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Changing gear

The story of Top Gear has had more twists and created more whining than the BBC motoring show’s famous Dunsfold Aerodrome test track in recent years.

Matt LeBlanc, best known for playing dimwitted ladies’ man Joey Tribbiani in Friends, was the star name brought in to present the show with Chris Evans 12 months ago after the sacking of Jeremy Clarkson and subsequent resignation of his partners in crime, Richard Hammond and James May.

But it was car-crash TV.

Ratings dived and the critics panned the revamp, turning most of their fire on the hyperactive Evans who resigned at the end of the run.

LeBlanc emerged with more positive reviews, though, and he is back for a second crack at a franchise which is sold to about 200 countries. Joining him as presenters are the unheralded Rory Reid and Chris Harris, who impressed in bit-part roles last time, as Top Gear goes back to the familiar set-up of three men talking about cars and going on road trips.

“It’s interesting because Chris, Rory and I spent a lot of time together last year, just socially as friends because they were on the show. So we all get along really well,” LeBlanc says over the phone from a truck next to the test track.

“And here we are presenting the show together. It feels like we’re old friends, the chemistry between the three of us is there.

“Chris brings a level of knowledge of cars, and he’s a professional racing driver, so I think his evaluation validates whatever car he’s in. He’s got a great sense of humour and he’s extremely smart.

“And I think Rory represents that annoying younger brother that always wants to be invited along, and you don’t really want to bring him but mum and dad say you have to. But he’s fun to hang out with. He is the translator that puts some of the technical stuff into more layman’s terms — the visceral feel of things without all the technobabble Chris or myself tend to inject into a piece.”

It’s the morning after a night of filming the first show, which LeBlanc claims “went really great, the reception from the audience seemed to be good . . . there were a lot of laughs, it was funny”. Sure enough, the new season debuted to a positive reaction and ratings in Britain just over a week ago and it starts here on BBC Knowledge today.

In it Harris tests the Ferrari FXX K hypercar in Florida, the trio race across Kazakhstan in high-mileage cars which have travelled the equivalent of going to the Moon and back, and Scottish actor James McAvoy is the Star in a Reasonably Priced Car.

Top trio: Chris Harris, Matt LeBlanc, Rory Reid
Top trio: Chris Harris, Matt LeBlanc, Rory Reid

“James was really funny, he’s a good guy,” LeBlanc says. “The celebrity will be more involved in the show this year, more part of the team. They’ll sit and do the news with us and do some links in and out of cars, and give their opinion on some of the cars we have in the studio, be more of one of the boys, if they’re willing.

“Yeah, we’ve got some great cars on the show this year. We have the Aston DB11, we have the Fiat 124 Spider, we have the Alfa Giulietta Quadrifoglio, we have the 718 Cayman Porsche, a Russian vehicle called the Avtoros Shaman, we have the Ferrari FXX K, we have a Lamborghini. The list goes on and on. We even made a boat out of a minivan.”

Top Gear “gets around” this time, with visits to Cuba, Las Vegas, Monaco, the Isle of Man, Montenegro and Monterey, where LeBlanc tries his favourite car of the season, the Ford GT. He admits he enjoyed Clarkson and Co’s new show The Grand Tour, which is streamed on Amazon Prime and says he has learnt lessons from the first season as a presenter.

“One thing I’ve learnt is the faster you drive, the harder it is to talk to the camera in the car. I tend to drive slightly slower when I have big blocks of dialogue and I’m reviewing the car, because the faster I go I tend to give like really short responses, and I’m not very descriptive because I’m worried about crashing.”

It’s the start of a busy year for LeBlanc. The final season of his UK-US comedy Episodes airs in the British summer, there’s Top Gear and there’s also his new CBS sitcom Man With a Plan, which is coming to Ten.

“Man With a Plan is going good,” he says. “They’ve rounded out the first season by ordering the full 22 episodes and the ratings are good, and I hope it does well in Australia too.

“We’re still in production on it, so I’m shooting that and Top Gear at the same time — back and forth to the States. That’s been the source of the bags under my eyes.”

Last year’s Top Gear relaunch was marred by reports of the presenters falling out, the BBC apologising after LeBlanc and rally driver Ken Block were filmed doing doughnuts next to London’s Cenotaph war memorial, and bullying claims against Evans. This time round feels different to the 49-year-old LeBlanc.

“We’ve just gotten started so we’ll see what happens but I got a little turned off by it all last year, so I tend not to pay too much attention to it anymore,” he says.

“People are going to say whatever they want to say, my job is to do the best job I can and leave it at that.

“You can’t please all of the people all of the time and sometimes the press have an agenda, sometimes they don’t. I don’t know, there was a lot of mistruths printed last year.”

Whatever happens, there will always be the Stig.

“Oh yeah, it wouldn’t be Top Gear without the Stig,” LeBlanc says.

“He’s the one constant. It’s really his show.”

Top Gear airs today (Monday) at 5.30pm on pay-TV channel BBC Knowledge.

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