Following the announcement of Top Gear’s newest presenting team this week, we thought we’d take a look back across nearly 200 episodes of the world’s biggest motoring program to pick out some of the biggest moments and features of the show’s history. No, not the best. The biggest. Here’s what we came up with.
- Check out the original post on driving.ca HERE
1. Michael Schumacher is The Stig
Deep, DEEP down, each of us knew this segment was completely tongue-in-cheek, fuelled only by weeks of media speculation regarding the tame racing driver’s secret identity. But for a few tantalising moments, we just didn’t know: was Top Gear about to lift the veil on, arguably, its most definitive on-screen character?
Audience investment was through the roof as Clarkson encouraged The Stig to remove his famous white helmet, the resulting “Off, Off, Off…” chant from the audience sending shivers down the spine of TV viewers around the world. Said investment quickly turned into thunderous applause as The Stig was ‘revealed’ to be none other than seven-time Formula 1 World Champion, Michael Schumacher.
Seriously, just listen to the audience erupt. There had never, and probably will never, be a response like it on the show ever again.
2. The Bugatti Veyron is NOT the fastest car around the Top Gear test track
For three years, the Top Gear crew speculated that, if handed the keys to the 407kph Bugatti Veyron, The Sig could – or, indeed, would – set a new fastest ever lap for production cars around the TG test track. For three years, the call went unanswered from VW’s big bosses until, halfway through Season 12, Bugatti finally relented, and the most powerful production car in the world – the 1000-hp technical showcase that had already been maxxed at VW’s Ehra-Lessien test facility and beaten James May’s Cessna 182 in a race across Europe – was unleashed to beat the Gumpert Apollo’s 1m 17.1s benchmark.
Not only did the Veyron not beat the Gumpert, its 1m 18.3s laptime wasn’t even enough for a top three place on the Power Board, much to both Clarkson and audience members’ collective astonishment. Moments later, and in another slap to the face, the Bugatti was relegated another spot to fifth as the Pagani Zonda Clubsport Roadster went round half a second faster.
3. Richard Hammond returns after his Vampire dragster crash
On 20 September 2006, Richard Hammond suffered a severe crash at the former RAF Elvington airfield in the UK when the jet-powered Vampire Dragster he was driving suffered a puncture at 595.5kph and barrel-rolled its way down the drag strip. Hammond, now a passenger, suffered a “significant brain injury” in the aftermath, leaving many to wonder a) whether the popular presenter would make a full recovery, and, slightly perversely, b) whether Top Gear would continue without him.
Miraculously, by late December, Hammond was already back on television – an interview slot on the Jonathan Ross show – and by 2007, although still several years away from a full recovery, ‘the Hamster’ made his return to the Top Gear studio amidst a sea of audience cheers and applause. Footage of the accident, including commentary from Hammond himself, showed just how differently things could have been.
Just how big was this moment? It marked the first time in 75 episodes that TG was seen by more than eight million viewers in the UK, and this hallowed benchmark 8.13m benchmark would be bettered only once across the 25 seasons run to-date.
4. A new era
Season 23, episode 1. After 14 years and 178 episodes, a new series of Top Gear was about to air with a brand new team of presenters following the much-publicised firing of Jeremy Clarkson and the subsequent walkout from the BBC by both Richard Hammond and James May.
To make the almost vertical pressure even worse, the successors set to take over Clarkson’s ‘baby’ – Chris Evans and Matt LeBlanc – were met with several hundred-thousand raised eyebrows when they were first announced, and news that Clarkson, Hammond and May would debut The Grand Tour just four months later meant TG’s new era HAD to start with a bang. Re-treading old ground wouldn’t cut it this time. The BBC needed to do something fresh.
It didn’t. The choice of cars was impressive – an Ariel Nomad, the Corvette Z06 and the Dodge Viper ACR – and the set got a few new coats of paint, but the chemistry between Evans and LeBlanc fell flat, the episode layout was cookie cutter ad nauseam, and Evans’ hyperactive ‘ADHD-patient-that’s-lost-his-amphetamine-prescription’ presenting style grew exhausting VERY quickly. 6.42m households in the UK tuned in to watch TG’s biggest shake-up in more than a decade. By season’s end, two-thirds had already bailed, Evans doing likewise after just six episodes. The golden era was over.
5. The first US Special
The first Top Gear episode of the new generation to feature just one extended ‘holiday’ film, episode three of season nine has since became one of the most infamous in the show’s history. Challenged to buy cars for less than $1000 for a road trip across North America, Clarkson, Hammond and May’s traditional “cocking about” broke new ground when the trio accepted a challenge to decorate each others’ beaters with, let’s say, ‘questionable’ liveries in deeply Christian and Republican Alabama. It didn’t go well.
Hubris disappeared almost immediately as the convoy pulled into a petrol station, ‘Hillary for President’ and ‘NASCAR sucks’ pissing off the proprietor and customers so much that the film crew was deluged by rocks as they made a swift departure. But that wasn’t the end of it. Trucks in the petrol station were quickly back on TG’s tail, and filming was almost entirely forgotten as the slogans were prematurely removed with t-shirts and bottles of Coca Cola on the side of the highway. Fittingly, the convoy’s run for the border was accompanied by almost biblical amounts of rain: “is this God punishing us?” asked a visibly shaken Clarkson.
For the first time in the show’s history, the consequences of TG’s actions had been violently demonstrated.
6. Mark Webber is the first (current) F1 star in a reasonably priced car
If anything demonstrated the heights new Top Gear had hit by mid-2005, it was the penultimate episode of season six, which saw the first current Formula 1 driver – Williams’ Mark Webber – take the Suzuki Liana for a lap of the TG test track.
Fair enough, just weeks earlier, 1996 F1 World Champion Damon Hill had been in the pound seat, and, as a Brit, the temptation to place then-rookie Lewis Hamilton or then-reigning champion Jenson Button in this slot was immense. Ultimately though, 29-year-old Webber gets the nod. This was a rising star, complete with team jacket and sponsorship logos, keen to showcase both his character and his speed away from the F1 spotlight, and also, crucially, one of 14 drivers ordered not to take the start of the farcical 2005 United States Grand Prix just one month earlier. More than ever, F1 badly needed some positive PR. He delivered.
Though we didn’t know it at the time, this interview effectively opened the F1 floodgates, and over the next 10 years, TG would welcome Jenson Button, Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel, Kimi Raikkonen and Rubens Barrichello, the TG F1 driver lap record now an accolade to fight for. They had Mark Webber to thank for that.
- Italian supercars for less than £10,000
While this was far from the first ‘Cheap Car’ challenge the Top Gear crew had undertaken, the days of £100 Volvos and £1,500 Porsches were gone as Clarkson, Hammond and May set out to see just how feasible maintaining budget supercars really was. Long story short, it wasn’t, as myriad electrical and powertrain issues plagued all three presenters on their drive across the belt-line of Britain.
Entertaining? Absolutely, but significant in several different ways as well. TG’s third ‘Cheap Car’ challenge was only the second time an episode had been formatted around the two-part film. Various reliability issues and the presenter’s impulse reactions demonstrated the trio’s innate chemistry even more than their studio to-and-fros. But more importantly, the sheer amount of money being thrown at the hero cars and the production would ultimately open the floodgates for more extravagant Cheap Car Challenges, and set a trend for what TG would later come to represent.
8. Patagonia Special
2014 was not a good year for Top Gear. Actually, scratch that, it was a stupidly good year, with an average viewership of 6.5m households in the UK alone raking in Lord only knows what kind of revenue. In terms of controversy though, rarely had TG grabbed so many international headlines. In March, Clarkson was railed for using an allegedly racist slur during the Burma Special, and two months later, was reported (falsely) to have used the ‘N-word’ under his breath whilst filming.
Patagonia though hit an entirely different level as Clarkson, Hammond and May took three V8 sports cars 2,250km across Argentina. Three British loud mouths a stone’s throw from the Falkland Islands. What could possibly go wrong?
Everything. The number plate on Clarkson’s Porsche 928 GT – H982 FKL – was deemed “malicious mockery” and a ‘subtle’ reference to the ’82 Falklands War by the Argentine ambassador. Things got so heated in fact that hundreds of protesters cornered the TG presenters in their hotel, and the film crew was forced to flee into Chile under a barrage of rocks.
At a time when audiences had grown used to/moderately bored by TG’s “cocking about” and ‘fakery’, the chaos born from genuine vigilante anger, and the subsequent media coverage, meant absolutely nobody was going to miss, what would turn out to be, Clarkson, Hammond and May’s final Christmas Special.