Season 2 of The Grand Tour continues to find form in going back to its Top Gear roots. There’s a tricky balance to strike, though, between keeping things fresh and repeating familiar tricks. Episode 8 tackles that head-on, with a chapter dedicated to comparing the old and the new – an idea that, in itself, is already repeating the theme of The Grand Tour’s Season 1 finale.
Luckily, the retro quality seeps into the visuals, as Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond take to the road in a rebuilt 1959 Aston Martin DB4 GT and a 1957 Jaguar XKSS. Specifically, the roads of Pau in the Pyrenees, which are – in the spirit of the first ever Grand Prix – temporarily cordoned off to allow The Grand Tour to screech around the gorgeously shot corners. It’s a delicious segment that swoons over the city as much as the cars.
Then, along comes James May with a Honda Civic Point R to prove that his new car is better than the veteran models. “It’s like driving behind the National Trust,” he quips, as he’s stuck behind their slow-moving oldies. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a souvenir shop in the boot.”
There’s a hint of genuine danger, too, in the old-fashioned mechanics of each vehicle. “I can only brake when I’m accelerating,” notes Hammond, something that’s far more alarming than the fact that Clarkson doesn’t have air conditioning in his Aston. So real is the risk, in fact, that Hammond appears to run away from the final test for the cars (ostensibly to go and buy a farmhouse nearby). And so Clarkson and May instead brave the Autódromo de Sitges-Terramar in Spain, a curved bowl track where the corners are steeped up to a near-vertical angle of 78 degrees. Watching these two fragile elderly figures rattling along the bumpy road and barely staying on the ground is really quite astonishing.
The love of aged treasures, though, can go too far, with the episode’s Celebrity Face Off pitting The Police’s Stewart Copeland against Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason, in a battle to see who’s the fastest drummer from a band beginning with the letter ‘P’. Neither make for hugely compelling viewing, something reinforced by the way that Clarkson is so delighted to be interviewing music veterans from the days of his youth. It makes a debate about what to name a snow plough in Doncaster (“Gary Gritter?”) seem like laugh-out-loud topical comedy.
Old ground continues to be re-trod in Episode 9, which sees the trio attempt to build an amphibious car, something that’s certainly been done before during their BBC heyday. Here, the twist is that they are trying break the water speed record for a road-legal car – and perhaps the most surprising thing is that this is a genuine record that’s awarded at an actual event.
There’s more risk, though, to help offset the familiarity, as we hear that 85 per cent of water speed record attempts are fatal. Certainly, the vehicle they build (a customised “Bond Bug”) is almost impossible to drive, with a steering wheel that needs to work the wheels and direct the boat, resulting in near-zero control. (A brief attempt to use a jet engine to power a boat equally juggles amusement and unnervingly powerful force.) The fact that they do manage to break the record in the end is impressive – and it’s the show’s ability to trump tedium with such thrills that keeps The Grand Tour from becoming stale.
Even the banter between the three men can fly in unpredictable directions, as Conversation Street goes from a daft attempted rant by Clarkson about women taking off their jumpers in a better way than men to a borderline insane discussion about the air speed of birds. The fact that Conversation Street is now often the weakest part of the show is testament to just how much The Grand Tour has improved since Season 1. Its real strength, apart from the stylish cinematography and occasional sense of real peril, now lies in Celebrity Face Off.
The novelty of the new head-to-head format hasn’t worn off yet, and the series’ choice of guests is the perfect antidote to balance out even the most unsurprising filmed stunts. If The Police and Pink Floyd selection highlights how the show’s balance can be thrown off by duff guests, Episode 9 brings back the magic – literally. Penn & Teller and Dynamo are the stars in the reasonably priced car, and are happy to skip the usual interview questions to show off their skills – an off-road battle that’s even more fun than their time on the track. Keep getting those guests right, Amazon, and your Top Gear imitation can still cast a spell.
The Grand Tour Season 2 is available on Amazon Prime Video as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription. New episodes arrive every Friday.