It seemed those behind the Top Gear scenes were less than happy about Perry McCarthy being revealed as The Stig. The whole point of the character was for him to be a brilliant driver, but completely mysterious, creating tension and controversy out of, let's be honest, virtually nothing. With his name in the public domain, it was pointless Perry continuing to hide behind the tinted visor, so either he drove as himself or he was replaced. The decision was made to bump him off and in the opening episode, the man in black was seen plummeting into the murky depths of the sea in a Jaguar XJS after driving off the deck of HMS Invincible. The footage created a wave of complaints, but negative publicity only serves to place a bigger glint in Jezza's eye. In the second edition, we were introduced to ?The New Stig' - a whiter-than-white suited version of the familiar character with a different (we assume) driver hidden beneath the coveralls and helmet. Six and a bit years later, Stiggy - as he is affectionately known - remains anonymous, despite a publicity stunt in 2009 (see the series 13 synopsis). Celebrity guests in this season included Martin Kemp, Rob Brydon, Rich Hall, Simon Cowell, Johnny Vegas and national treasure Stephen Fry, with highlights such as the Hamster showing us what happens when a vehicle is submerged; the trio's attempts to destroy the unfathomably tough Toyota Hilux with fire, water and caravans dropped from a great height; and the Top Gear Generation Game which saw Jezza and his diminutive counterpart aggressively arguing the pros and cons of vehicles old and new.
Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May returned with series four in May, 2004. The race to Monte Carlo was the first of their big 'Car Versus...' challenges as Richard and James travelled by public transport, while Jeremy put his foot down in an Aston Martin DB9 to see who would reach a certain destination first. Other adventures and challenges involved cars bought on a budget. The first was particularly cheap as the trio had only £100 each to find road legal cars that would survive a journey to Manchester. The series 4 celebrity line-up featured Fay Ripley, Katie ?Jordan' Price, Ronnie O'Sullivan, Denise van Outen, Johnny Vaughan, Terry Wogan, Lionel Richie, Martin Clunes and Paul McKenna. Other highlights included Car Darts; Nun in a Monster Truck; Lightning Strike; and the Olympic Long Jump Challenge.
We counted down to Christmas 2004 with nine new episodes of what was still being described as a motoring magazine, but in reality was a madcap entertainment show which also provided useful information about the internal combustion engine in its various forms. The hosts had, by this stage, become a very solid and reliable tripod of talent, each playing up to their strengths and mocking each other's weaknesses with blokey, pub-style banter. The series set off at a terrific pace with Jezza eating his own hair in a recipe prepared by chef Anthony Worrall Thompson, following up from a wager he'd made months earlier about the appearance of the Vauxhall Astra. Plus the Hamster set out to discover if an ice cream van could leap over four bouncy castles. Clearly the latter had very little to do with true petrolhead journalism, but boy it was funny. The season continued in the same vein with Caravan Conkers; People Carrier Races; Jeremy testing the face-distorting Ariel Atom and attempting to drive a Land Rover Discovery up a Scottish Mountain; and Richard visiting Rinspeed to take a trip in a hydrofoil car. Celebrities included Bill Bailey, Geri Halliwell, Joanna Lumley, Jimmy Carr, Christian Slater, Cliff Richard, Roger Daltrey and Eddie Izzard. However, the two biggies of the season - and in no particular order - were The Race to Verbier and 1500quid Porches. The former was another mad-dash, with Jezza driving a Ferrari 612 Scaglietta from the Top Gear base in Dunsfold to a rather glamorous ski lodge in Verbier, while Hamster and Slow travelled by both air and rail. Who won? I know it's hard to believe, particularly with the opposition allowed to take flights, but Clarkson's wheels tore up the road and passed the bickering duo only a few hundred yards from their final destination. As for the Porche challenge, all three self-assured car fanatics used their 1500 smackers to purchase second-hand sporty numbers for a day out to Brighton. As you might predict, they suffered a variety of mishaps and discovered an abundance of faults and problems with their vehicles.
Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May returned for season six which began in May 2005, with Clarkson taking on a Challenger 2 tank in a new Range Rover Sport before later in the series driving his Rolls Royce into a swimming pool and evading Irish Guard snipers, before competing against a marathon runner in a race through London in a Fiat Panda. The big race of the series was from London to Oslo, 1320miles between the two capitals with Jeremy in a McLaren Mercedes SLR and the boys travelling by plane, bus, high-speed ferry, speed boat and bus again. As entertaining as the race was, for once it wasn't the series highlight. The two contenders for that mantle were Hammond's Pamplona bull run (allegedly adrenalin training in preparation for driving the Lamborghini Murcielago) and the trio's mums taking to the track to put three small cars through their paces. Celebrity guests included James Nesbitt, Jack Dee, Christopher Eccleston, David Dimbleby and Davina McCall.
Season seven began in late 2005, with the regular trio of Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May embarking on a road trip to the Millau Bridge in France in a Zonda, Ford GT and Ferrari F430. The series continued with the team testing a variety of supercars including the Bugatti Veyron. Other highlights included Jeremy's comparison of driving style and speed between real life and computer games; Richard racing a greyhound in a Mazda MX-5; James and Richard building full-size radio-controlled cars; the Isle of Man race; and a Winter Olympics special in Norway with mad stunts such as a rocket-powered Mini on the ski jump, ice hockey in Suzuki Swifts and a bobsleigh team racing a Mitsubishi rally car. The celeb line-up competing for top spot on the fastest lap chart featured Trevor Eve, Ellen MacArthur, Ian Wright and David Walliams.
Summer 2006 saw the airing of season eight of the motoring series. The first episode saw Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May transforming a Renault Espace people carrier, cutting off the roof and manufacturing their own hood in a bid to make a large family convertible. Other challenges the trio faced included hosting a radio drivetime show; attempting to build amphibious vehicles; four-a-side hatchback football; a caravan holiday to Dorset; and a van test while employed as roadies for The Who. Season eight also saw the Reasonably Priced Suzuki Liana replaced with the Chevrolet Lacetti, sparking an unexpected level of competition between celebrities, with old hands returning for a lap in the new vehicle. Later episodes included Gordon Ramsey, Philip Glenister, Ewan McGregor, Michael Gambon, Brian Cox, Ray Winstone and Steve Coogan. Plus, trio built a kit car in the time it took The Stig to drive from Surrey to Scotland.
Filming for series nine was disrupted on 20th September 2006 when presenter Richard Hammond was seriously injured driving a Vampire drag car at a speed of 220 miles per hour that crashed at a Yorkshire Airfield. Fortunately, Hammond recovered from his injuries and series nine aired in January 2007. All three men appeared emotional as they, the studio audience and viewers watched the crash. It would be wrong to call this a highlight, but it was certainly a memorable episode in the show's history, but for the worst of reasons. Desperate to avoid melancholy, the trio ploughed ahead with a variety of new challenges during the series. The big adventure saw them driving across America in second-hand cars they had bought for less than $1000, trying to prove it was possible to buy and then re-sell a reliable vehicle for less than the cost of a rental. Other highlights included James and Richard trying to send a Reliant Robin into space; tractor tests; and the creation of stretch limos from ordinary cars. Hugh Grant, Simon Pegg, Billie Piper and Kristen Scott Thomas were the stars in the Reasonably Priced Car.
Another break in broadcasts and another disaster - albeit rather less serious than the Hamster's near-fatal crash. The victims this time were the Cool Wall and the Top Gear furniture which were destroyed in a fire. Needless to say, Jezza had his own views on who was responsible for the inferno and blamed the hosts of a different motor magazine show, before cracking on with the difficult business of answering a very important question - what's the greatest driving road in Europe? Behind the wheels of three very flash sports cars, the lads crossed the Channel and began a seemingly directionless quest to find it, with many a row en route. This was the starting point for another rip-roaring season and it seemed the hosts' appetite for challenges was impossible to sate as they made a second attempt at amphibious vehicle construction; raced across London using four different modes of transport - with The Stig in possession of an Oyster card for bus and Tube trips; created the new sport of motorhome racing; took part in a gruelling 24 hour tag team race in a modified BMW 330d (and believe it or not, Jezza crossed the line with tears of joy streaming down his face); and drove across Botswana in their African Adventure. The latter was truly spectacular, but clearly very difficult. Each bought an old vehicle and was responsible for its maintenance and adaption to suit the harsh and ever-changing terrain. Rather unexpectedly, Richard fell in love - but his wife needn't have worried as the object of his affection was a gorgeous little Opel he named Oliver. Celebrities featured in other episodes included Helen Mirren, Jools Holland, Simon Cowell, Lawrence Dallaglio, Jennifer Saunders, James Blunt, Keith Allen and David Tennant.
The summer of 2008 saw Britain in the grip of its ?fuel crisis'. Prices had shot up dramatically and no matter where you were or what time of day it was, you could hear someone waxing lyrical on the subject. As series 11 began, Clarkson claimed he had a solution to the problem, but in true Top Gear style, it was really an excuse to drive a supercar and criticise the Prius. Jezza's theory, which he gave with great gusto and enthusiasm, was that if driven properly, a sports car could be more economical than one of its greener siblings. The results will no doubt be debated for many years to come. The opening instalment also included the first appearance of the Top Gear stuntman who attempted to jump an Austin Allegro over a line of cars. That doesn't sound too exciting, you might say, but this was no straightforward high speed leap (if there is such a thing) as the TG daredevil was attempting it driving in reverse. Plus, in an effort to reduce expenses for the boys in blue, on a budget of £1500 each, the hosts bought second-hand cars and adapted them to become police cars. As the season progressed, one memorable highlight followed another, including Jeremy driving cross-country in a Daihatsu Terios while being hunted by hounds and a jodhpur-clad, horse-riding Hammond; England v Germany as hosts of the respective nations' Top Gear shows battled it out in motoring challenges (don't mention the war!); a race across Japan with Jezza competing against the Bullet Train in a GT-R; and something for proud petrolheads - a competiton-cum-united effort to get three second-hand Alfa Romeos through a series of challenges. Celebrity guests included James Corden, Rob Brydon, Peter Firth, Rupert Penry-Jones, Peter Jones and Theo Paphetis.
There was some very clever scheduling for series 12 as it ended with a special challenge edition that was broadcast during the 2008 Festive season. With an epic eight day road trip across Vietnam planned, our daring trio excitedly set out in search of cars with their extravagant-sounding budgets. Unfortunately for them, the exchange rate wasn't quite as good as they thought and so their only option was to invest in motorbikes or mopeds. For Clarkson, who, unlike his pals loathed bikes, this was particularly bad news. Slow, bumpy, tiring, hot and humid - these were the more polite descriptions they gave of the journey, but in between breakdowns, arguments and injuries (the novice came off his bike during a spectacular slide), they witnessed breathtaking scenery, sampled fascinating recipes, learnt a lot about Vietnamese culture, interacted with wonderful locals, bought each other ridiculous gifts and had outlandish suits tailor made. Oh, they also cheated and piled onto a train, only to end up in the wrong destination. With such an outstanding conclusion, the rest of the season could have been rubbish and we would have forgiven them, but nothing could be further from the truth. The team made a second trip to the US, this time to test out muscle cars - and once again failed to make friends with our American cousins; Richard and James found themselves on the French Riviera to pit a Ferrari Daytona against a powerboat; Jezza almost ?went green' during an electric car test; and in the One Tank Challenge, the trio raced in a very unfamiliar style, each trying to make it from Switzerland to Blackpool without an additional fill-up. Celebrity guests included Michael Parkinson, Mark Wahlberg, Will Young, Harry Enfield, Boris Johnson, Tom Jones and Kevin McCloud.
'Some say' The Stig is a retired Formula 1 driver mate of Jezza's, while others are convinced it's still Perry McCarthy. And there are some that really couldn't care less. However, in the opening edition of series 13 in June 2009, people who didn't even watch Top Gear sat up and took notice as the white-suited icon removed his helmet. The event turned into a media frenzy as The Stig was revealed as charismatic F1 champ Michael Schumacher. But there was something about the cocky smile on Jezza's face, not to mention his show sign-off to say he didn't believe the German-born ?Mach' was really The Stig, that made it clear to anyone who didn't have an irony deficiency that it had all been a massive gag. The season also kicked off with another fantastic challenge, this time with a black & white Ealing movie feel, as Clarkson shovelled coal for all he was worth in the cab of a steam train, Hammond braved vibration Hell on a vintage motorbike, and May looked the epitome of a British gent in a classic Jag. The trio's final destination was Scotland, but very quickly Jezza realised the competition wasn't a done deal and the life of a steam train driver wasn't quite what he'd dreamed of as a child. Other highlights included the rear wheel drive ice racing in France with £1500 cars of their choice; a quest to find a sensibly priced small car that performed well and wouldn't make its owner permanently miserable or embarrassed; a classic car rally; Hamster and Slow attempting to beat a letter from one end of Britain to the other in a Porsche Panamera; and Jezza and James's united effort to make their own advert for a Volkswagen. Celebrity guests included Stephen Fry, Michael McIntyre, Usain Bolt, Sienna Miller and Jay Leno.
The Top Gear trio head to Romania in search of the greatest driving road in the world, take a novel approach to caravanning and invent a new motor sport.
Television's most daring trio cause thrills, spills and mayhem as they attempt to bring back the three wheeled car and drive up an active volcano.
Jeremy races the sun in the new Jag XJ, Richard attempts to beat gravity in a Porsche 911 Turbo S Cabriolet and James takes on the Ariel Atom v8.
Jeremy, Richard and James build a car-based train, smash down buildings with military equipment and race hatchbacks around the Monaco Grand Prix track.
The series begins with Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May putting a trio of supercars to the test in Italy. In later episodes, the trio learn about China's expanding car industry; assist with a movie remake of The Sweeney; work on a project to build mobility scooters capable of tackling the British countryside's terrain; and pay tribute to troubled Swedish car manufacturer Saab. The stars in a Reasonably Priced Car include actors Matt LeBlanc, Ryan Reynolds and Michael Fassbender, and Blur bassist Alex James.
In Season 19, Jeremy Clarkson tests a small car on the streets of London, Richard Hammond gets behind the wheel of the muscular Dodge Viper and James May drives a revamped Range Rover.
In Season 20, Jeremy Clarkson and James May take part in a race between a car and a yacht in New Zealand and Richard Hammond harnesses the power of motorsport to find the world's best taxi.
In Season 21, James May spends time at Camp Bastion in Afghanistan to learn about the army's vehicle redeployment efforts and Richard Hammond drives the Porsche 918 Spyder.
In Season 22, the Lamborghini Huracan is tested, Jeremy, Richard and James embark on a road trip across Australia's Northern Territory and Richard pays tribute to the Land Rover.
In Season 23, Matt LeBlanc tackles the wilds of Morocco in the Ariel Nomad, Chris Evans joins Jenson Button for a ride in the McLaren 675LT and Chris Harris test drives Ferrari's F12 TDF.
In Season 24, Chris Harris, Matt LeBlanc and Rory Reid race across Kazakhstan in high-mileage cars and Rory and Sabine Schmitz search for the latest supercars at the Nurburgring circuit.