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Thursday, 21 September 2017

Unboxing a Thrustmaster T-GT

Can you tell what it is yet?
So, you can now read something I could have written two months ago about how I came to possess my own Thrustmaster T-GT quite a while before the 18th October release date. Regrettably, having a 12-hour day when you factor in the commute means I don't have the energy or mental agility left to do something as serious and involved as sim racing, so ironically, the job that got me an opportunity to win this wheel is also the very reason I haven't actually set it up yet...

...but I can still show you all the nice juicy bits it has!


The BOX

So here it is, on our messy dining table. Measuring 525mm across, 385mm deep and 310mm tall according to my tape measure, the box weighs around 11.5kg, which my arms classify as Pretty Bloody Heavy.


The graphics are clean and technical, obviously pointing out all the things they hope will persuade the discerning virtual racer not to buy a Logitech or Fanatec.


Oh, I should probably admit now that some of these photos aren't brilliant...


That's a lot of T-Acronyms... here's what they all mean.

Let's Open It!


There are two layers of polystyrene inside, the top of which contains the wheel itself, an attachment to grip onto a table or rig, plus the literature and smaller cables. The second layer beneath is quite a lot larger...

The WHEEL



The wheel itself smells lovely. I know that's the first and most important question you had.

The rim is upholstered in real, slightly wrinkly leather and feels tangibly higher-quality than my T150-Ferrari does. The buttons have a short but precise travel with a satisfyingly tight 'click'. The real-time adjuster dials, however, don't have quite the same solidity in their action, even if the metal knobs themselves feel solid to the touch. Given that you're invariably going to be spinning them with your thumb at a slightly awkward angle, I think there's a risk of adjusting one a step too much on occasion.


As you can see, the wheel comes separated from the main unit. From what I can see by googling fancier Thrustmasters that I can't afford (this was a free prize, remember...) it looks like the same system their other high-end wheels use. You could thus conceivably attach this wheel to a T300 base if you wanted.

Small Miscellaneous Bits




The rest of the top shelf in the box contains the table clamp, conical brake pedal modifier (to add resistance for those who want it), screw for the table clamp, cables, minor fixings and the trusty manual.

The BIG HEAVY STUFF


Now we get into the hefty bits. The bottom half contains the base, pedals and the novel turbo-style power adapter with cable.

The BASE






Yes. The heaviest bit of the kit, at 3.17kg, the base features a subtly asymmetric design with a grille on one side and a full 29 holes on the opposite side to cool something else. You can see the mode switches and L3/R3 buttons in the usual places. On this base, rather than a PS3/PS4 mode as with my T150, there's a switch between 'Other' and 'GT' - as far as I can tell, GT mode activates the T-DFB [see below] and Other facilitates usage with PC sims.

The thing at the back that looks like a subwoofer is actually part of 'T-DFB', or Thrustmaster Depth Feedback, which adds "suspension and vibration effects" to the force feedback to allow drivers to feel out the surface better. Apparently.

The TURBO POWER SUPPLY





Weighing 1.97kg (4.34lb) all on its own and boasting a peak output of 400W, the external power supply is styled to look just like one side of a turbocharger. How cool is that! Unless it's the hot side...

The PEDALS






Finally, the T3PGT pedal set. Oddly, the brake pedal is in a fixed position- on the T3PA, all three pedals can be repositioned to the left or right. In keeping with the wheel and base, the materials you can see are high-quality, with the pedals and their arms in thick, solid metal - as well as the inner mechanism. There are holes to fit the conical brake mod bar to any of the three pedals (although you're only given one). The pedal faces themselves are of a unique design, too, with smooth, shiny stripes cut into the metal.


So there you go! Maybe soon I'll get my shit together enough to actually use the thing and tell you what it's like...

This was written for SmallBlogV8. Please don't copy without permission. Find me @SmallBlogV8

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

2017 Goodwood FOS - GT Sport Media Challenge

This is totally not where I spent large chunks of the Festival of Speed...
OK, I suppose I can't just post something for the first time in six months and not explain the coma this blog has been in...

Basically, it was partly a fading of motivation due to... one or two things... but also because, since April, I have been writing (and largely editing) for a different, much bigger website! So if you want a slicker version of my writing, check out Car Design News and look for my name.

I hope that's a good enough excuse, especially as it's a key reason for this shiny new post...

----

Oh, Gran Turismo at Goodwood. I have been here before, multiple times. It always ends up in a near miss. Two years ago I attended for the whole weekend and got within a whisker of both a free Mercedes driving experience and, rather more significantly, a wildcard entry to GT Academy. In 2016 there wasn't a GT Academy event, thanks to Gran Turismo SPORT - the title to bring the series to PS4, had been delayed. As of publishing this, it is still delayed* and is now due out in precisely "Autumn 2017," a full year after what we were told at the preview event at the Copper Box in London (which I attended but didn't write about - sorry). That kinda sucks, but on the plus side, GT Sport has been in beta for a couple of months now and the latest development version was brought to Goodwood FOS in a couple of places; the FIA stand, the 'FOS Future Lab' with VR, and here, tucked away in the Media Centre.


Yes, I am allowed in media centres now. Yes, this feels pretty cool.

*As this post has sat here being worked on between other priorities, the release date has been narrowed down to 16-18th October.

Doubly cool is that there was, would you believe it, a competition on. The prize wasn't a trip up the hill in a GT3 car or an entry into GT Academy, but it was nevertheless worth having a shot at winning: a PlayStation 4* and Thrustmaster's new flagship gaming wheel, the T-GT. The latter is especially exciting as it isn't on sale yet - they're waiting, bravely, for GT Sport to come out - and when it does hit shelves the projected retail price is a full £700!

*I was told it would be a PS4 Pro, with 4K and HDR, but it isn't. It's just a regular one.

Trouble is, the competition ran from Thursday morning to Sunday evening... so yet again my enjoyment of the most wonderful motoring event of my year would be divided up by trips to a video game pod throughout. But hey, maybe I'll actually win this one? Maybe?

Thursday

The car and track in question this time
The competition involved lapping an Audi R8 LMS (GT3) around a new, fictional track that none of us had seen before. Well, none of us other than the completely random people they chose to take part in the closed beta earlier this year... which I'm not bitter about being left out of at all...
Anyway, the circuit, known as Dragon Trail International Raceway, is a big, undulating bravery test, combining fast, flowing corners with heavy braking zones, and technical sections including a street circuit-style stretch by the sea that centres around a devious double-chicane (think Swimming Pool at Monaco, but mirrored and with huge kerbs).

I didn't think to take any video, so here's one of the closed-beta lottery winners in a different 'Group.3' car (FIA GT3-alike), based on the Hyundai Genesis, to give you a high-speed tour:


Quite something, isn't it? There was certainly a lot to take in quite quickly... and a lot to learn in order to clamber up the leaderboard...

Quick note: that's not actually Michele Alboretto...
Upon discovering all this, I couldn't not take part. As I learned the car, track and wheel, I was of course quite cautious, lifting at every corner, braking quite conservatively, all that. The R8 GT3 is quite a trustworthy car, with plenty of grip and a usable balance, so you can start to get into a rhythm quite early on. The steering wheel's responses never caught me off-guard either, giving consistent feedback and a good control weight (sometimes I think my muscle memory is just tuned to suit Gran Turismo physics at this point, after all the time spent twirling a wheel with GT5 and GT6). I didn't spin once on my first run, and while lap 1 was a 1:47, by the end of the opening 10 laps I'd got it down to a 1:40.156 - which put me straight to the top!

But this was early in the morning of the first of four days, so I merely considered it a solid start...


Before this pleasing opening gambit, however, I'd been doing some actual work for a change; after arriving and checking out the Media Centre, I wandered off to McLaren to attend the launch of the new Spider version of their 570S junior supercar - which you can read about on CDN if you're a subscriber. I also had a good look at the all-new 720S while I was in McLaren's invitation-only backstage enclosure. I could get used to this job!!

They're both very impressive cars to just sit and play around with, or to analyse all the trick little details that improve aero, save weight or even make for surprisingly good ergonomics. This is a very confident time for McLaren Automotive, that much is in evidence - not just in their products, but in how many they're selling, at over 10,000 since the MP4-12C launched in 2010. All very impressive stuff - and better still, they reinforced that they are NOT planning to build an SUV, which scores them lots of bonus points in my book straight away!

Inside the 720S, looking at the rear haunch and air channel
As it happens, McLaren are doing their own gamer-to-racer competition at the moment, using Project CARS. Check out World's Fastest Gamer if you're interested.

Anyway, back to my virtual driving. As they day progressed, I went to see the show stands before they were overly crowded on the following days (Thursday is noticeably the quietest of the four days, as it lacks the star drivers and historic cars that follow from Friday-Sunday). The first run above took place just after a free lunch - we get those in the Media Centre, it's very handy - and I'd kept an eye on the leaderboard as it built up in the subsequent couple of hours. Before long, I was predictably beaten. I needed to find roughly a quarter of a second before calling it a day...


...And I did! In fact, I found more than that. Quite a lot more. I think by this point I'd worked out that the first sweeping corner was flat-out, and you brake for the tight chicane at turns 2 & 3 where the kerb starts.
Either way, closing the first day on top gave me some positive momentum...

Friday

I didn't arrive quite so punishingly early for Friday, since I wasn't hunting for an MMS drive. That said, you still want to give yourself the whole day when you're attending the Festival of Speed, or else you won't get close to doing everything you wanted to do.

Evidently though, Mr. Shaxson (a photographer doing work for Goodwood, the organisers) got up a bit earlier than me, and had better breakfast.


Even lopping a full (and exact) 0.6 seconds off my best time from yesterday wasn't enough. I momentarily felt a bit lost for how to then find another three tenths, before going for a wander to look at all the historic racing cars coming to life after they'd merely sat around looking pretty on Thursday. Always a good way to make yourself feel better - other than inviting hearing damage by standing too close to a 50-year-old Grand Prix car getting up to temperature...

Doughnuts. Also, a doughnut
In the end I spent the rest of the morning, and noon, wandering up the side of the venue to the rally stage, whilst the usual madness went on around me. It's a long, arduous uphill walk, but when you're surrounded by V8s, drifters and off-road racing trucks, it's a lot less of a problem somehow!


After a slightly belated (but still free) lunch, though, I had to get back to the game, just to feel like I wasn't letting it slip away, 2015-style.

By this point I felt like I was closer to the end of my development curve than the start of it - like all I could really do was try to iron out mistakes and imperfections in line, to do a lap that's "the same, but better." The tougher bits to master were the sweeping uphill esses - deciding how much to brake for the first one, 5th or 4th gear, when to turn in each time, whether it's all flat uphill or not - and the 'reverse Piscine section' just afterwards where you have to launch the car over kerbs about as wide as the car itself... and not hit the inside barriers... or the outside barriers... or bounce over the kerbs in such a way that it destabilises the car. Oh, and there's the sharp right-hander in between these two sections that opens out on exit and tests your timing on the throttle; do you waste time being shy, or floor it too early with the wrong line and start to spin?

Dragon Trail is tough, y'know...


...but so was my desire to win something.

This must have been the point where I realised that the right-hand kink that looks like it needs braking is actually flat-out, as long as, with the time of day set to evening as it consistently was, you turn in exactly on a dark patch of tarmac on the left side of the track. Now, however, it really would be a case of just trying to smooth out what I was already doing, most of the way round the lap at least. There's still that blasted double-chicane to sort out...

(yeah the problem with letting this post just sit on my laptop for months is that I don't remember it all quite as clearly as I did... bear with...)

I can, however, remember feeling a bit desperate. Later in the afternoon I tried again, just because, and I could only find a meaningless 0.06 seconds more. I peeled myself out of the FIA-spec seat and said aloud "I'm not sure I wanna have to do that again..."

Certainly that was all the progress I could make on day two.

Saturday



There wasn't much messing about on Saturday. I even had myself booked in to get a Mercedes off-road shuttle - through woods, dirt roads, farm lanes and a treacherous 'chalk road' that'd skin the underside off any normal car - to beat some of the traffic in. Having also had a more wholesome breakfast (including actual fruit!) I walked through the concours area full of some of the prettiest and most obscure classics I've ever seen, then straight to the GT pods.


In Formula 1, where 0.1 seconds can feel like an age, they would call the amount of time I chipped off "half a tenth," even though that's a double-fraction. Not much. I was back to just trying to absolutely nail all the things I was already doing. Saturday would prove to be a day of marginal gains. Thankfully my nearest competitor seemed to be at his busiest that day too, so the gap stayed relatively stable.


It wasn't until a full 6 hours later that I improved... and even then it was only another 0.085 of a second off. I'm pretty sure that, by this point, I had worked out that turn 5, the right-hand kink before a 2nd-gear right, is actually flat-out, when previously I had been lifting big-time on turn-in. What helped was that, as the game was always set to simulate the same time of day, I noticed a dark patch where the evening sun hit the track... and that was the ideal point to turn with the throttle pinned and just trust the Audi's downforce.

This on its own is worth a chunk of time... but so often you'll get into a pattern of starting off a lap well, realising you're well ahead and then being too self-aware through the rest of the lap, during which time that advantage will just bleed away while you either become overcautious or just... too tense. I now knew that I needed to get the whole lap spot-on. But today just wasn't really the day for it all to come together. I was feeling a bit fatigued by the whole thing at this point... so I left early.

And Then... SUNDAY Happened

Right, 2017 Festival of Speed morning routine: Get up at arse o' clock, drive a real car for ~90 minutes to get to the venue, have a (free) Media Centre breakfast, then drive a virtual car. The first run is just part of waking up. Morning laps are never as quick as yesterday's best because your mind is cold, like racecar tyres on the formation lap.

So: first coffee into my system, say hello, remember anything I learned yesterday by setting an opening lap, come back later to set a quick one.

Oh, and Tom Shaxson had clearly had a go after I left as well
Eh?

Just about two tenths? From nowhere? I was a bit dumbfounded. That must've been a good breakfast, or a perfectly-timed coffee! Or maybe, it was the sleep since previous runs and the total lack of pressure. Maybe I should make it a tactic to write off my chances of winning something just before entering it...

But 0.12 seconds is not a comfortable margin. Even if - as I'd had clarified yesterday evening - the people with an asterisk next to their company name weren't eligible for the prize, by this point I still wouldn't be satisfied with anything less than the fastest time on the board.

I had been advised by one of the experts manning the machines to take the little straight between those two demon chicanes as if it's all one corner. Use the vast kerbs in such a way that the outside wheels barely miss them - if you hit the kerbs with all four then it'll destabilise the car too much. Shift down once, then add steering lock for the second chicane so early that it feels like you'll hit the inside barrier. The whole thing just comes down to timing, and accuracy... and practice.


But I left it there for the morning, wandered the paddocks again and then made a point to checkout the new 700-horsepower Porsche 911 GT2 RS. The widowmaker is back! They've given it paddles this time, though; if you want purism, try a new manual GT3, ideally with the Touring package announced at IAA Frankfurt that shaves the wing in 911R style. This, on the other hand, is a full-on numbers-chasing 'Ring-record jobbie. It's just a shame the bodykit - sorry, 'aero package' - is part Need For Speed, part Volvo C30...


...But the GT2 RS wasn't unveiled in Need for Speed. It was unveiled in Forza Motorsport 7. To that end, Porsche's separate enclosure on the exit of Molcombe featured a host of XBox One rigs for the public to queue patiently and have a go on. The track was a long, winding, fictional one... but the real disappointment I felt towards the way they'd set these up is that they had ALL the assists on. The car started braking for you, shifted for you and had very heavy-handed traction and stability control on. Because the fastest time during your two-lap race could win you an X-BOne, it had to be consistent for everyone... so I couldn't turn the assists off. They'd made it child-proof; all you had to do was follow the line and mash the pedals however you felt like it.

My only run was 0.2s off the quickest time despite not being that special, but I took no joy in it. I wasn't really driving and I can't say I really felt like I'd experienced the car or the game at all. What a load of rubbish! Despite being a Gran Turismo groupie I was equally hooked on Forza 1-3 and the first Horizon, so I'm disappointed that I learned nothing of how the series has progressed here...


Anyway, I went back down to the start line to meet up with some friends, which eventually led to us sitting outside Lord March's roughly 400-year-old house watching the intense climax of the Festival: the Timed Shootout. You can watch it in full on their YouTube channel now.

But back to the game. As I mentioned earlier, the people working for Goodwood and its associates weren't eligible and their times were now erased. No problem, then, right? I mean, the nearest non-starred person before was over 1.4 seconds back! It's done and dusted.

Not with my luck, it isn't. The chap in question had found a full and exact 1.297 and put himself to just 0.126 behind me. Not comfortable. Plus, it was decided we would face off at the end of today. Having had the squeeze put on me late, I rushed off (well, as close to rushing as someone knackered by a long hot weekend can power-walk) to find coffee as the Media Centre canteen was done and closed. I got back with just 10 minutes or so to spare, and we sat down.

My fatigue, mental and physical, was holding me back. I wasn't improving. The laps were still good, but inconsistent from sector to sector.

I didn't improve.


But neither did he.

I'd done it.

... I'd done it.

My awkward haze-headed semi-useless sunburned self had won a bloody thing.

THANK FUCK.

After photos and handshakes, my reward was to carry a PS3 and then a 15kg steering wheel about 300 metres to the car in searing heat, with my pathetic pencil arms. I got help from one of the people who ran the Audi S4 IMSA GTO, after my arms had just about fallen off, then I went home.

I waited until I had driven the Punto out of the Goodwood Estate before whooping a weary whoop.

The next post on this blog will cover what's in the box (hint: not stripey socks)...


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 รข 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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