James May

Top Gear's James (Captain Slow) May will be in South Africa next month for a Top Gear Festival. Debashine Thangevelo found out what drives this immensely amusing car connoisseur:

Controversy has ostensibly befriended James May and his Top Gear co-presenters Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond over the years. Of course, it is par for the course given their success with the show.

The latest media blizzard erupted during the team's recent spell in Mexico for season 16: the hosts cracked a few jokes about the Mexican Mastretta sports car and how it supposedly complemented the "lazy and poor" people of Mexico.

Any questions on the incident were unfortunately removed from the table of discussion during a recent tele-con with May. But he was in cheerful spirits nonetheless and unfailingly injected his dry sense of humour throughout the interview.

While Top Gear has made it to 16 seasons, the first show was axed initially. May explains, "The first Top Gear show was cancelled. But it was successful for a long time. It was around since the mid 1970s and towards the end it became a bit tired.

"It was a magazine format show and it was becoming old-fashioned. Back then it was a car magazine show on television. Now it is an elaborate, slapstick sitcom."

Attempting to shed light on the secret to the Bafta and Emmy award-winning show's current sway around the globe, May surmises, "We don't think of it as a show for men. We think of it as family entertainment. We are delighted that women watch it. You get some women who are very into cars and some men who aren't. Honestly, the secret to its success is complicated - it eludes us. It is, I would like to believe, the combination of the perversity of three blokes."

Confirming his trip to South Africa next month, he says: "Yes, we are doing a Top Gear Festival at Kyalami. But we haven't finalised the details yet.

"We have a truly incredible line-up of historical and unusual cars coming through. It's like the best car museum in the world coming together."

May confirms that they were accompanied by a small contingent of private security and a medic on their recent 2 000km mile drive through the Middle East, stopping over in Iraq, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Israel and the West Bank - part of the Top Gear Christmas Double.

"The original idea of driving across the Middle East was interesting because we have never been there. I don't think we set out to shatter any misconceptions. I think it is badly misunderstood. My experience is that it is an extremely easy place to explore and that strangers and travellers are welcome," shares May.

He adds: "We have started to become more recognised around the world. We thought nobody would know us in Syria for some reason, because it has a very different culture - I was pleasantly surprised to find out we were wrong."

On how he feels that his trademark phrase "oh cock" has been adopted by fans, May laughs, "Small school children still run around me shouting 'oh cock' and their mothers then give them a clip around the ear."

When asked about their visit to Romania for the 14th series of Top Gear, where Clarkson got some flak for identifying Romanians as Gypsies, May opted for the safer route, saying: "Ooh, I would say we had some terrific food. There was a stew with lamb and rice. We had a fantastic time stuffing that in our face."

Touching on how the three find their rhythm, May says it's a sort of mutual self-loathing and pity. "Jeremy is hopeless and he thinks the same of me. I think Richard is a git. It is that resigned acceptance of each other's failings… and we have big ones. But we tolerate each other and it becomes a playground that works."

As for what's in the pipeline for season 15, May recalls, "I have to think about this carefully because I get this mixed up. There is the massive drive in the Middle East. Me doing a silly power test; Jeremy doing lots of power tests. We also got Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz on the track. We have Jeff Goldblum and we made our own motorhomes. Oh yes, we got a new reasonably priced car."

By the by, viewers can look forward to catching a glimpse of several hot rides from the Aston Martin DBS V12, Mercedes-Benz 190E 2.3-16 Cosworth, a BMW E36 M3, a Ford Sierra Saphirre RS Cosworth, a Porsche 911 Sport Classic, an Audi R8 V10 Spyder, a Porsche 997 Turbo Cabriolet, a Bugatti Veyron to the new Ferrari 458 Italia.

While season 15 speeds through a range of seriously hot rides, viewers can brace themselves for more laughter as the insults and resulting drama tries to match those revs.