The tank has been topped up. The brakes have been checked. There's an empty space on the wall of the BBC production office (literally a portakabin next to the test track) that might once have held a picture of Clarkson and co.
Top Gear is set to return to BBC 2 on 29 May, lacking the familiar faces that propelled it from a pedestiran motoring programme into one of the must lucrative assets in the BBC’s arsenal. Ever since Chris Evans was announced as the man tasked with taking the wheel, his every move has been subject of exacting analysis: is he getting on with Matt LeBlanc? Will he be up to presenting whilst driving? Can he hold his busy schedule together?
Days before the new-look show takes to the air in more countries than we thought probable, ShortList.com visited the show's studios to see how Evans et al have been getting on.
It's the same, but different
From the studio to the air field to the Stig, the new Top Gear has made a concerted effort to stay true to its identity: just because there are new faces behind the windscreen doesn't mean it needs a new sofa and a new logo.
Subtle changes have been made to knock the dust off the format: there's a new track route through which the celeb guests will drive their new rallycross car, there's the new Extra Gear behind-the-scenes show that sees Rory Reid supplement main episodes with extra (the clue is in the name) footage and interviews – but beyond that the team hasn't mucked about with anything. There'll still be a celeb interview, a slot for incredible new cars and race-against-time specials. It's a case of old car, new smell.
It’s a very different set of personalities
The six-strong (seven, if you include the chap in all-white) presenting team raised some confused brows when it was finally unveiled (including ours), but this is how it will work: Evans and LeBlanc lead the show, taking on the bulk of the celebrity interviews and 'special' adventure episodes. The remaining four presenters are drafted in when their 'specialist' role is right for the required episode: Chris Harris is all about the fast exotics (Ferrari's, that kind of thing), Sabine Schmitz is a racing specialists who could be even quicker than the Stig, Rory Reid will join some trips but seems largely busy with Extra Gear, and Eddie Jordan will lend some blunt, acerbic insights from the world of professional racing.
You shouldn't expect to see the same faces week in, week out; it's a format that might confuse long-term viewers who enjoyed switching on to the same three faces of previous seasons, but we're betting this new line-up will attract a different audience - one that found the xenophobia and old-man gags a bit tired.
It's the same Stig
The mute driving machine returns, clad in those familiar white overalls (they've probably had a wash, mind) and helmet.
He is, in fact, the only remaining member of the 'original' Top Gear band – apparently shunning any move to Amazon. Having shared the small cockpit of the Ariel Nomad (a car that'll feature heavily in the first episode) with him for a series of hot laps of the Top Gear track, we an attest that he’s very, very good at making a car go sideways quickly.
Another of those aspects maintained from the Clarkson era is the variety of cars in the garage: from the sublime to the ridiculous.
The first episode will feature a smattering of both – a Top Gun-style show down involving Dodge Vipers contrasted by a 'Special Relationship' face-off that sees Evans and LeBlanc perform all manner of impractical driving tasks in tweaked Reliant Rialtos. The cars are still the stars.
They're aware of the Grand Tour, but they aren't aiming to 'beat' it
"It hasn't interfered with what we've been doing at all," explains new presenter Chris Harris. "I obviously pay attention to it – Richard and James are good mates of mine, we're all from a motoring journalist background. I can go and have a beer with them and laugh about the fact that we're doing what we're doing."
Eddie Irvine provided sentiment: "I'm a huge fan [of Clarkson]... I know there's a willingness in this show not to focus on them. I think this [new Top Gear] will be a very different show. I think this show will be more successful to a wider audience. The atmosphere and the coming together on this... I believe there's better team work here."
Matt LeBlanc was actually the last presenter added to the line up
Chris Evans revealed the order in which he assembled his presenting team: Chris Harris, Sabine Schmitz, Rory Reid and Eddie Jordan (apparently "no one has ever seen the real Eddie Jordan", which you can expect to discover in the new season).
"As far as Matt [LeBlanc] was concerned," explained Chris, "we were waiting and waiting – and we just let the story sort of develop by itself. Do we get three presenters, do we get two, do we get five – basically all I did was get in employ people I knew we needed to make the show. I wanted this squad system... but I did need a proper wing man. Matt's name was suggested not by me, but someone else." It was seeing LeBlanc's inclusion in an episode of the US Top Gear show that he was compelled to consider him seriously. "I just got it. He loves cars, he can take an engine apart and put it back together almost blindfolded. When we were in Nevada making one of our first films, Sebine and myself, we sent someone to LA to try and do a deal. And that's how we came about."
These are your 'reasonably priced car' replacements
While unconfirmed on the day, there was a fair amount of chatter going on that would indicate that theses nimble Mini Coopers were the new rallycross cars that would be replacing the 'star in a reasonably priced car' segment of old. We weren't able to see the new track route, but there have been rumours of mud, jumps and water.
Everything in the old aircraft hanger that acts as the show's base is almost identical to the last season: the sofa, chair and coffee table are the same upcycled scraps of car; the vast Stig posters, the ramshackle cluster of motors in the corner. We're glad they didn't try anything too different.
It's not all glam
From the portakabin acting as a main production office, to the VIP portaloos, while Top Gear brings in more money for the BBC than any other programme, it would appear none of that goes to furnishing the show's many hosts with a plush green room and sauna.
The food didn't make us want to punch anyone
The lunch the BBC served us was lovely actually - an impressive spread of cold meats, sandwiches, pastries, fruit, coffee, fish... we've no idea why anyone would lose their rag over.