The BBC and ITV are caught in a multi-million pound bidding war to land a new-look Top Gear.
ITV has held secret meetings with Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond to see if it can lure them across as a trio to present a new motoring show on the commercial broadcaster.
Meanwhile, the BBC has offered May and Hammond a £4.6million deal to continue Top Gear - making them among the Corporation's highest-earning stars.
It is understood that they have been offered the deal to host the show for another two or three series.
It is thought they would earn between £760,000 and £1.15million per year, an increase on the £500,000 per series they were previously paid.
The new deal would put them almost on par with the salary earned by Clarkson before he left the BBC and on similar deals to Gary Lineker and Graham Norton, who are also believed to earn more than £1million a year at the broadcaster.
BBC bosses are said to be ‘extremely keen’ on modelling the Top Gear after Have I Got News For You, by replacing Clarkson with a third presenter who would change on a weekly basis.
Clarkson, 55, was ousted from the show in March after he punched his producer, Oisin Tymon, in a row over a steak.
Lord Tony Hall, the BBC’s director-general, refused to renew Clarkson’s Top Gear contract, saying a ‘line had been crossed’.
But sources claim that the Corporation is paving the way to welcome him back again in the future.
‘Hammond and May will go back to the BBC. Jeremy Clarkson goes back a season later. Then it’s all like it never happened.
In a bizarre turn of events, the BBC could end up paying much more for the show than it did before Clarkson assaulted his colleague.
It has already promised May, 52, and Hammond, 45, a pay rise - and Clarkson is unlikely to accept a pay package which is smaller than theirs.
However, ITV could still put the show out of reach. The broadcaster is struggling in the ratings, and could open its chequebook ‘out of panic’, an ITV source said.
The company would not be able to use the Top Gear format or name, but it could launch a new motoring show fronted by the same team.
ITV does not face the same commercial restrictions as the BBC, so it could come up with more creative ways of cutting Clarkson and his cohorts into a deal to sell the programme around the world.
However, it would also have to consider the risk to its advertising income if car manufacturers took offence at remarks the three men made about their vehicles.
Clarkson, Hammond and May – together with Top Gear’s former executive producer, Andy Wilman – have all met with ITV’s programming chief, Peter Fincham in recent weeks.
Elaine Bedell, the broadcaster’s head of entertainment and an old flame of Clarkson, was also present.
An ITV spokesman said today: ‘We haven't commented, and aren't planning to comment, on the continual Top Gear speculation which is swirling around the television industry.’
It is believed Top Gear is worth around £50million to the BBC's commercial arm and the Corporation are keen to salvage the revenue made by the show.
The programme's format would mirror that of Have I Got News For You, which brought in weekly guest hosts after presenter Angus Deayton left in 2002.
Comedy panel show Never Mind The Buzzcocks, which was axed last month, also experimented with guest presenters after the departure of host Simon Amstell.
In the past month, both May and Hammond have been spotted entering the BBC headquarters in West London and Hammond was also pictured chatting with Wilman, 52, before they and friends boarded pedaloes in Hyde Park.
However, representatives for both presenters have declined to comment on the reports.
It comes after May had previously appeared to rule out claims that they could film the programme with a stand-in for Clarkson, with speculation they too would leave the BBC.
Speaking in April, he said: 'Me and Hammond with a surrogate Jeremy is a non-starter, it just wouldn't work. That would be lame, or "awks" as young people say.
'It has to be the three of us. You can't just put a surrogate Jeremy in and expect it to carry on. It would be forced. I don't believe they would be stupid enough to try that.'
Hammond has also appeared to dispel any such move, tweeting: 'Not about to quit my mates.'
Both Hammond and May are currently touring UK arenas with Clarkson as part of a Top Gear tour, which has been renamed Clarkson, Hammond and May Live.
Former model Jodie Kidd was, earlier this year, made the bookies favourite to take Clarkson's place on the BBC show after she was seen drinking with the 55-year-old, who was sacked for punching producer Tymon in a row over a hot dinner after filming.