The first show in the new season of The Grand Tour demonstrates just how far Jeremy Clarkson has evolved when it comes to electric cars. Once an arch-skeptic on the new technology, Clarkson was utterly wowed by the acceleration of a battery-powered Rimac supercar. “I’ve never seen anything move as quickly as that,” he says into the camera, clearly stunned. “Not in number plates.”
When it comes to electric car supremo Elon Musk, however, the antipathy is still very much alive.
Musk launched a libel lawsuit after a 2008 edition of Top Gear on the BBC showed Tesla electric cars running out of power on the race track and suffering brake failure. The California tech entrepreneur claimed that Top Gear had faked those scenes. He lost the libel case but continued to attack Clarkson and his team claiming their shows were more about “entertainment” than the “truth.”
“He sued me and lost, he appealed and lost. You go online and you read that we ‘made it up,’ that we ‘faked it’…We didn’t,” Clarkson told The Daily Beast. “You see, if anybody is going to get sued, I mean you can't say that sort of thing. I could say all sorts of things about Musk but I won’t.
“Musk doesn’t like losing. Unfortunately he did twice…He’s just got sour grapes.”
Clarkson was fired by the BBC after a fracas with one of Top Gear’s producers; he is now promoting a second season of The Grand Tour, a similar motoring show that is financed and streamed by Amazon, which began on Friday.
“I actually reviewed the new Tesla in the new show and in many ways, it’s tremendous,” Clarkson said. “I’ve got no ax to grind. He’s the only one who ever behaved in such a petulant way—most industry bosses are a lot more grown up.”
It is not the Tesla that features in the first show of the new season named “Past, Present or Future,” but a Croatian creation: the Rimac Concept One. In a straight road race against a hybrid Honda supercar and an old-fashioned gas-guzzling Lamborghini, the electric Rimac proves to have vastly superior acceleration.
Richard Hammond, the youngest of the presenting trio, is in the driving seat of the electric car. In a second race—an uphill slalom though the Swiss mountains—Hammond spins out of control doing 120 miles per hour into a bend and the car ricochets down a hill and bursts into flames.
“As Hammond found to his cost—some of the electric cars are really, really fast,” Clarkson explained.
The crash could easily have proved fatal: Hammond’s left leg was shattered and he was temporarily trapped inside before the $2.5 million supercar was engulfed in flames. Rescue workers freed him from the wreckage and he was helivaced off the mountain.
In the show, of course, Clarkson and third presenter James May simply joke about Hammond’s propensity to get into disastrous accidents—he was in a coma for two weeks after a previous crash.
“Hammond’s accident was extremely serious for about five minutes, and then not quite so serious,” said Clarkson. “If we were a schmaltzy show with a dying dog on it then yeah, we’d all be in tears and ‘Are you alright?’ and getting him crutches and a wheelchair and making him a cup of tea—but we’re not that show. We’re an unusual show in that we just carry on. We’re not like the U.S. Marines, we do leave a man in the field.”
Clarkson revealed in The Sunday Times last month that he was almost involved in his own high-tech vehicle accident. He described what happened for the first time to The Daily Beast.
He was in a semi-autonomous car driving along the M4 motorway in South West England. “The idea is that it checks its surroundings before changing lanes on the motorway,” he said. “But twice it failed to spot a much faster car coming up on the outside lane and half pulled out nearly causing a massive accident. And then when it realizes it’s done it, it just shuts its systems down and says, right you’re back in control now, ‘Oh, that’s brilliant!’”
“If you could show me a robot that can make a sandwich then I might think we’re on the way to a driverless car but they haven’t yet and that’s a relatively simple thing. Negotiating a city ring road or getting from one side of Manhattan to the other when they haven’t even built a robot that can make a sandwich or climb a flight of stairs or open a door? We’re a long way off driverless cars—a long, long way off,” he said. “Maybe 50 years from now? I won’t be alive—so it doesn’t bother me because I’ll never have one.”
There is undoubtedly a flurry of technological breakthroughs right now, and Clarkson fears it may be a sign of imminent collapse in the automobile industry.
“There’s no question that there’s a supernova thing going on,” he said. “Legislation which is driving market forces is causing the car industry to change. It is sort of burning more brightly, like a sun does before it dies. It’s burning more brightly than it ever has before, we’ve got 400 horsepower hot hatchbacks coming along, 1100 horsepower supercars. It’s just nuts how exciting cars have become in the last year or so—I think in two or three years, large, large numbers of them will be electric and that’ll make them even faster actually because there’s an unbelievable amount of power from batteries, as Tesla is demonstrating.”
While these new technologies are explored in the show, there is always plenty for the traditionalists to revel in. Clarkson, Hammond, May, executive producer Andy Wilman and the production team they brought from Top Gear are responsible for shaping the series with no input from Amazon.
Not much has changed from the BBC incarnation—although the British broadcaster retained the rights to the popular individual features like “Stars in Reasonably Priced Cars,” forcing them to invent replacement features. Some of those, including a test driver known as “The American,” were ditched after the first season of The Grand Tour. A pointless segment that “killed off” celebrities before they reached the studio was also scrapped—as Hammond explains in the first episode of the new season—“because you all hated it!”
Instead, we have a return to the celebrity racing format, tweaked to be sufficiently different from the original in the eyes of the law. Now we see who is fastest from a given field of entertainment. In the first week that was: reality show judges. There was a time trial between a judge from the British version of The Voice, Ricky Wilson, and David Hasselhoff, who appeared on America’s Got Talent among many other things. Hasselhoff warned that he was just very talented at acting like a good driver, which proved to be an accurate prophecy as he struggled around the race track.
It’s clear that winning over a bigger American audience is more of a concern since the team took the Jeff Bezos dime, but Clarkson said features like the inclusion of Hasselhoff and the failed “American” segment were not specific pitches to attract viewers in the U.S.
“It’s way more intricate than that because there’s two Americas, so if we went monster truck racing and tractor pulling, the other America and the rest of the world would go, what on Earth are you doing? And if we review the latest BMW M3 while driving through Switzerland, then the monster truck enthusiasts will think that we’re probably communists. You don’t want to alienate anybody—well, that sounds ridiculous coming from me—but I don’t want the show to alienate anybody. It is very difficult to make a car show that appeals to the Middle of America and everywhere else, so you just have to bear that in mind and try to steer a fine line between the two and try and make something for everyone every week.”
Clarkson is certainly aiming to walk a fine line when it comes to alienating potential viewers in the half of America that swept Donald Trump to power. He is usually willing to sound off on any given topic, but raising the Trump question causes him to shrink back.
“As a visitor to America, I feel it is not for me to have opinions on internal American politics. I’m allowed to have opinions on Brexit and [British prime minister] Mrs. May and [Labour leader] Jeremy Corbyn, but as Piers Morgan found to his cost coming over here and lecturing Americans on things: You tend to end up with an orange face hosting a breakfast TV show if you’re not careful.”
Morgan—who was once punched in the face three times by Clarkson—is now slumming it on ITV’s Good Morning Britain after a newspaper editorship and a short-lived prime-time CNN chat show in which he tried to take on the U.S. gun lobby.
Clarkson’s fight with Morgan became a celebrated tabloid punch-up but it was another violent outburst that got Clarkson fired from the BBC. He reportedly attacked producer Oisin Tymon after he was told he could not have a steak after a day of filming.
With its star sacked, Top Gear employed Matt LeBlanc to try and keep the global franchise going but Joey from Friends struggled to recapture the blokes-talking-about-cars magic that proved to be such a ratings winner.
Clarkson, 57, and his team have already signed up for a third season of The Grand Tour with Amazon. He is making no plans for retirement just yet despite the danger of spending so much time racing cars, although he was forced to give up smoking this year after contracting pneumonia in both lungs.
“You’ll know when it’s time to retire because you just think I can’t be bothered to be funny or interesting. You go to an old people’s home and they tend to be quite insular and dreary because they can’t be bothered to be funny because they’ve been funny all their lives and it’s time for other people to entertain them,” he said.
“If I’ve got a day’s filming and I know it’s a good story and I know it’s a good script and the weather is what it’s supposed to be, I’m literally chomping at the bit to go and do that, even after whatever it is, 30 years...If I got to a corner and I’m driving somebody else’s £400,000 supercar and then I can’t be bothered to drive it round sideways, then it’s definitely time to jack it in.”