Back this week for its 17th series (BBC2, Sunday, June 26), Top Gear has upset all manner of people over the years – and it’s not, as Richard Hammond tells TV&Satellite Week magazine, about to stop just yet…

You drive the Monte Carlo F1 street circuit in a Fiat 500 in the new series. What was that like?
“It was an interesting experience, because I really don’t know the way! But, what a privilege. We’ve only learned since how lucky we were to get to do that, because it really is very rare. Most of the time Monte Carlo is just a city. When it’s closed down and turned into a racetrack, there tends to be a Grand Prix on!”

What did your passenger, Red Bull’s Christian Horner, make of your driving?
“He wasn’t entirely impressed with some of my lines. The words I kept hearing were: ‘What was that?’ I said: ‘It’s only a little car, it hasn’t got any more power!’”

The Grand Prix stunt is part of a test on three hot hatches, isn’t it?
“Yes, it’s to resolve an argument the three of us have had over a lengthy period, about which is the best – the Citroen DS3 Racing, Fiat 500C Abarth or Renault Clio RS.|

Are you a fan of the Fiat?
“It’s gorgeous – a convertible, looks cute, roomy on the inside. I love it to bits and it’s great to drive. These things always work best when we really believe passionately in what we think is the best car. We always pick our favourite and, for me, it’s blindingly obvious in this case which one is the best. But the other two feel the same about their cars, so we argue a lot as a result.”

And you’ve also tested an alternative to the Hummer in South Africa, haven’t you?
“Yes, it’s a big old thing. It’s armoured, goes anywhere and I fired a .50 calibre machine gun at it and it didn’t make a hole! Also, I may or may not accidentally have driven it through a wall. I took it to a fast-food drive-through, but it turned out to be more of a drive-into.”

The first programme in the new series sees you mark the 50th birthday of the E-type Jag. How come Jeremy got that job when you’re such a fan?
“Yes, I actually have an E-type, a 1962 model from the year after they first came out. I adore them and yet Jeremy covered the 50th anniversary of my favourite car, the swine. He’s louder than everyone else, so he just shouts and gets his own way.”

Is it true Sebastian Vettel and Prince Harry are going to guest on the show?
“The joy of making a show that, more by luck than judgement, has found an audience as big as this, is that the guest list is astonishing. I hope those rumours turn out to be true!”

Do you envisage a petrol-free future?
“Quite possibly – it will run out one day. Whether the future is electric or hydrogen fuel-cell cars, I don’t know. They’re nearly there with the range of electric motorbikes and, as soon as they can get me to work and back – I live about 110 miles from London – I’m buying one. An electric engine delivers its power in a particular way – you get it all in one dollop, which is very exciting. I can’t wait to have a go on one.”

Which of the three of you has the shortest fuse?
“The other two would say me but, just because I’m the shortest, doesn’t necessarily mean I have the shortest fuse.”

Do you ever get fed up with the practical jokes?
“It’s just part of life – whether we’re hiding a horse’s head in James’s bed or whatever, you accept that’s going to happen. It goes on all the time and you can’t get all hot under the collar about it. I’ve got two daughters and I learned very early on, by watching my father with three sons in the back of the car arguing, not to get irritated. I deliberately follow that policy when I’m working with Jeremy and James. I assume they’ll be irritating, but don’t get irritated.”

Are your daughters remotely interested in cars?
“My eldest spends all her time at singing lessons and playing the piano. All my youngest does is ride ponies. But they like it when I pick them up from school in unusual cars. They’re still young enough not to be embarrassed by it. I did pick up my daughter recently in the E-type with the roof down, and then it wouldn’t start.”

What was the first car you owned?
“A 1976 Toyota Corolla liftback, as featured in The Blues Brothers. I painted a Japanese flag on the roof, and it had an eagle engraved on one of the side windows. I broke the rear suspension trying to get 14 people into it.”

And the worst?
“There have been a few! I once swapped my motorbike for an old Mk IV Escort, which turned out to have been stuck together with fibreglass in the middle and broke in half. I had a history of looking at my budget, looking at the car I wanted, realising I couldn’t afford it and then buying a really terrible version of that car. So I had an Opel Manta that was just shocking. And an old Jago Jeep kit car. The gear lever came off in my hand and I had to do the rest of the journey in third gear.”

What’s the biggest annoyance on the roads today?
“I don’t like speed humps. I’ve removed the sump from a little Alfa, ruined the rear suspension on a BMW bike and scuffed the undertray on the front of another car going over them.”

What would be the ultimate car accessory?
“Some device by means of which you could just press a button and it would take you home at the end of the evening.”

Do you find it hard not to speed on the public highway?
“It’s the opposite. Because we are very lucky, we get all of that out of our system. It’s no chore for me to drive through a village at 30mph if I’ve just spent the day belting round a track.”

What, so far, would be your choice for car of the year?
“I’d like it to be the Lamborghini Aventidor. I don’t like it when our Car of the Year is too sensible. Just because it’s car of the year doesn’t mean everyone thinks ‘Ooh, I must go out and buy one.’ Eight grand for a cheap car is still a bucket of money, so it might as well be 180 grand.”

Does it bother you when people criticise the show for being politically incorrect?
“We are what we are, and I don’t think people are surprised by us. They know what to expect and don’t tune into Top Gear expecting an entirely conformist programme. As long as we’re honest and believe what we’re saying and we’re having a laugh, then fine. I dislike being in trouble more than some people on the programme, but there you go.”

Is ‘The Hamster’ on Top Gear the real Richard Hammond?
“Ask anyone on telly how close their TV persona is to themselves and they can’t say for sure, because you are being observed, and that process of observation changes the subject. But, as far as I’m concerned, I’m being me and reacting to things as me.”