Matt LeBlanc, Top Gear's new co-host, not worried about pressure to perform

The first challenge for Matt LeBlanc (left) and Chris Evans is a battle between Britain and the United States in three-wheelers.
The first challenge for Matt LeBlanc (left) and Chris Evans is a battle between Britain and the United States in three-wheelers.PHOTO: BBC
Race car driver Sabine Schmitz is a supporting presenter, making the show less male-oriented.
Race car driver Sabine Schmitz is a supporting presenter, making the show less male-oriented.PHOTO: BBC
Chris Evans (above) passed his driving test after three lessons while Matt LeBlanc made it the first time driving in the snow.
Chris Evans (above) passed his driving test after three lessons while Matt LeBlanc made it the first time driving in the snow.PHOTO: BBC
Chris Evans passed his driving test after three lessons while Matt LeBlanc (above) made it the first time driving in the snow.
Chris Evans passed his driving test after three lessons while Matt LeBlanc (above) made it the first time driving in the snow.PHOTO: BBC

Chris Evans, new presenter of the popular motoring show, brings with him American actor Matt LeBlanc as co-host

Former Manchester United football star David Beckham's favourite car is a Land Rover Defender. His second favourite is a 1976 Aston Martin Vantage, followed by the Audi RS 6. So says Chris Evans, the new lead presenter of the television motoring show Top Gear.

"I want Beckham on the show," says Evans, who recently met the celebrity to discuss a potential appearance. "He loves his cars. We asked him for his three favourite cars and at No. 1, he put a Defender. That was the perfect answer - he's owned all the most glamorous supercars in the world and yet he chose a Defender. What a great guy."

Celebrity has for a long time played a part in the Top Gear offering. The show launched way back in 1977, although it rose to international prominence when it was rebooted in 2002.

Under the guidance of former main man Jeremy Clarkson, it went to become one of the BBC's most prominent programmes with popular segments such as Star In A Reasonably Priced Car, in which celebrities raced around a track in a rather unglamorous vehicle.

Such was the show's popularity that it emerged as a major BBC export, broadcast in 214 different countries by the end of 2014, while several local versions of the show were produced under licence from BBC Worldwide.

Disaster struck last year, however, when the show was axed following allegations that Clarkson had verbally and physically abused a producer over a catering dispute.

The BBC suspended Clarkson before he was dismissed in late March last year.

Yet, given Top Gear's contribution to BBC coffers, its suspension was going to be short- lived.

Evans, 55, a British radio and TV presenter and producer, was named the show's new host in June last year.

American actor Matt LeBlanc, who is best known as Joey from the defunct popular sitcom Friends, was named his co-host in February, adding an extra layer of celebrity.

"It was my decision to choose Matt," says Evans, who made his name presenting British television shows The Big Breakfast, Don't Forget Your Toothbrush and TFI Friday back in the 1990s.

"I knew Matt may be available and I had seen him doing other things with cars in America. I'd always been a huge fan of Friends and I saw him on Top Gear."

LeBlanc appeared on the show in 2012 and 2013, excelling in the Star In A Reasonably Priced Car segment.

"Matt's an international star and this is an international show," says Evans. "It's a big brand. Matt is known around the world and I am not. That's a fact. Matt adds heat."

In fact, LeBlanc, 48, brings so much heat that Evans was cut from the American trailer for the new show, which focused entirely on the actor.

What's more, LeBlanc's A-list contacts are already paying off.

He tells The Straits Times: "I just flew back to LA and Cate Blanchett was on the flight. She said, 'Is it true you're the new host of Top Gear? Can I be on the show? I love driving fast. Can I go around the race course?'"

The new show features a new course for the Reasonably Priced Car segment with two off-road sections, including a jump. "I told her there was a jump," says LeBlanc, "but she still said she was up for it."

With Blanchett and other women expressing interest in the show, LeBlanc suggests that the new Top Gear has a unisex appeal. When fronted by Clarkson, it was often criticised for its male-orientated and sometimes slightly puerile tone. The producers have already added female racing driver Sabine Schmitz to the roster of supporting presenters and she appears in the new show's opening segment, which heads to the United States Air Force Top Gun training facility in the Nevada desert.

There the presenters engage in an on-track dogfight, Evans in the new Dodge Viper ACR battling Schmitz, who is driving a Chevrolet Corvette Z06. It is all good fun, maintaining the Top Gear tradition for informative reviews backed up by rollicking good laughs.

LeBlanc says: "Hopefully, it's a show for everyone. The cars are the stars of the show and we travel around a lot so it's a bit of a travel show as well."

While Evans and Schmitz head to Nevada, the new show sends LeBlanc to the deserts of Morocco where he tests a superlight offroader, the Nomad. "We get to experience a bit of culture from around the world," LeBlanc says.

"We go to far-flung places and watching the show is like being able to travel from the comfort of your couch. That's got a unisex appeal."

He did not care so much about the vaccination he needed for exotic travel. "The hard bit for me is getting all the jabs and shots. They're like, 'You need typhoid and hepatitis (shots),' I'm always being jabbed with needles. I thought this was going to be fun."

Fun is still the name of the game, of course, and LeBlanc says his Friends experience came in useful for Top Gear: "The rule for us on Friends was that low-hanging fruit was off-limits. Fruit being the metaphor for the joke. And if you do pick the obvious fruit, you've got to do it in a way that's creative. That's always the challenge and that's what we try and do on Top Gear."

While he says that the show has turned him into something of an Anglophile, he is quick to add: "I'm not here to make it less of a British show. I don't want to inject it with apple pie and hotdogs. I understand it's a British show with an international appeal."

That is evident in the new season's first episode. LeBlanc and Evans leave BBC headquarters in central London in two roofless Reliant Rialto three-wheelers, one painted with the Union Jack, the other with the Stars and Stripes.

This is Britain versus the United States in a country-long race with silly cars as they head towards the seaside town of Blackpool.

Unfortunately for LeBlanc, his Rialto breaks down and the actor spends the next 12 hours on the back of a pickup with flashing amber lights.

"It was torture," he says of the experience. "Especially with those lights flashing in my eyes all the way."

Referring to the Rialto, he adds: "I was like, 'This piece of s**t!' (But) I appreciated the humour in the situation. I'm the first guy to tell a joke at a funeral. I don't like it when things get too serious. I think they brought me in for the comic element."

Does he feel any pressure to perform, given the show's international currency?

"No," he says with a smile.

"The biggest nervous moment for me was having to do a burnout in a Mustang with all these people watching. I didn't want to lose control and run anyone over.

"At the end of the day, it's a TV show, it's not the cure for cancer. We're making a TV show about cars, having a few laughs. That's how it was with Friends. We hope people will be entertained."

•Top Gear Series 23 premieres on SuperSports 2 (StarHub TV Channel 202) today at 8pm and on SuperSports Arena (StarHub TV Channel 112/205) at 7pm. Subsequent episodes will air every Wednesday only on SuperSports 2.

Life behind the wheel

Top Gear presenters Matt LeBlanc and Chris Evans on being behind the wheel.

Do you recall the first time you drove a car?

Matt LeBlanc: I was in Florida. It was a 1974 Datsun pickup truck, stick shift. My dad taught me to drive in it when I was 12 years old. We drove on the road a little bit. That was a little bit illegal.

Chris Evans: Mine was a Mini. I was 16 years old. It was my first car and I'll never forget it. It was really sentimental because my mum bought it for me. She was a widow and she had no money, but she went into debt for the first time. I kept it for as long as I could and then the floor fell out. There was more water inside than outside the Mini whenever it rained.

What was the first car you owned, Matt?

LeBlanc: My first car was a 1984 Nissan pickup truck that my dad gave me so I had a new car to drive to high school. My friends had second-hand cars that they were working on in their garages. Nothing ever broke on mine. It ran great and I was p****d off about that. I sold it and bought a 1978 Chevy Blazer that had big mud tyres because it was something I could work on. What a mistake that was. That thing broke down all the time.

Evans: I have never heard of someone selling a car because it was too good for them. That's crazy!

How did each of you find your driving tests?

Evans: I had three lessons and passed.

LeBlanc: I made it the first time in the snow in my stepfather's rusted AMC Javelin. You could see the road through the pedal box, it was so rusted. It had a wooden block screwed to the gas pedal because my mum is quite short. I had to parallel park on a hill. The car slipped, but I didn't hit anything and the instructor was like, "Very nice".

Have either of you been victims of road rage?

Evans: I have a different sort of story. I was stuck in traffic on the carriageway and there's been somebody filtering in from the outside lane, so traffic is slow. Then the person in the outside lane spots me and waves. I move forward because my lane starts to flow. They automatically think that their lane is starting to flow and they drive straight into the car in front. That has happened to me twice.

LeBlanc: I've had something similar when working on Friends in Season 2. I was driving and it was bumper-to-bumper traffic. Then I spot a girl in the car next to me. I have my car windows darkened so you can't see me. But I see that she is rocking out. I put my window down so I can hear what she is listening to and it is the Friends theme song.

She sees me and goes, "Oh, my God", and takes her foot off the brake. She then smashes into the car in front. I don't know what to do. So I put the window up and pretend I am not looking at her.

Will Lawrence

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 01, 2016, with the headline 'Top Gear back with new hosts'. Print Edition | Subscribe