Motoring journalist Ben Griffin watched The Grand Tour. And then watched it again to see if Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May’s new Amazon Prime show is any good.
By now you have probably heard of The Grand Tour. Maybe even watched it, if you happen to have an Amazon Prime or Amazon Instant Video subscription.
The fact is, this is the show where Clarkson, Hammond and May do what they do best – combine cars and banter. And the world has been hugely excited to see what it is all about.
An absolute fortune has been spent to ensure the motoring show picks up where Top Gear left off. Hugely expensive 4K cameras and even more expensive 4K servers, an advertising budget equivalent to the GDP of a small country (probably) – Amazon bossman Jeff Bezos really means business.
Hype does, of course, have a tendency to lead to disappointment. In the case of The Grand Tour, the biggest problem would be ending up feeling too familiar, given that some viewers were tiring of the old ‘scripted’ format (I wasn’t). There was every danger it would become stale. Or crash into the side of a mountain, as Clarkson put it.
But then being too similar to Top Gear would mean a nice call from the Beeb’s legal department for infringing on its copyrighted motoring show format – something Clarkson has admitted to being concerned about.
On the other hand, being too disimilar would be just as dangerous, as Top Gear‘s success was always underpinned by the chemistry between the three middle-aged presenters and their different personalities. A lot of people watched Top Gear for the banter, stupidity and silly pranks. The cars were a bonus. To ditch that element, then, would be foolish.
So as the The Grand Tour started playing on my television, I felt nervous. What if it’s rubbish? What if it taints more than a decade of happy car-based memories? What if its American overlords end up killing what is a quaint and quintessentially British show?
The hilarious ‘P45’ episode, Clarkson constantly tipping over the Reliant Robin on public roads, Captain Slow driving the not-so-slow Bugatti Veyron, Hammond’s triumphant return after a dragster crash that nearly killed him – these are the moments that made Top Gear such a truly memorable show adored by millions.
Luckily it seems executive producer Andy Wilman and the rest of the talented team behind The Grand Tour have created a cinematic masterpiece that seems to tick all the boxes. It’s laddish, it’s got cars for days, it’s beautifully shot and May is still slow.
But was the first episode, a pilot of sorts, actually any good? I drop a fair few spoilers as I attempt to answer that question. You have been warned, folks.
The Good Stuff
Clarkson, Hammond and May are back
Let’s be honest, it feels so natural to see these chaps back on the television. Except this time there is no BBC leash to reign in Clarkson and company. Swear words are fair game, as is talking about drugs and even pleasuring a horse.
If you thought Clarkson was going to hold back, think again, as the insults fly within the first 10 minutes. Nobody is safe, including gypsies, so those of a sensitive disposition should watch something else. Like whatever Channel 4 makes out of that really expensive tent.
That epic intro
Clarkson teased how mental the intro of The Grand Tour was going to be and he was definitely right. At first we see Clarkson leaving the BBC on a gloomy day, the place where he built Top Gear into a global powerhouse and the world’s most watched factual show. It’s a touching moment, it must be said.
He then boards a plane, flies to America and gets into a Fisker-Galpin Rocket Mustang, a bigger, beefier and more brutal version of the standard 2016 Ford Mustang. Because a standard Mustang was never going to be enough for the king of motoring journalists.
Soon he is joined by his co-stars before viewers are treated to a fire-breathing robotic dinosaur and a Mad Max-esque procession of all the many, many vehicles that will feature in the show, culminating in the arrival at the Burning Van concert, where the three presenters are greeted like rock stars.
As a visual spectacle, it is sublime. As a middle-finger to the BBC, it is anything but subtle. Some viewers said they shed a tear, others raved on about just how good it looks. You can tell big money was spent and it was worth it.
The first show was meant to be for petrolheads and that is an accurate summary. Viewers are treated to the ‘Holy Trinity’ showdown – that’s the McLaren P1, Porsche 918 Spyder and Ferrari TheFerrari – ensuring it ticked all the petrolhead boxes. Clarkson always wanted to see which car was best and this is his wish coming true.
There is also a brilliant segment on the BMW M2 (we said it was the best M car in years, Clarkson said it is the best M car ever), which gets taken around the brand new test track (more on that later). Listening to his amusing descriptions as the German car goes very sideways, it’s hard not to grin.
The replacement for Dunsfold circuit in Surrey is a small figure-of-eight-esque circuit that is, quite honestly, a bit dull to look at and unlikely to challenge the Nurburging for complexity. But Clarkson manages to do a wonderful job of jazzing it up, so it makes the good list. Just.
With a very real chance an animal will run out in front of whatever car is being put through its paces and featuring an old lady’s house, the ‘Your Name Here’ advertising corner, uneven tarmac, an electricity plant and some sort of unexploded bomb, the Wroughton-based former RAF base is never short of danger.
Stig’s less tame, more American cousin
The Stig is a BBC thing so he had to stay put, but Clarkson argues a car show should have someone who is able to take the cars to the limit around a track. Which is why The Grand Tour uses American Nascar driver, Mike Skinner (not former Stiggy, Ben Collins).
Some may dislike his brash nature, but anyone who liked the fact the Stig was silent will appreciate a man of few words and one that says a car without a V8 is a form of “communism”.
The celebrity interviews were always hit or miss, depending on whether you liked the star Clarkson was talking to. Luckily in the first episode of The Grand Tour, not one, not two but three of the celebrities end up dying before they get the chance to enter the studio, which is amusing and it frees up more time to focus on the cars.
Rest in peace, Carol Vorderman, Arnie Hammer and Jeremy Renner.
Okay, so no celebrities were able to set a lap time at the Eboladrome because it’s hard to drive when you been bitten to death by a snake. But Skinner was able to go out in various cars to set some benchmark lap times, including the Ferrari 488. Sadly for the BMW M2, it didn’t do that well…
The Bad Stuff
Let’s be honest, no one is going to complain about having three hypercars do battle. It’s just that Chris Harris of Top Gear fame had already driven the same three cars at the same track a long time ago, as well as other YouTubers, so there was something a little unsatisfying about it. To make matters worse, the P1 was said to be the quickest but came last because it was gimped by the wrong tyres. Not an entirely fair test, then.
Too many special effects
The Grand Tour is gloriously pretty, make no mistake, but the effects team went so overboard with the ‘Holy Trinity’ segment it was difficult to see the actual cars doing their thing. We get the fact you have to make cars look fast on film, even those that cost around £1-million, but trying too hard makes it look like you are trying to cover something up.
Just looking at the rear lights of a P1 is enough to get petrolheads hot under the collar – there is no need to overdo it.
Glossing over points
Nobody minds scripted stuff – Top Gear has always thrived on it. But there is a weird bit where the Ferrari “TheFerrari” is supposedly unable to compete in an electric-only drag race, which is technically true but never explains the fact it is an optional extra and does work (only up to 3mph, mind you).
It’s easy to forget the trio are motoring journalists because entertainment comes first, but when making a show for petrolheads the details matter. Given that awesome moment where you can see the car’s hybrid systems in all of their glory through the wonders of CGI, it seems a shame to really dumb down the stuff car geeks will appreciate.
Especially when the intro of The Grand Tour emphasises the fact they all came from motoring journalist backgrounds. Even if they were fired.
As amazing as the intro is, one bit made me cringe. We see Clarkson smiling away as the three Mustangs cruise along towards the tent where The Grand Tour‘s news section and celebrity interviews take place in each country they visit (starting with America).
With Clarkson’s epic smug face in tow, I was expecting some sort of sarcastic joke to finish the scene. Yet a typically British punchline never comes and instead you get this awkward clip of the cast grinning in unconvincing fashion.
Having them drive into each other would have been much more fitting, knowing these are three guys who have made a career out of annoying each other.
The cringey RAF bit
Another slightly rubbish bit happens when Clarkson (correctly) says the RAF is the best air-force in the world. With the first episode filmed in America, the joke is that the audience keeps beating up Clarkson, Hammond and May because they obviously disagree.
Eventually he concedes the RAF is merely “great” after really labouring the point to the point where the dead horse is basically puree. Cue more cringing.
Luckily poking fun at American words for cars (hood versus bonnet, petrol versus gas) makes up for things, even if it has been done before.
Hammond’s facial hair
Yeah, not really sure about the goatee. Especially in high-resolution 4K. Sorry, Richard.
The Grand Tour: How can I watch it?
You can click the following link and then read about how to watch The Grand Tour. And no we aren’t going to mention how to get it any way other than paying for it because piracy, like shoplifting, is very illegal.