Sunday, 5 March 2017

On the Set of TopGear Series 24!

I think this is the right studio...
I worked out recently that I have been watching BBC Two's pokey motoring show for a full twenty years. Twenty! I'm only twenty-five years old, for crying out loud... and yet, after they rebooted and reformatted the show in 2002 to take place in a large hangar situated at former RCAF airbase south of Guildford, I never got tickets to be in the audience as messrs Clarkson, Hammond and May called each other names and told each other that Alfa Romeos are brilliant (but not as brilliant as something Jeremy's just thought of). I did apply once, but by that time the waiting list was allegedly as long as eighteen years and frankly it wasn't happening...

However, after a fracas, a shaky second reboot in 2016 and a year to figure itself out properly, TopGear is ready for what it calls series twenty-four (but which I consider to be phase three, series two) and recently sent out an open invitation online to apply for free tickets to appear in the audience for the first two episodes, airing this Sunday and next at 8pm. I was quick enough to jump at the latest chance and... I got tickets! Finally! Sure I wouldn't get to meet The Tall One now that he's migrated to the internet, but damn it all TopGear is TopGear! I'd applied for two tickets for episode one, but unfortunately my plus-one had a doctor's appointment in the end and I left it until it was too short-notice to get anyone else to join me. Still, I'd have more freedom to wander about on my own and could make the day longer by staying for the recently added companion show, Extra Gear.

Getting to Dunsfold Aerodrome from my house is actually very easy: drive to Guildford and turn right. Then, following the A281 south you eventually reach Alfold Crossways, a junction that's on a left-hand curve at which point you turn right and right again onto a parallel road, then immediately turn left (I imagine if James May had this described to him he would've ended up doing a U-turn and going back to Guildford... but it's easier to understand when you're there looking at it). Then go straight-on at the next corner and cruise past the Three Compasses pub. In mid-morning on a Wednesday after the commuters had gone to work, it took about an hour or so. Mostly because I didn't get lost - in fairness I've actually been here before for charity events.

You're checked three or four times for your credentials between Compass Gate and the audience holding area, which is essentially a slab of concrete parallel with the airfield's perimeter road and accessed via a very neat crossroads filled with seemingly unnecessary traffic lights. Once directed to a space, you find yourself facing the studio building(s) from across the airfield. What a tease!

Oh, and there was a food truck there. I had a banana with my burger and this seemed to be novel idea to onlookers.

I guess it's a bit like having my bacon-cheeseburger with a diet coke, but in food form
We were all given a TopGear quiz to fill in and submit, featuring questions that are even hard when you have a black belt in Google-fu. How am I supposed to know which hangar the new series is filmed in unless I work here?!

Wholesome meal over, it was time to wait around in windy drizzle... for about an hour longer than I'd anticipated. After tactically standing so that only half of me was getting soggy for quite a while, watching something red lapping the track from afar (possibly an Alfa Giulia QV or more likely a Toyota GT86 I'll bring up again later), we were then told that they were filming something and were having a delay, so despite the tickets saying "doors open at 1:00pm and close at 1:30," it wasn't until nearly 2:30 that we boarded some buses and were driven along the perimeter road to those buildings which were previously far away.

Oh the time we spent staring at those buses......
Then we had some more queuing to do, just to reassure those who came from a foreign country to be here that this is definitely Britain (also it was still drizzling, so I'm glad I wore a hat but regret not getting a clear-bin-bag "poncho").
We were told to leave our phones in the car and not take photos, so any images you see from here on in are actually startlingly accurate artist's impressions made using various media and a photographic memory. Honest...

Take, for example, this image of a blue Suzuki Whizzkid sitting right outside the studio, that was full of the sort of clobber you'd expect of a car that'd been sitting in somebody's garage for years rather than outside a TV studio. I love how the artist got the texturing on the metal bars so detailed in this image! Remarkable handiwork there.

Finally, after more wristband checking, we were allowed to be herded in groups to and through the studio doors. Here is a realistic digital painting of that, featuring the backs of people's heads:

Such realism!
Having seen old TopGear on telly so many times over, I was immediately struck by the size of the newly-restyled studio... or rather the apparent lack of size. I always got the impression it was filmed in the group of three hangars near the exit of Gambon Corner, but this single unit (hangar 86, remember that for the quiz if you ever go yourself) a few feet down from the start/finish line is visibly cosier. Perhaps the loss of its long-serving stars has forced them to relocate across to here for a smaller audience, or perhaps it's "due to the unique way the BBC is funded." I don't know the explanation. Nevertheless, a smaller audience means you're more likely to appear on screen... but being self-conscious at the best of times I never tried to be right at the front, just somewhere that I could see the big screen and hopefully the presenters' heads.

Initially, I stood next to something very shapely indeed: a Rimac Concept_One that I have geeked out about elsewhere on this blog in the past.

Ah yes, the artist who perfectly recreated these scenes from memory was a bit nervous about using their special technique to mentally record an image in their minds so early in the day, so, er, the composition isn't brilliant. Don't worry, things get better in this regard. Anyway, they didn't actually review or lap the all-electric Croatian supercar, instead choosing for Rory Reid to walk around it and poke bits of it while discussing its speed and range with a confused Matt LeBlanc and a cynical Chris Harris... and the star guest. I'll get to him in a mo...

...because before "the talent" showed up, the audience was informed (briefly) and entertained (frequently) by kiwi comedian Jarred Christmas while the production team scurried around doing Many Important Things to set up the equipment. At this point I was even happier not to be near the front as he went around fishing for material by asking audience members about themselves - I'm happy just to laugh, thanks! He actually stuck around throughout the recording of the show to fill in long gaps between takes and present something akin to a "half-time show" during the break in filming, when they gave out prizes to quiz winners and he continued his day-long quest to find the ultimate cheese joke. You wouldn't brie-lieve some of them...

Once everyone was into the studio, the crew sprayed more white onto the white mats beneath the cars and took away the black fences around them before instructing us NOT to stand on said white mats. The man tasked with directing the audience then took charge and gave us a tutorial in how to be an audience - how loud to cheer and applaud, how to applaud without cheering, when to cheer and/or applaud in the opening scene - after which everything became professionally lit and we gave, on cue, both cheers and applause to the three presenters as they strode in near the hangar door and walked to the opposite end to find their newly redesigned sofas.

Matt LeBlanc (I was in the same room as Joey!!) thanked us for turning up and wished us well. Then it was time to open the show once and for all. The camera rigs were moved into position and I couldn't help noticing the bag of crisps balanced on one of the circular lower handles. A proud TopGear tradition from the Wilman era was prodigious consumption of crisps and that remains alive and well among the production team. We heard the start and end of the now famous remix of Jessica originally by the Allman Brothers Band, then gave riotous cheer with applause as the stars introduced the show and series, now standing centrally in the studio as a trio with the camera in a corridor formed by us, as they said their hellos and linked into the series preview montage. This actually happened two or three times thanks to a forgotten line here or there. I would eventually learn to get used to this aspect of filming a television show.

After the montage above, they walked towards a car on the opposite side of the studio to me: a resplendent Ferrari LaFerrari in pearlescent white with metallic blue contrasting roof. This was Harris's link into his film testing the Ferrari FXX K, a track-only unregulated version of LaFezza. After some exemplary work explaining and showcasing the sonorous thousand-horsepower training tool around Daytona Speedway's endurance route, we applauded (and possibly cheered). Some further discussion of the car's quirks occurred, after which they welcomed on this week's Star in a Reasonably [REDACTED] Car, James McAvoy. What, already? After one film? That's unusual.
It turns out that this element of the show has been overhauled. Again. Mercifully, last year's format of having two guests painfully irrelevant to each other sitting down and having their past cars compared via an audience shouting contest has been completely axed. Instead, the singular guest first appears where the 'news' segment of the show would previously have been and initial discussions with them happen then... but the lap was saved for later.

Instead, after comparing his Audi RS3 to the Millennium Falcon [an understeering one, Harris asserts] and mentioning a couple of things I remember him saying the previous time he was on the show... we had to do this segment again. I guess the director is a perfectionist. We even had to welcome him onto the stage a second time. While the camera squad moved their things around and people whispered into their headpieces to unseen overlords between takes, the presenters and Mr. McAvoy chatted to each other, which we could hear. They talked about his bikes some more (Matt LeBlanc is a keen biker too) and some ideas of how to deal with the issue of them being stolen. The two professional actors also talked about their current projects (Episodes has one more series, if I've remembered correctly... or it's over... or soon to be... OK I haven't remembered correctly).

Oh! I almost forgot. They did introduce the Car Of Reasonableness during this segment of the show. It's the red thing in the picture below - drawn with a thousand crayons, from memory of course.

(image recorded after TG was finished)
This series, the car is not reasonably priced... instead, it is reasonably fast; a brand new Toyota GT86 with much of the interior trim removed and a basic rollcage fitted for health and safety reasons. Somehow the BBC have allowed Chris Harris to teach expensive celebrities how to fling a 200-horsepower rear-wheel-drive sports car around the test track! Apparently it took some time to figure out how much electronic stability assistance to leave on, among other issues, but even though there was some ESP function, we still saw a few clips of James McAvoy half-spinning at quite high speed through the tyres and at the first couple of corners, much to the amusing (and uncensored) terror of passenger Harris. I imagine this will happen every episode. Still, beats a Vauxhall Astra TechLine!

Before moving onto the next film, the presenters talked about which upcoming cars they were looking forward to this year. Technology fan Rory Reid fancies the Rimac I was standing near, so he and McAvoy walked over to it to talk about how fast and clever it is. The car's TVR-esque feature of having a button under the mirror to open the door was a highlight to the TG guys, with Rory asking guest James to try opening the car without instructions (hey remember when Jeremy did that with a Tuscan II in 2005?). Predictably, Rory had to step in and do it for him. This worked the first time and they checked out the interior... but a fluffed line or misplaced camera meant they had to re-shoot it... and the door never worked again. Each time Rory reached for the button, the door stayed resolutely shut, to everyone's amusement. They gave him the key, he tested it successfully before they returned to their seats to repeat the short walk-and-talk towards the car... and when it mattered, the door didn't open. They eventually abandoned this idea, sat back down again - "Fucking door!" [laughter] - and moved on. I'm interested to see what the final edit of that will be like!*

The thing to which they moved on was the cheap car challenge requiring cars which had done more than 480,000 miles - or as they put it, "have been to the Moon and back." This was to demonstrate that you needn't give up on your car after 60,000 miles or two years or however long most people own a car. At first I was staggered to see that the odometer on Matt's E-Class began with an '8' only to work out that it was in kilometres, not miles. This is because it came from Germany, unlike the London Taxi and Volvo V70 used by Rory and Chris respectively. A familiar format with fresh faces, this was actually a very enjoyable piece, but an extra dimension when watching in the actual studio is that the audience - who aren't recorded during these films, of course - reacted like, well, an audience. So when something funny happened, the whole room laughed anyway. When the winner of the inevitable race appeared from the final corner, there was cheering (not to mention upstanding outrage from the shorter of the two losers in the darkened studio as they watched with us!). You won't hear any of this under the footage at 8pm, but we were fully engaged with what we were watching. I have never experienced TopGear like this before and it felt special. The enthusiasm of others was contagious and it wasn't embarrassing to react loudly, like it might be at home. It was like being at a gig.

Once the first half of this film concluded, it was time for a break and some fresh air, during which I made a beeline for the nice lady handing out wristbands for Extra Gear and got the last one she had. There was still no opportunity to sit down, especially as it was still wet outside, but hey, at least there was complementary tea, coffee and biscuits. I plumped for the latter two.

Said refreshments were served in another hangar, opposite the studio and roughly half the length. I couldn't help but notice some rather tasty cars behind a fence in this building, including [breathe] an Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio Verde, and Aston Martin DB11 and a Volvo V60 Polestar, not to mention a backup GT86 "reasonably fast car" and some others I can't remember. The Alfa and Aston appeared in the series preview, which makes me think they will be starring in episode two (which was filmed four days ago, so I can probably get away with telling you this). The Volvo will appear in Extra Gear later today.

I decided to get a change of scenery for the second half of the show, so I stood on the left-hand side of the studio instead, again next to a car but with a proper view of the big screen (there is one on each side, about a storey up in the air, flanked by '80s supercars possibly belonging to Harry Metcalfe, whom I spotted on the phone in the corner at this point).

Jarred Christmas reappeared as we filed back in and everyone got ready for the second half. As well as asking us for more cheese jokes (the Camembert/"come on, bear" joke took several attempts), he found a new game where he sang one line of a pop song and hoped an unsuspecting victim would sing the next line. Some were better than others. I continued to keep a low profile, or as much of one as you can when standing an inch away from a pearlescent white Ferrari.

Here is a terribly composed portrait of said LaFerrari, done in pencils this time
I have to say, I don't normally like white on cars, but the way the pearlescent finish softly highlights the surfaces on this hyper-hybrid really works in person. It looked stunning. I spent of lot of the waiting time just looking at as much of it as possible. I'll probably never stand this close to one again. Fun fact: it was imported by Ferrari Japan. I don't know why this is, given that they sold them in the UK...

Anyway, we then got to watch James McAvoy's timed lap, which was certainly a bit lairy in wet conditions. We then had four or five goes at putting his lap time on the board (including all the talking post-lap) and cheering him goodbye. Sometimes it was a presenter tying their tongue in a knot, one time Rory stood up randomly for no reason, one time it was a mystery. I think it was after this that they re-shot some of the conversation about the Rimac, several times, just looking at Matt's face and Chris's face separately as they repeated what they said about it (Matt questioned its top speed, range and whether they're both possible simultaneously, Chris rubbished the whole idea of electric supercars saying the companies just make stuff up about a prototype and nobody buys one).

Television is hard.

After that, we watched the final part of the high-mileage cars film (during which I spotted a producer or somebody sitting next to Chris discussing what they were seeing), with a beautiful closing scene of the rocket launch to which they'd been racing. Personally I very much enjoyed this Kazakhstani adventure of theirs, with purely natural banter between the presenters and little-to-no manufactured action. An un-forced show for car enthusiasts. Thank goodness! Then there were three or four attempts to tell you what's happening next week, including three or four rounds of applause with cheering from us (always excellently delivered, of course).

Overall, I had a feeling that I'd just seen a good episode of TopGear. It wasn't a show I'd have to be defensive about and unlike the first episode of "series 23" last year none of it made me cringe... which is always nice. I feel optimistic about this series being a genuine alternative not only to The Grand Tour, but also to just watching old repeats on Dave, which is to say that, hype aside, it'll be of the same quality as what we've known before. Maybe. There certainly won't be any "we'll just have to be patient and give them a chance" excuse-making like there was in 2016. I have also learned that it takes about three times longer to film a TV show than it does to broadcast it. Mind you, it's not like I get to be on set every week, so I'm not complaining! Just observing.

But now, it was time to hang around for a bit. Again. There's a lot of that when you're making a TV show.

Mercifully, I found some Formula 1 tyres to sit on this time. No, I have literally no idea why they were there. Other people quickly sat on the new sofas for a photo, but obviously I didn't have my phone because I'm not naughty. Here's an exact scale replica of part of the main set platform. I cut a circle of acrylic especially for this image.

You can also see the Tyres Of Mercy and two of the star cars above (also accurate scale models, obvs). Despite LaFerrari having an electric mode that works up to 5km/h to manoeuvre it around, the person who had to turn it around 180° into its position for Extra Gear didn't realise this, instead starting the 6.3 V12 engine with a silence-shattering whip-crack that settled quickly into a booming burble. They were then very careful with it, as anyone would be with somebody else's million-quid machine.

TG's companion show has also been refreshed for 2017, with its own new set design including an amphitheatre-style three-tier seating setup for the audience... and a new presenter! Rory and Chris are now the suppourting acts for WRC-loving comedian George Lewis, a stand-up act on the rise making his TV** debut.

**Can you call it a "TV" debut when it's exclusively online?

It was actually during filming for this show that I saw something to add to the optimism I mentioned above about the show's future: chemistry. This was always something fans of the previous trio were keen to rattle on about as a USP of the show that made it work. Chris and Rory were almost like two lads in the pub together.

My favourite moment of the day will probably go forever un-broadcasted; it was time to introduce the part of the show where Chris takes a car around the track and this week it was the Volvo V60 Polestar, in reference to the V70 he'd just left knackered in the main show. The final line of his paragraph to camera was to say that he was to take "this viking Labrador carrier" around the track to see what's what. A slip of the tongue caught him out as he said "viking Labrador corridor." No matter, he sat back down and George re-did his segue to Chris's part. Having walked and talked his way to the front of the Volvo again... "viking Labrador corridor." Walking back in dismay, he asked us the rhetorical question "'Corridor'?! Where is that coming from???" as he went to try again. It then happened a third time. Rory started laying into him about his abject failure to read an autocue and Chris rugby-tackled him in a manner similar to Nico Rosberg on Lewis Hamilton after the 2014 Bahrain Grand Prix, only these two landed carefully back on their bench before recomposing themselves and trying again. Fourth or fifth time lucky, Chris nails it once and once only... and we all hold on with palpable anticipation until the director makes clear that it's all OK and in the can... before we erupt into riotous applause like he's just done a back-flip through fire or something. He immediately turned round and showed Rory some particular fingers with great enthusiasm and triumph in his eyes!

After that it was back to the normal routine of having a couple of goes at professional content, although as they paused to set up for one re-take the two of them did argue about who failed the most to say their lines (Chris assured us that Rory's line was tiny and his was like War and Peace, so exaggeration is another TopGear tradition alive and well). I will say in his defence, though, that he does seem like a proper guy - sympathetic towards us and our long day's work and chatting to us between takes about the cars we could see, how LaFerrari looks miles better in person than in pictures (true), how the Testarossa set decoration looks cool too but if you ever look to buy one, check the welds; if they're actually of a good quality then it's been crashed and repaired, as Ferrari didn't really do quality control in the '80s. OH, and he complained the set's bench was still too high for him. I heard someone afterwards say that he's the one you'd most want to have a pint with and I'd concur, no disrespect to the other two of course (Rory hung around for selfies the longest). Plus of course, as the "continuity nightmare" bit in the main show attests, he is one of us: a true, nerdy petrolhead. As for new boy George, he made a fine referee as he balanced his presenting debut with sorting out Monkey and 'Rench on his left.

As for the format, Extra Gear no longer has a bonus guest on, which was always a confusing aspect of its first series, and nor does it have a bit where the presenters discuss cars â la "The News." Instead it essentially focuses on its main purpose to take you behind the scenes and show a bit of bonus content. Both shows, then, have been tidied up nicely compared to last year and will make for enjoyable viewing over the remaining six weeks of take two of the third era of the greatest car show...... In The World.

I'm glad I was well and truly there to see it.


An angle of the studio you'll never see on TV, sketched while sitting on a Tyre Of Mercy
*P.S. This has taken me so long to [stop procrastinating and] write, that I have now seen the broadcast...

So after watching the episode on BBC Two, I see that they actually just cut the entire Rimac section out altogether, meaning the only part of the main show where you might have seen me - especially as standing behind LaFerrari meant I was always out of shot for the second half - wasn't actually aired. Thank goodness I took so many "photos" of it, LOL... Also, at the end of the FXX K film they were standing next to an actual FXX K in the broadcast, which was NOT in the studio the week I was there! The conversation about being invited to buy one was had sitting on the sofas during the day the rest of this episode was filmed. They must have found one available later and made time during filming for episode two to add that bit in a few of days ago... a technique which would explain why episodes are, it turns out, filmed eleven days in advance, not just four.

I also see that Extra Gear went through quite a lot of editing, although detecting how carefully Harris said "viking Labrador carrier" in the final cut brought back some of the gleeful buzz from when I heard him say it the first [fifth] time. George's introductory piece to camera was shorter than in the studio - removing a section where he captioned some short clips HIGNFY-style - and I remembered that sometimes the first takes were more natural than the re-takes that were generally used. This is just part of TV - because the script isn't always word-for-word and the autocue just says "DISCUSS [subject]" for a time, the presenters just speak naturally to each other, then have to recreate that if a re-take is needed. It's only made me more glad to have been there to hear it all happen in real time, although I'll sometimes wonder what I'm missing from now on when I watch future episodes. Maybe I'll have to hope that repeat appearances in the audience are allowed... and that they'd even let me come back after all these, ahem, artist's impressions...

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Sunday, 20 November 2016

Top Gear vs The Grand Tour: Who's Quickest Off The Line?

On the left, New TopGear. On the right, as close to Old TopGear as copyright laws allow...
Earlier this year, as the result of a fracas, some arguments and a loyalty-based mass exodus, legendary BBC motoring show TopGear was reformatted with an all-new lineup of presenters and a quite different production team. It had... mixed results. The first two or three episodes were middling to poor - episode one felt like a rushed pilot and was borderline unwatchable at times - but by the halfway point of a typically short series, the new squad began to hit their stride and started to show some actual potential for the future. However, naturally, there were scores of mindless social media campaigners who just wanted the BBC to excuse a man for needlessly assaulting a colleague and put the old TG back together. There are two reasons why calling for such a thing was and is a waste of time. Firstly, well, as I've already said the BBC can't just re-hire someone who essentially committed a crime, because that's a bad message to send out (again). Secondly, if you wanted the old show with the old presenters and their "chemistry" and "banter" and what have you, all you needed was an Amazon Prime subscription and some patience, surely?

Well, now we have an answer to that second part, because the immensely anticipated show The Grand Tour has finally landed with its debut episode on Prime Video in the UK, US, Germany and Japan (other nations will get it in December, or just pirate it for free as you read this). The general reception has been perhaps predictably positive, although I put it to you, dear reader, that people are mostly pleased because of the unavoidable level of familiarity on display - in fact it felt so familiar to some that the Radio Times has said "The Grand Tour is back," even though this was series one, episode one...

I sort of knew when both shows were announced that the three stooges were likely to just make the kind of show they were already making before - whereas BBC mega-franchise TopGear was now free to reformat and be different - but now that I've actually been confronted with such a product, I feel... unmoved?


OK, let's break the debut episode down (MULTIPLE SPOILER ALERT obviously):

> The opening sequence was very nice. They know that we know why this show exists, so they tastefully put together a scene in which The Tall One makes his way from a miserable glass-fronted business building in London to escape to an airport in Los Angeles, wherein he finds out that apparently you can rent a 725-horsepower Fisker-modified Ford Mustang in California. On his way to the middle of nowhere, old mates James May and Richard Hammond suddenly appear in a white Roush-modified Mustang and a red Shelby GT350 to complete the three colours of the American flag (and British, French, Dutch, Russian, etc. etc...). Heartwarming smiles are exchanged and they bugger off into the desert, overtaking cars of all shapes and sizes to arrive at "Burning Van" - a play on Burning Man - so that they can have a hero's entrance. A rocky cover of I Can See Clearly Now takes so long to finish that we have to sit through about 25 different high panning shots divided up by shots of the presenters waving and grinning at the concert audience they've just driven through (amazingly, despite driving three Mustangs, they didn't hit anyone!). The eventual on-stage intro which followed will hopefully be a one-off, because watching them pretending to be rock stars was a little odd.

> The studio tent bit varied vastly in quality throughout. The audience was too trigger-happy with whooping and applauding, although that's just the American style for studio shows. Jeremy immediately patronising the US audience's different automotive vocabulary was tedious (to the point where I felt embarrassed on behalf of less childish Britons), as was the Air Force fracas 'bit' later on that was really just filler. Also disappointing was "Conversation Street," which was suspiciously similar to "The News Bit" on that old BBC show except it was shorter, was introduced by a low-budget sting (a joke that loses its weight on such a high-budget show, no?) and started with Jeremy repeating a couple of old TopGear News chestnuts to really ram home that these are the same old guys who used to be on TopGear don't y'know...
To be honest I'm not sure why they decided to establish their pre-existing TV caricatures so heavy-handedly, because the people watching this show will primarily already know it all from TopGear and not need reminding, while any fresh new viewers are not guaranteed to connect with the characters any better for having them so un-subtly spelt out up front. Finally, the not-a-guest part with all the (visibly breathing) dead celebrities was a tiresome, drawn-out stunt that had me wishing they'd just stuck with one death and got on with something else, although that could just be me misplacing my sense of humor for a minute or two... but to me it was another on-the-nose example of them referencing the old show, only this time they didn't follow all the way through with creating the parallel and made it apparent that they probably won't have guests throughout the series like they used to. It wasn't exactly the old TopGear's most popular feature...
What was good about the studio? Well, mocking James for his 37mph speeding ticket was pleasing and there were moments of more natural banter, plus the concept of a mobile base with audiences from all over the world could keep the setting fresh... unless it just gives Jeremy different nationalist stereotypes to peddle each time. I also hope Convo Corner has some more actual content in it next week to make it worthwhile.

The Eboladrome
> We'll get to content more in a mo, but further setting-up of the format was required, so Clarkson introduced "The Eboladrome," which looks like a tricky little test track as well as looking like the Ebola virus. Their old humour was in further evidence here through corner names such as "The Isn't Straight," "Old Lady's House" (because it's near a house where an old lady lives) and the now-suitably commercialist "Your Name Here," not to mention the perilous penultimate "Cage of Electricity" turn which is overlooked by a small substation. Keen internetters quickly worked out that the Eboladrome is situated at a disused air base near Swindon and conspicuously avoids using the runway around which it wriggles, possibly for legal reasons...
After a demo lap by an unseen driver with a Ferrari 488 GTB, Jeremy gave us a half-length track test feature in the spicy little BMW M2, proclaiming it to be the greatest BMW M car... In The World - although not in those exact words, which was a missed opportunity!
"And now we must put it in the hands of our lame racing driver!" is also a missing phrase, albeit one I just made up regarding their house-trained ex-NASCAR test driver Mike Skinner, a.k.a 'The American.' If Amazon really did insist on an American test driver then, well, OK, but his grumpy in-car commentary felt utterly pointless and subtracted value, as did the "he thinks every non-Mustang is communist" bollocks put on him by the presenters - a joke probably older than some audience members...
OK, I am being quite negative here. The track does look like a good chassis test and "the same racing driver" looks like he'll be pretty handy each week at actually driving the cars. Which is good.

But now to the really good bit:

> The first proper film covered the hyper-hybrid trio and was definitely up to standard, with beautifully dramatic cinematography to capture the energy and adrenaline involved in pushing the limits of grip, driver talent, metaphors and Amazon's swear word censorship hierarchy. However, it's a shame they didn't get a road-registered LaFerrari, because there definitely were some customer cars out there when they filmed the feature about 13 months ago. Mind you, the purple McLaren registered 'P1 OOV' is owned by the McLaren factory and used as a press car, as I assume is true of the German-registered Porsche, so that particular LaFerrari was probably beamed directly from the Fiorano test track rather than being a customer car. Apparently Ferrari didn't fancy paying the road tax on it. Make of that what you will. Oh, and technically the Italian car does have an all-electric mode, but it only works up to 5km/h for garage maneuvering.
The second portion of the film - brought in after the M2's Eboladrome lap that was unsurprisingly slower than an M3 - included input from former F1 driver Jerome d'Ambrosio, providing an impartial adjudicator for track laps around Portimão circuit and an opportunity for mischievous subtitles while he described the cars in French (being as he's Belgian)... just like when they did that with subtitles on the old TopGear! Oh the jape.
The finale closed out with a bet that if the McLaren P1 wasn't the fastest then Richard and James could destroy Jeremy's house. Because the P1 wasn't on its optional semi-slick tyres... it was the slowest. So that'll be a fun future episode!

Side note: I wonder if they filmed these three cars on or near the day that Chris Harris On Cars filmed those three exact factory-supported cars on the same circuit for his own video feature...


Overall, the first episode of The Grand Tour (which is a really generic name, by the way...) ended up feeling quite self-conscious. Sometimes this wasn't a problem, such as with the opening sequence up to but not including the on-stage part, but at multiple points, especially in the tent, it lead to some slightly contrived character acting of the kind that was making TopGear feel a bit tired before it was reformatted. The trouble is, because there were genuine moments when the famous chemistry between the three of them was able to present itself naturally, it showed up the less genuine bits, like when an actor keeps slipping in and out of character. However, this first episode is meant to establish the new show and it has done that emphatically, meaning that hopefully the rest of the series will have a bit more room to flow.

How did it compare to new-new TopGear? Well if we're comparing apples to apples then I have to compare it with the first episode, which was terrible. Chris Evans's take on the show wasn't just aimed at children, it felt like it was written by children. Actually the best description I heard was that it was like someone's amateur fan-fiction where they write themselves into the show... which is not a compliment. It was widely publicised that the aftermath of Clarkson-gate was extremely messy for the BBC show, with directors and producers joining, arguing with Evans and then leaving until finally they managed to nail a few things down. This showed in the first couple of episodes.

What we've got now are two shows that are both trying to be the show that effectively doesn't exist anymore... but neither of them quite can be. New-new TopGear can't be Old TopGear because it doesn't have Pinky & Perky & Pedant who were so central to making the format work, whereas TGT can't be Old TG for legal reasons but gets as close as it dares, like the equivalent of the cars you see in Grand Theft Auto games that bear an uncanny resemblance to real cars without actually being them. In the end, both shows therefore feel a little contrived as they go to great lengths to feel familiar to us, albeit in different ways, yet ultimately can't be what they imitate.

I honestly fear that the Clarkson/Hammond/May/Wilman/Porter combination of people that moved to Amazon don't really know what else to make at this point, having developed and honed a comfortable routine over 12 years on the BBC. I mean, they had a completely new brand and a blank cheque to start afresh, yet they just re-jigged what they were doing before because it would please all the Facebook campaigners who just wanted Old TopGear back.
Meanwhile, New TopGear suffered a similar problem the other way around, having a chance to reinvigorate a global smash-hit brand that was in need of refreshing and yet not figuring out exactly how to do that. Once it recovered from a squiffy first couple of episodes, its biggest problem was forced banter and possibly still a lack of clear direction (not to mention a lack of depth in the car reviews). The first tGT episode beat the first TG mk.3 episode, but as an overall package moving forwards? Neither of them scores a clear victory at this stage, if you ask me.
The next new series of TG in 2017 needs to have much more confidence about itself, something that's achievable now they have a practiced crew and don't have the mercurial Evans to deal with.

I don't intend to pick a side here. Once both shows do find their feet, I want them to push each other to get better and promote some healthy competition, which would benefit us all as car enthusiasts in need of entertainment... in theory.

In the meantime, all we can do is continue watching both shows and see what really happens. On top of that, I'm also intrigued by the Amazon team's online offshoot DriveTribe, which aims to be a social and content hub for all things automotive. It's already absorbed a host of magazine writers and YouTubers, so it may actually end up being that which becomes the next big thing after all. Time will tell...

Written exclusively for SmallBlog V8. Do not copy without permission.

Thursday, 27 October 2016

Audi Withdraw From LMP1 After 18 Years

2016 Audi R18 TDI e-tron quattro at the 6 Hours of COTA
If Formula 1 fans are impatient for complaining about one team dominating for three or four years at a time, they ought to look further afield and realise how good they've got it. See, if your first love in motorsport is endurance racing, the dominant force has now been around all century long... and they're only now being regularly overhauled by none other than a corporate stablemate of theirs.

Yes, I'm talking about Audi in LMP1. Since their second attempt in 1999, they have never once missed out on a podium finish at the gruelling 24 Hours of Le Mans. Not. Once. Of those 17 podium scores, 13 have been victories, a win count very nearly on par with all-time leaders Porsche who have now returned to reassert themselves (a heart-stopping Le Mans finish this year saw the old guard from Stuttgart score their record 18th win when Toyota #5 broke down on the final lap). Not only have Audi been all but untouchable since the start of the 21st century, but they have hit some key technical milestones along the way, such as the first Le Mans win for a car with a diesel engine (2006) and the first for a hybrid car (2012).

It's not just around Circuit de la Sarthe that they've left their mark, though; of the 185 races Audi has entered in "Le Mans Prototype" racing cars around the world, 106 of them ended in victory. From 2000-2008 they won the American Le Mans Series championship nine times in a row while US sports car racing grew around them. Top that off with back-to-back World Endurance Championship (WEC) manufacturer's titles in 2012 and 2013. They have been relentless, they have been dominant and they have done it all while pioneering new technologies... and they have done it all with a certain class indicative of the spirit of endurance racing.

Audi's 13 Le Mans-winning cars.
The middle row comprises diesel-powered cars. The front trio are diesel-hybrids.
However, being owned by Volkswagen has suddenly made the current situation very difficult thanks to the "Dieselgate" scandal, which is costing VW Automotive Group (VAG) billions of dollars in fines and buy-backs while shattering diesel's reputation as the cleaner, thriftier fuel of choice. While many argue that motor racing is the unequivocally ideal place to develop new car technology (Vorsprung Durch Technik and all that), many others in the corporate world see it as a mere folly... and an expensive one - the recent hybrid powertrain arms race between LMP1 factory teams has caused costs to spiral upwards to a level similar to a major Formula 1 team, which given that VAG also includes Porsche means that the German giant is effectively paying for the approximate equivalent of both Red Bull Racing and Mercedes-AMG F1 at the same time... with the obvious guarantee that at least one of them will lose.

When everything was rosy, that was fine - pit Porsche's petrol/battery hybrid and Audi's diesel/flywheel hybrid against each other, develop two or more sets of technologies at once and generate some healthy competition between brands that otherwise don't really overlap with each other much. Remember, we're talking about the business behemoth that could afford to lose millions on Bugatti Veyrons and eco-spaceship XL1s and shrug it off like they were just doing us all a favour in the process. Now, however, things are not rosy at all and the knock-on effects are obvious. For instance, the "all-new" Bugatti Chiron bears striking technical similarities to its predecessor perhaps because it was only allowed to make production if it could turn the company a profit this time. Audi itself could soon be made to stop using its own chassis platform for its cars, instead adopting the one Porsche already uses for Panameras and the like to save group costs. So basically, with savings needing to be found across the board, running two LMP1 factory teams has quickly become unreasonable...

But why Audi and not someone else's racing? Well, there's another, more direct issue the Ingolstadt squad would face soon; in 2018, a new 10-megajoule hybrid sub-class will be introduced to the WEC. As Porsche proved with its utter dominance in 2015, the bigger your hybrid system the better. However, more electric power means a bigger, heavier energy store (battery), something of grave concern to Audi whose diesel engine is notably heavier than a petrol equivalent - certainly their V6 TDI will weigh more than Porsche's tiny 2.0-litre V4 T - giving them a clear performance disadvantage one way or another as the only team using diesel engines, which already have to take longer to fill up during pit stops thanks to a rule aimed at balancing out their better fuel consumption. So add a possible performance deficit to VAG's need to slash costs across the board together, then throw in that the diesel technology is no longer desirable and... well, things aren't looking good, especially after Ferdinand Piëch left the group.

And so, despite them having developed a machine for next year anyway, an era in sports car racing will end with the 2016 WEC season, as announced on 26th October:

"Speaking to 300 employees of the motorsport department on Wednesday morning, Chairman of the Board of Management Rupert Stadler put this strategic decision in the context of the current burdens on the brand, pointing out that it was important to focus on the things that would keep Audi competitive in the years ahead. That is why the Board of Management had decided to terminate Audi’s commitment in endurance racing. In the future, Audi will be using the know-how and skills of the motorsport experts from Neuburg and Neckarsulm partially in motorsport and partially in production development. 

“We’re going to contest the race for the future on electric power,” says Stadler. “As our production cars are becoming increasingly electric, our motorsport cars, as Audi’s technological spearheads, have to even more so.” The first all-electric racing series perfectly matches the strategy of offering fully battery-electric models year by year starting in 2018, Audi currently being in the greatest transformation stage in the company’s history. The commitment in FIA Formula E will already commence in 2017. It is regarded as the racing series with the greatest potential for the future. That is why Audi has intensified the existing partnership with Team ABT Schaeffler Audi Sport in the current 2016/2017 season. On the road toward a full factory commitment, the manufacturer is now actively joining the technical development.

The commitment in the DTM [German silhouette touring cars], where Audi will be competing with the successor of the Audi RS 5 DTM in 2017, will remain untouched."

Audi also says there is a "job guarantee" for all their motorsport employees, whom will now be shared between developing production cars and pushing the electric drive technology in Formula E, a series in which it already supports the competitive ABT Schaeffler Audi Sport team at arm's length ready turn into a full factory effort next season. I covered the inaugural FE race on this blog, but in true style neglected to cover any more of it after that. Since the first season of racing when the cars were completely standardised, the regulations around the powertrain - everything between (but excluding) the battery and the wheels - have subsequently been freed up to allow companies to develop their own concepts, of which there are now eight different types on the grid. Having just started its third season, Formula E is what's hot right now among car makers wanting to look cutting edge, with more manufacturer teams taking part than in Formula 1 including Renault, DS [Citroën], Jaguar and Mahindra (not to mention a BMW-supported independent team), plus Audi for season four and potentially Mercedes-Benz in season five, when a new McLaren-supplied battery will allow teams to use one car for the entire race length and the aero will no longer be standard. You've been hearing all decade long that electric cars are the future and here's even more proof of it.

Plus, y'know, it's substantially cheaper to enter than F1 or WEC. That helps too.

In the meantime, Audi will still have a factory team in DTM and I don't see anything denying that they'll keep building R8 GT3 cars to sell to customer racing teams around the world, alongside the new RS3 LMS touring car that won the TCR class in VLN at the Nürburgring last weekend.

Still, while all great things must come to an end, the world of endurance racing will surely feel Audi's absence in 2017. Between Nissan's miscarriage of an LMP1 project last year and this sudden withdrawal by a staple manufacturer, LMP1 will soon be left with just two factory teams (Porsche and Toyota) and, thanks to Rebellion Racing switching to LMP2, a single uncompetitive independent team (CLM/ByKolles). Depending on whether the Toyota finally brings a third car to Le Mans or not, we're talking about only five or six cars in the top class of the 24 Hours and WEC, right when it looked like sports car racing was in a new golden age.

It'll be an absence the weight of which is matched only by that of the pages Audi has added to the racing history books since the turn of the millennium.

Farewell Audi. May you return when the time is right. In the meantime, Toyota has perhaps never had a better chance at FINALLY winning the big one after so many disappointments...

Written exclusively for SmallBlog V8

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

McLaren TOONED "Hunt 40" is Made of 53% Recycled LOLs

Hey, remember McLaren's TOONED cartoons from a few years ago? Yeah, they were neat. Seeing as McLaren-Honda is currently so successful that they don't need to put any work into attracting sponsors, they've decided now's a useful time to bring back the tongue-in-cheek animations... and when I say "bring back" I mean that they essentially repackaged one of their old Tooned 50 episodes from 2013. See, it's also 40 years since 1976, the year that notorious playboy James Hunt won the F1 world championship with the legendary racing team, so why not commemorate such an incredible season in a unique way? Conveniently, they already did as part of their 50th anniversary celebrations, so they took the majority of that episode and bookended it with fresh cringe-laughs including a direct reference to the excellent #PlacesAlonsoWouldRatherBe meme and Jenson Button in speedos calling Fernando Alonso "my little chorizo," because any joke at this point is better than that Back To The Future thing they did last year.

Anyway, it's funnier than I've just made it sound (honest!), so watch an enjoy... perhaps by relaxing on a camping chair near a Brazilian race track.

Friday, 30 September 2016

LaFerrari Aperta Appears, Screams, Then Disappears

There will be a Paris Motor Show highlights post on here tomorrow, but for now let's segue from my previous post perving at a Ferrari into the motor show coverage...

Why wasn't LaFerrari called the Ferrari F70? Well, one reason would be that it was launched two or three years too soon for Ferrari's 70th anniversary - whether that was in response to the McLaren P1 and Porsche 918 is up for debate - in which case the name would be a little farcical... but maybe still not as bad as using something that sounds like a bad advertising slogan for the actual name. Nevertheless, Ferrari's special-series cars tend to be a one-shot deal, with no variants to follow... except for this time, as Ferrari has decided to commemorate its real 70th anniversary next year with the first open-top special-series car since the controversial F50 of the mid 1990s.

Welcome, then, to LaFerrari Aperta.

"BWOAH" - Kimi Räikkönen
It's more than just a roof chop though, don't y'know. Cars like these demand perfectionism and that meant re-evaluating how things like the aerodynamics are affected. To that end, little strips in the corners of the windscreen divert hot air venting from the bonnet, while a glass screen between the headrests also works to separate heat and turbulence from the occupants. Even the underfloor aerodynamics have been redesigned to channel more of the air underneath the car rather than over the top of it, one external sign of which is a little black air vent behind the front wheels, visible in this video. A more upright front radiator design also helps with these issues... somehow.

Critically, the exhaust has been made a little bit louder, while the control system that manages how the 800PS 6.3 V12 and the 163PS electric motor interact with each other and the road has been revised using knowledge gained since finishing the original LaFerrari. So it'll sound even better now that you can hear it more clearly as well as function all the more seamlessly as a hybrid.

Performance? Well thanks in part to use of a carbon fibre tub - which has nevertheless been reinforced low down - it has the same torsional rigidity and beam strength as the hardtop as well as the same straight-line performance figures of 0-62mph in 2.9 seconds, 0-124mph in 7.1s and 0-186mph in around 15 seconds. An optional removable carbon roof panel even facilitates exactly the same top speed of over 217mph, or if you left it at home there's a fabric emergency roof (for all your fabric emergencies!) rated to 130km/h (80mph), just in case you get caught out by the weather forecast.

Another concern with de-roofing a car is weight increase. To be honest, LaFerrari's weight has always been a little bit of a mystery, one that isn't helped by the fact that Ferrari had to (or perhaps chose to) homologate two different versions of the original car, one for European regulations and one for US regulations. What is clear is that the US-spec one is heavier - which would explain to me why they wanted a lighter Euro-spec one to satisfy themselves with marginally better performance figures - but by how much is a little bit unclear. Upon unveiling it in 2014, Ferrari begrudgingly quoted a dry weight of 1255kg, but nobody seems to still use this figure (that would be immensely impressive for a big car with a V12 hybrid and DCT). However, when Chris Harris reviewed the car at Fiorano, he said a day after a typically long presentation that "the dry weight is around 1300kg and wet with fluids it's 1414[kg]." This would square with info from a forum post I found that said a German weighed their car to find it weighed 1480kg with around 75% of a tank of fuel - the tank can apparently take 86L in total, three quarters of which is 64.5L, thus if we take fuel to weigh 1kg/L at delivery temperature (before it heats up during use and expands) the car would theoretically weigh 1415.5kg with an empty tank - but all other fluids - in the real world.
But that's the European-spec version. The US-spec version is officially quoted at 1585kg, which is a lot heavier! If we take away 86kg of a full fuel tank we get a figure of 1499kg wet-minus-fuel. Assuming the official kerbweight quote does include a tank of fuel, which it often can, the weight penalty of US safety regulations would in that case be around 85kg or so.

Why bog you down with all that educated guesswork? Because roadster versions of Ferraris generally add around 50kg of dry mass onto whatever the hardtop had and the Aperta is based only on the US-spec version. That would put the weight at approximately 1529kg plus 86kg of fuel (1635kg).

Not that any of this matters to you and me beyond curiosity and Top Trumps matches; the 200 planned customer cars are all already sold at around a 50% premium over the hardtop, while Ferrari will also build nine cars to keep for themselves. Maybe they'll hand them out to management and/or F1 drivers and even have a car left over for road testers? Who knows. Maybe we'll find out as part of Ferrari's seemingly extensive 70th anniversary festivities next year.

For now, scroll back to the top and watch Sebastian Vettel reflect on some of what those 70 years of history contain.

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