Top Gear is back with Paddy McGuinness, Freddie Flintoff and Chris Harris at the wheel – and it's safe to say it's back on form.
It's not been the easiest time for the show since Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond left (then Chris Evans left, then Matt LeBlanc left...). Based on this first episode though, the BBC programme looks to be back on track with a winning formula, combining the bits viewers love with some genuine charm.
Right from the off, there was likeability as the hosts opened the show, with Freddie immediately owning up to the turbulent time both behind and in front of the cameras.
"We know Top Gear has had more rebirths than Doctor Who recently, but look – we kept the little Dalek."
With that quip – directed at Chris, naturally – there were already hints of the Top Gear of old. It's all well and good teasing each other in a more scripted, studio environment – the real question this first episode had to answer was whether the new trio have chemistry. On this evidence – absolutely.
The fun factor is back, and keeping things relatable from the off was a nice touch. The first challenge of the series saw Paddy, Chris and Freddie pit their first cars – Ford Escort, Mini and Porsche Boxster (yes, really) respectively – against each other across Ethiopia, going from Gondar to the Afar Triangle, the birthplace of humankind.
It was fitting that the series started with such an ambitious, grand idea – but it's all in the execution.
Thankfully, there are no problems there. Viewers got thrown straight into the action with stunning scenery, an ambitious challenge and a cracking relationship between all three hosts.
In a very touching and telling moment, Freddie got candid as he opened up about how he decided to sell his original Boxster – which he bought aged 22 – because he was getting too carried away with fame and it was having a negative impact on his cricket career.
"It sounds strange," he admitted. "But yeah, it really did teach me a lesson, this car."
Of course Top Gear is a car show, but it's become way more than gearboxes and race tracks. By the time Clarkson, Hammond and May left, the personalities were just as vital. If the show can give us more real moments like this to really get to know the presenters, it's in safe hands.
The first proper challenge saw the three cars carrying out a sort of driving test on a rally track, with the loser having to put on a huge chunky knit jumper in sweltering heat. It might seem like a small thing, but adding a forfeit made a big difference here, immediately giving the challenges more stakes than bragging rights.
This task also did a brilliant job of showing the kind of relationship the three have, and what we can expect over the next few weeks. The cheating tactics were out in full force, and it made for a brilliant on location segment to kick off the run.
For the second task, it was time for the boys to drive blindfolded down an airstrip. All very silly, but it broke things up nicely.
Chris had possibly the best line of the episode, as he pointed out of the chunky jumper: "It smells like a marathon runner's ball bag." Vivid.
There was drama aplenty with cars falling apart, Chris – who settled brilliantly into his role as the straight-up expert foil to the cheeky northerners – almost being sick from the heat, with Paddy having to tow Freddie when his car was struggling.
It wasn't just about the journey through Ethiopia. Chris was given the spotlight as he talked viewers through the McClaren 600LT and the Ferrari Pista, and his expertise will prove invaluable as Paddy and Freddie lack the same authority early on.
The most telling moment of the episode, though, was when the boys, having crossed the desolate plains of the Danakil Depression, arrived at the Afar Triangle. They embraced, they were overjoyed and you could feel the genuine warmth.
Chris described the journey as taking them "back to the first thrill of driving, that wonder of the open road, and where it might take you".
Top Gear is entering a new era, and it's clear on this evidence that Chris, Paddy and Freddie are the right people to have in the driving seat. There have been a lot of false starts for the show over the last few years, but it's really turned a corner and looking to the rest of the series, it should be full speed ahead.
Top Gear airs on BBC Two, Sundays at 8pm
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