In recent years, the motoring elements of Top Gear have taken a back seat to the drama surrounding the presenters.
Things have been turbulent since the 2015 departure of Clarkson, Hammond and May, with relatively short-lived stints for the likes of Chris Evans and Matt LeBlanc.
But producers are hoping they’ve struck gold with the show’s latest signings.
Top Gear’s newest recruits are Andrew “Freddie” Flintoff and Paddy McGuinness – a pairing which took viewers by surprise when it was announced last October.
“When people saw the names, they probably went, ‘hang on, a cricketer and a comedian?'” acknowledges Chris Harris, the show’s professional racing driver and self-proclaimed car geek.
“But why not? If you had three people like me, people would fall asleep. I think we’re a good, broad team, we cover lots of bases.”
By the sounds of it, Take Me Out host McGuinness had good reason to believe he was getting the Top Gear job.
“I actually slept with the commissioner of BBC Two,” he says – immediately proving he has the right sense of humour for the show.
“And that saved me a lot of trouble, a lot of hassle, got it out the way, you’re in.”
Flintoff takes the question slightly more seriously. “I had a screen test,” he explains, “and I was a bit competitive with it, I really wanted it. And the feeling of finding out [I’d got it], I’ve not had that for a long time.”
The show’s core fanbase may feel the new presenter combo doesn’t better the Clarkson era, but judging by the new footage, it’s easily the best since then.
The chemistry between the three is instant. There is a friendly and jovial tone, which cleverly balances the show’s trademark childish humour with serious motoring knowledge.
“There is plenty to build on here,” writes Stuart Heritage in The Guardian. “Finally, after years of flailing about, this new line-up feels right.
“They appear to rely a lot less on scripted material in the field, too, so they feel like actual human beings… Top Gear is fine now, which is a huge improvement on the last five or six years.”
The new trio are working so well that they have already signed up to a second series together. They’ve also been going down well with the live studio audiences – something that clearly means a lot to McGuinness.
“Hearing the cheer when we walked in the room was quite a nice, almost emotional moment really, because you know that everyone’s been talking about it and you feel accepted,” he says.
“And then when the show finished, and then you get an even bigger cheer. For literally two or three days after the first recording I was on cloud nine. Because even though I said I didn’t feel any pressure, I must have done somewhere deep inside because I felt elated and like there was a weight off my shoulders.”
Flintoff agrees: “There’s this responsibility, but I found in my career playing cricket that if I put pressure on myself I can’t do my job.”
To be a Top Gear presenter, points out Harris, “you need some basic skills”.
“You need to be able to talk and drive at the same time – we’ve had presenters in the past that couldn’t do that, it’s a bit of a problem.”
(We hope you’ve got a damp cloth nearby for that burn.)
“Presenters have to come with a base level of car knowledge and car love you can’t fake that. And these two love their cars, they’re modest about their car knowledge but they know a lot more than they let on.”
Top Gear’s viewing figures might not make it a BBC hit on the same level as something like Strictly – but it still ranks as one of BBC Two’s most popular shows. And, perhaps most importantly, it’s one of the corporation’s biggest hits overseas.
The show has an estimated global audience of 350 million and it makes millions of pounds in merchandise, which helps fund other areas of the BBC.
Top Gear turns its hosts into A-list celebrities in territories they may never have visited before – something which surprised McGuinness.
“It was interesting in Ethiopia seeing some of the locals asking Chris Harris for his autograph – that amused me,” he recalls.
The show certainly made international stars of its previous trio, Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May, who now front The Grand Tour for Amazon.
“I bumped into Richard Hammond at the Pride of Britain Awards,” McGuinness recalls. “And, he was like ‘good luck with [Top Gear], I think you’ll do an amazing job’. And, I thought, fair play to him, that’s nice to hear.”
Given that two northerners are now fronting the show, however, there’s a further potential difficulty when selling the show internationally – the accents.
Cheryl was famously axed from the US X factor in part because American fans reportedly struggled to decipher her Geordie accent. Could McGuinness and Flintoff be in trouble for the same reason?
“Well, I know they’ll struggle a little bit,” McGuinness says. “When Fox took Take Me Out to America, the exec of the show said she was in this office in LA with all the execs from Fox TV, watching me on the telly – subtitled!
“So she thought, ‘well, they’re obviously not going to ask him’ [to present the US version]. So yeah, there is that.”
But, Flintoff interjects to tell McGuinness, “Your accent is strong, but it’s clear.
“I’ve worked in Australia for five years presenting stuff from current affairs shows to Ninja Warrior,” Flintoff continues. “And they did subtitle me to begin with, but only as a joke.”
The only previous guest presenter to be rejoining the trio this series is Sabine Schmitz – the German racing driver and long-time friend of the show.
But despite the rest of the series mostly being fronted by three men, they’re keen to stress they want it to appeal to all viewers, and say it won’t be too blokey.
“I think people have that opinion just because it’s about cars,” McGuinness says. “If three of us were doing any other show, I don’t think there’d be that much of a fuss to be honest.
Harris jumps in: “We’ve got Fred as well, he’s eye candy, the ladies love him!”
McGuinness continues: “With the other shows, especially that me and Fred do, the demographic is so broad, and you’ve seen how we are, it’s not all ‘let’s pull each other’s pants down on camera’, it’s a bit more than that.”
Sometimes, of course, the trio do revert back to just childish fun – something that will delight long-term fans of the show.
“Paddy caused a pile-on yesterday,” says Harris, “I don’t know what he was thinking of, so I had 20 total strangers lying on my head, and I felt a sharp pain in my buttocks and Fred was biting my bum.
“So you know we’re in a good place where it should just be a laugh.”