Chris Evans has quit Top Gear a day after his first series in charge of the BBC2 flagship motoring show finished with its lowest ratings since 2002.
The Radio 2 breakfast show presenter, who took charge after Jeremy Clarkson was axed last year, said he had given it his best shot but "sometimes that's not enough".
The revamped show has been plagued by executive departures and reports of tension on the Top Gear set, not least with Evans’s co-presenter Matt LeBlanc.
The BBC is understood to be negotiating with former Friends star LeBlanc – thought to be keen to remain on the show – for a second series.
The details and success of those negotiations are not yet known.
Last month, it was reported LeBlanc threatened to quit if Evans did not go. The BBC declined to confirm those reports.
Evans, who had signed a three-year deal to present and oversee the show, was effectively its executive producer in all but name.
Although the BBC invited him to continue negotiations, he is understood to have been affected by his poor press coverage. In particular, the show and its main presenter received almost daily negative coverage in the Sun as well as other tabloid newspapers.
Evans will only receive one third of his three-year contract payment to produce Top Gear, with the BBC insisting that there will be no pay-off. Unlike Evans, LeBlanc is understood to have signed a one-year contract only.
On Sunday, when the show attracted its lowest ever ratings, the Sun on Sunday also reported allegations of sexual harassment that were made against Evans in May, allegedly dating from the early 1990s.
The presenter could be quizzed by officers from London’s Metropolitan police in the next few days. Evans has denied the claims and previously said the reports were a “witch-hunt” and allegations of bullying “ridiculous”.
The claims are not thought to have prompted the decision to step down.
Of stepping down, Evans said: “I have never worked with a more committed and driven team than the team I have worked with over the last 12 months. I feel like my standing aside is the single best thing I can now do to help the cause.
“I remain a huge fan of the show, always have been, always will be. I will continue to focus on my radio show and the allied events that it encompasses.”
Before Top Gear’s high-profile return in May, Evans told the Guardian he would be “disappointed” if the show had fewer than 5 million viewers.
The broadcaster’s most valuable show, worth an estimated £50 million (€59.75 million) in worldwide sales, the series’ opener had an overnight audience of 4.3 million viewers.
Evans was initially bullish about its performance, pointing to the number of people who watch TV on catch-up viewing and declaring newspaper critics of the show were “out of date”.
Speaking before the show’s launch in May, he had also said: “In many ways my job for this year has been not only to make this show but to take all the shit, which was going to happen. I knew I was going to get the shit kicked out of me.”
But audience figures kept tumbling, reaching successive lows in recent weeks before falling below 2 million for the first time on Sunday. The last show of the current series had an audience of just 1.9 million.
The BBC has said Evans will receive no payoff and will not be replaced – making it more likely that LeBlanc will be secured as lead presenter. The next series of Top Gear is already in pre-production, with filming due to start in September.
Mark Linsey, the director of the BBC's in-house production team, BBC Studios, said: "Chris is stepping down from his duties on Top Gear. He says he gave it his best shot, doing everything he could to make the show a success.
“He firmly believes that the right people remain, on both the production team and presenting team, to take the show forward and make it the hit we want it to be.
“The new series has so far notched up over 30 million views in the UK alone and has already been sold to 130 territories worldwide.”
Clarkson presented Top Gear for 22 series since reinventing it with executive producer Andy Wilman in 2002.
During his stint, it never dipped below 2 million viewers. At its peak, in the wake of co-presenter Richard Hammond’s near fatal high speed crash, it had more than 8 million viewers.
Clarkson and his former Top Gear co-hosts Richard Hammond and James May are making a new motoring-focused show for Amazon. com.
Perry McCarthy, who portrayed Top Gear’s mysterious The Stig in the first two series, has said he expected Chris Evans to quit after constant criticism.
“It’s sad for Chris,” he told BBC News. “But personally I was actually expecting such an announcement.”
The former racing driver added: “I wasn’t expecting it this quickly, but I did think Chris would step down from it.”
When asked why he believed Evans would leave, McCarthy pointed to the mixed reaction directed at the BBC Radio 2 DJ.
He said: “Chris is an enormously popular radio presenter and TV show host etc, but he hasn’t quite gelled with this show and he’s not really gelling with the viewers.
“It must be a little bit painful for him to receive this reaction from everybody. I don’t think he’d want to continue. I probably wouldn’t want to continue if I was getting constant criticism either.”
Aged ‘a thousand years’
Ahead of the show’s launch, Evans said he had aged “a thousand years” in his first 10 months as Top Gear presenter.
He wrote in BBC Top Gear Magazine: “I have never experienced anything in my career that comes close to what it’s like to make a single film for Top Gear, let alone a whole hour show ... let alone a whole series.”
Evans added: “There’s nothing left for us to be nervous about, we’ve each aged a thousand years in the past 10 months. We’re done.
“There’s nothing we can do now except sit back and enjoy our favourite show.”
Evans and LeBlanc made their debut in May as part of a seven-strong line-up of presenters. They were joined by racing driver Schmitz, Formula One presenter Eddie Jordan, YouTube star Chris Harris, car enthusiast Rory Reid and The Stig.
Despite reports of poor ratings, Evans remained defiant, telling his 2.3 million Twitter followers that “overnight television viewing figures for Top Gear have never been less relevant.”
He wrote in June: “Top Gear audience grew throughout the hour. FACT. Won its slot. FACT. Still number one on i Player. FACT. These are THE FACTS folks.”
Evans added: “The way Top Gear is being viewed is repositioning the way television is consumed,” saying that the show had actually reached nine million viewers including iPlayer figures.
US figures have also shown a plummeting audience.
The first episode of the revamped programme attracted 388,000 viewers when it aired on May 30th, according to Nielsen ratings, compared with 530,000 viewers for the opening episode of the previous series with the show's former presenters.
BBC America, which released the ratings, said Top Gear's opening show faced tough competition, including from two high-profile sports events - the finals of the NBA Western Conference and ice hockey's Stanley Cup.
A spokeswoman said: “Premiere night was an incredibly competitive evening in the US with programmes that attracted a heavily male-skewing audience, which overlaps greatly with the BBC America audience.”