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Top Gear’s Chris Harris on cars (Interview)

We get Top Gear’s Chris Harris on the phone to talk about cars, his motoring heroes, and why he wants a Chevrolet Camaro Z28

UK AUTOMOTIVE JOURNALIST Chris Harris can drive… and so it’s no wonder he got a call to work on the resurrection of Top Gear after it collapsed following Jeremy Clarkson’s departure. There followed an ordinary season that made headlines for all the wrong reasons (blame Chris Evans), and now it’s back with just three presenters and, as the season goes on is becoming better and better.

We called up Chris Harris to talk about how he got into cars (his mum competed in Autocross), how Matt LeBlanc is a carhead, and why the Internet is pushing Top Gear to be bigger and better all the time. Oh, and why TG decided to use a Toyota 86 for their star drivers to pilot around the test track.

QUESTION: Hi Chris, thanks for taking the time to talk with us. Let’s get right into it… How hard is it to drift a Ferrari 458, or similar, compared to a Toyota 86?

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ANSWER: I think it’s easier as you’ve got more power to get the car to lose grip and traction in the first place. It’s easier to make a 458 drift, but here’s the complicated bit, it’s probably easier to sustain a drift in a GT86. The tricky bit with so much power is balancing it once you’ve got it going. So, once all is said and done they probably even each other out…

QUESTION: In the first episode of the new series, you drove a La Ferrari, is there any point building a car quicker than the La Ferrari?

ANSWER: No, there is absolutely no point.

QUESTION: So, what, exactly, do you find fun about driving?

ANSWER: I think it’s a series of physical inputs that you put into control services, and you feel what you’re doing almost immediately; you’re in control of that thing. No matter how complicated vehicles are at the moment, until they become autonomous, you control it.

Your feet make it go faster or slower and your hands make it change direction. I’m constantly thrilled by that, I love it. I love the sensation of speed. I love the fact that if I put good inputs into a vehicle the car is happy, it feels good and responds well. If I do it badly and in a ham-fisted way, the vehicle responds badly, so it’s something to take pride in.

QUESTION: With the increasing automation of driving where do you see driving pleasure coming from in the future?

ANSWER: Clearly we’re moving towards a time where it’s going to become more recreational, so I think you’re going to find people moving to track days and driving experiences, but I think this autonomous future isn’t very well laid out at the moment and we don’t quite know where it’s going.

I view it two ways – we’re looking at an urban future, and a more rural, or, let’s say, an inter-urban future. In a big city like Sydney, where I’ve been stuck in traffic jams before and thought my life is just ebbing away from me, the idea of being in an autonomous vehicle at that moment where I can sit in the back and do some work appeals to me, I can see that making sense, I can see it happening although I can still see it being a disaster at times, because I’m not sure the infrastructure was designed to have autonomous cars in it.

And what happens if you live out in the countryside? What if you’re a farmer out in the middle of nowhere? What if you live out in Broken Hill? Your autonomous car’s not much use out there, is it?

So, I see a future of enjoyable driving still being something to do out of town on open roads, I see you doing it on tracks, at track days and driving resorts. I can see driving resorts springing up like golf courses. I can see that in the future as well.

QUESTION: Okay, something less serious, what’s the setup for the Star’s Toyota 86 – is it in Sport mode, what brakes, suspension and tyres are used?

ANSWER: Standard brakes and tyres because we want no grip, so it’s on the same tyres as a Prius. The brakes are standard because we don’t pound the laps out, we tend to do one or two laps then stop and have a chat.

The entire interior has been ripped out of the car and it’s got a TRG cage which is a bulkhead they use for some racing in Germany. It’s got racing seats, and harnesses.

Mechanically, it’s pretty standard. We didn’t really do anything to it. I went down there and did a load of the testing on it to make sure it was robust enough and there wasn’t anything we needed to do to the car.

QUESTION: Can a sports car with an automatic transmission give the same involvement as a manual?

ANSWER: No.

QUESTION: You seem to just like to go fast… Would you prefer to have been The Stig rather than a presenter? … did TG offer The Stig position to you?

ANSWER: Sometimes when I read a nasty review I think it might be quite nice to wear a white suit and a white helmet.

QUESTION: LeBlanc doesn’t seem to be a car nut in the same league as previous presenters. How often are you stopping to explain something technical off screen. And, how good is his driving really?

ANSWER: He is a big, big car nut and that’s what people are surprised by, I think. He has specific areas of interest – he loves his Porsches and is very knowledgeable about those. I don’t have to stop and explain anything to him.

Mechanically, in some ways, he has a deeper knowledge than me, he loves the nuts and bolts; he can take stuff apart and put it back together again.

The only time I’ll have to explain anything to him, the only holes I see, is that his understanding and knowledge of cars is very much American and mine is European. He has a few gaps around European cars, but that’s not because he’s not a petrol head, that’s because he’s not from where I live and it’s a UK based show. He quite often explains stuff to me about American cars.

His driving is good, I was amazed. When I started hanging out with him a bit and realised how good he is on a motorcycle, in my experience anyone that can drive a motorcycle fast tends to be pretty good in the car straight away. You’d be surprised at how good he is – he doesn’t get carried by me at all.

QUESTION: Have you reconciled with Lamborghini since the spat, and how has it affected what you test on TG?

ANSWER: I’m never going to be best friends with them. But then I didn’t enter this world to be best friends with car manufacturers. I suppose I’ll sit down with them at some point. They have a new boss. I think he’s quite a good bloke, Stefano Domenicali from Ferrari is now the boss of Lamborghini. It doesn’t affect me at all.

If a car manufacturer doesn’t want to have their car featured on the biggest car show in the world because I’ve said nasty things about them in the past, well that’s their prerogative. I suggest that’s not the way to go about it. I’ve yet to have that happen to me. In Venice, we had a Lamborghini in the show a couple of weeks ago, and I drove that car for a few minutes in the film; no-one from Lamborghini jumped out from behind a bush and told me to get out of it.

QUESTION: You were a motoring writer before you got on the telly, so, what got you into automotive journalism?

ANSWER: I’m a car nut. I’ve always read car magazines. I read them religiously as a kid. I was influenced a lot by some Australian journalists that dominated Australia and the UK in the 1980s and ‘90s, names like Peter Robinson – he’s a legend and a good friend of mine and is someone I’ve admired and has nurtured me through my career. I got a break doing work experience for Autocar magazine and I’d studied English as a student. The only thing I could do was write and enjoy cars. I was useless at everything else. And eventually I got all the lucky breaks where I needed them. Every time I needed a door to open it kind of opened. I count myself as very fortunate. I love my job and I never tire of it. I wake up every Monday morning early and I can’t wait to get in the next car and drive it.

QUESTION: How has the internet changed the automotive media landscape… does it mean shows like TG need to get bigger and flashier each season?

ANSWER: It’s having an effect obviously because you have more competition. There is so much noise out there. There is so much video-based car noise. It’s difficult to know where it starts and where it ends. What is content, what is noise and what is journalism? You almost need sub-genres to describe what some of these things are.

How does it affect Top Gear? It keeps us on our toes. But I still think there is a space for a high-quality, beautifully-produced, epically-shot TV show about cars and that is the one thing that the internet cannot compete with. The production values that Top Gear gives people you just cannot replicate on the internet. So, that means it’s safe

Top Gear is a broader brand. We need to respond. We have a series of shows called Chris Harris on Cars which are lower budget and I think they are a good response to the internet competition and I’m very interested in keeping those going as I think it is content that sits one or two tiers below the top-level TV show, but still gets a big audience and is more aimed at the real enthusiast. You may see a Ferrari FXX K for 5-7 minutes on the TV show but there is a section of the audience that wants 25 minutes just about the differential in that car and we can deliver that kind of content online to them it’s not a TV product but it’s not an online product either.

QUESTION: Who were your heroes growing up, motoring or otherwise and why?

ANSWER: I was an Ayrton Senna obsessive. And even though he was competition, I was a Nigel Mansell devotee as well. I loved endurance racing as a kid, so Jack Ickx was my hero too. Weirdly, my mother, who is now 83 years old, was an autocross racer and she was the one who got me into cars.

Journalists were also my heroes. In those days that was the only way you got car material, there was no internet, no YouTube; you read car magazines. I suppose the big names like, LJK Setright, people like Peter Robinson, Steve Cropley and Andrew Frankel, they were all big, big names to me when I was younger. Getting to work with them afterwards and meeting them all has been one of the greatest pleasures of my working life. I got to meet my heroes and work with them.

QUESTION: What’s more fun: a fast car slow or a slow car fast?

ANSWER: Slow car fast. No doubt about that.

QUESTION: Do you prefer station wagons or SUVs?

ANSWER: Station wagon every time.

QUESTION: Of all the cars you’ve driven or been driven in, what was the worst? And what was the best? And why?

ANSWER: My favourite car changes daily. If you could give me one car right now, I’d say the McLaren P1, there’s something about the McLaren P1 that just ticks all my boxes and I love it. I’ve driven some pretty shonky cars in my time, I really have. But I think quite often, anyone can laugh at a rubbish Chinese car that’s cheaply made, but some of the most disappointing cars I’ve driven have carried quite prestigious badges. BMW is a fantastic brand, but I remember when they launched the E65 series, I couldn’t believe how bad it was, it looked terrible, it didn’t ride well, nothing about it worked. But they turned it around and now they have got an amazing range of cars, but back then that was one of the most disappointing cars I think I’d ever driven.

QUESTION: Who’s fastest around the TG track and what was their time?

ANSWER: We’ve never done it. But if I wasn’t first I would resign immediately?

QUESTION: American muscle cars or something British… what and why?

ANSWER: That is a difficult question. I’m in a bit of a muscle car phase now. I’m not that into driving gloves and British sports cars, MGs and all that sort of stuff, that’s how people perceive British sports cars and that’s not really me. So, right now I’d like a Chevy Camaro Z28.

So you know…

Top Gear airs Mondays at 8.30pm on BBC Knowledge and Chris Harris on Cars, begins Monday May 29 at 8.30pm also on BBC Knowledge.


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Isaac Bober

Isaac Bober

Isaac Bober was born in the shadow of Mount Panorama in Bathurst and, so, it was inevitable he’d fall into work as a motoring writer. He began his motoring career in 2000 reviewing commercial vehicles, before becoming editor of Caravan & Motorhome magazine. He then moved to MOTOR Magazine before going freelance and contributing to Overlander 4WD, 4×4 Australia, TopGear Australia, Men’s Health, Men’s Fitness, The Australian, CARSguide, and many more.