together? “No, I don’t think so,” May says. “I think we still dislike each other just as much as we ever did. All that stuff was long over by the time we started working on this. Our job is to wind each other up anyway. I honestly don’t think it would work without that.”
But while nothing has changed between the boys, there will be some differences between Top Gear and The Grand Tour. There won’t be any Stars In A Reasonably Priced Car, no Cool Wall and they’ll no longer be based at Dunsfold Aerodrome (although they have scored themselves a new airfield to conduct power tests) – in fact they won’t have a static HQ at all, because the lawyers thought that was ‘too Top Gear’. So instead they’re doing the exact opposite, and filming the studio sequences from within a large tent which will travel around the world – all because Clarkson saw a similar tent in the TV series True Detective.
“It’s got a big window on one side so you see the view of wherever we are,” says May. “It flaps in the breeze. The wind picked up and sand and dust came into the tent and we had to pause for a bit while it died down. If it rains it makes a terrible racket. It has a very different feel to it, like the atmosphere of a jazz or a comedy club.”
Top Gear was a huge hit, with 350 million viewers worldwide, but the truth is it was also becoming a parody of itself by the time the BBC sacked Clarkson. The stunts had begun to look tired, the dodgy jokes about foreigners were increasingly causing offence and May felt it was running out of time for other reasons, too. “People said ‘It’s gone too far away from cars’, and maybe it did, in the last series or two,” May says.
So now they have the chance to start again with Amazon, although it took a lot of cash to entice them to make shows that will only be seen online by subscribers, at least at first. “You can see we have not spent it on wardrobe,”’ says May, looking dismissively down at his blue floral shirt.
Instead they have spent it on hiring fighter jets and tanks, absurdly big explosions and state-of-the-art cameras to capture stunning high-definition footage of adventures such as a race across Morocco in three superb lightweight sports cars: the Alfa Romeo 4C Spider, the Mazda MX-5 and the Zenos E10.
While they were filming in secret at exotic locations across the planet, the BBC was attempting to go on without them, with Chris Evans at the helm. James May was watching, so what did he make of it all? “I don’t think it went drastically well. They should reinvent it a little more ruthlessly. There must be another way of making a car show.”