x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

The former Stig speaks

Ben Collins's tenure as the Top Gear character came to an acrimonious end, but he tells us he has no regrets.

Ben Collins says he still has hopes of an F1 career, however unlikely it may be.
Ben Collins says he still has hopes of an F1 career, however unlikely it may be.

I'm in the passenger seat of a car being driven by The Stig - or should I say, the artist formerly known as The Stig.

Sadly, we're not going at break-neck speed around a race track, but trying to find a parking space in a borrowed Audi A5 in a wet and gloomy Bristol, the UK base of the man who for the past eight years had been the man behind the white mask on BBC's Top Gear.

Once parked, out comes the trademark helmet for the photo shoot and Ben Collins immediately becomes recognisable to passers-by, who scramble to get their own picture taken with the erstwhile "Tame Race Car Driver".

Without the mask, the 35-year-old former army reservist goes about his day-to-day existence virtually unnoticed.

"A few people have slapped me on the back and said 'well done'," he says, "but I don't get a lot of attention. When walking around I get the occasional double takes but that's about it."

The Stig is Top Gear's nameless, faceless test driver; the programme was highly protective of keeping his identity a secret, even portraying him as being not human. Now that Collins's secret is out, he's out of a job; but for nearly his entire eight-year tenure in the post, he managed to keep his identity under cover.

Coming out has been a long and arduous process. He was initially exposed in various stages by the British media before publishing his autobiography, The Man in the White Suit, for which he had to go through the High Court in London to fight an injunction from the BBC over the book's publication.

Fresh legal proceedings are potentially impending from the BBC over breach of contract, while Top Gearpresenter Jeremy Clarkson described him as a "greedy t***" in a recent interview.

The immensely likable and down-to-earth Collins is generally bemused by his acrimonious unveiling and Clarkson's comments. "That's incredibly hypocritical," he says, "when he's benefited so much from the programme. They made millions from it and I genuinely don't have a problem with that.

"Me, I didn't work for a king's ransom. OK, I was paid a reasonable amount of money but, if it was just about the money, I wouldn't have done it. But the fact is that this is a book about my life and it's not owned by the BBC."

The day of the court case with the BBC coincided with the birth of his third child, a stressful enough event without having a court case overhead.

"I asked to have the case postponed by a day or two," he says, "but they refused, which spoke volumes of their attitude to the whole thing. So, I chose the right thing and stayed away from the case and was there for the birth, because the most important thing is life and not some trumped-up case.

"Anyway, the case ran into a second day, which I was able to attend but I didn't get the ruling until I was on my way back on the train and a friend of mine texted me. I remember I punched the air."

Being allowed to reveal himself - which had already happened anyway through the media - and publish his book was a massive relief.

To his credit, however, Collins tries to steer the conversation away from the negative aspects surrounding The Stig and towards the positives. "I don't regret doing it," he concedes, "even though you might think I would after what happened recently. But the truth is that I had a lot of fun doing it for eight years."

At first, just his boss on Top Gear was privy to his identity; that branched out to five others and then steadily more as various production crew members got to know the man behind the mask.

He tried to keep his identity secret from everyone else. He drove to work in a balaclava, would hide his mobile phone and wallet - which proved handy after one tabloid journalist snooped around his belongings in a changing room. In the end, the journalist could only find out that The Stig had Size 10 feet.

"I was so careful not to park in the same place twice or do anything that might give my identity away," he says. "Even now, when I'm racing, I think twice before taking off my helmet and I think that will always be with me."

Ironically, Collins was more careful about keeping his identity hidden than his BBC bosses. For example, in his first year he was asked by the BBC to do an interview as The Stig for Dutch television, a clip that was beamed across the world.

"That wasn't just seen in Holland, so people in the racing fraternity who know me recognised my voice," he says. "So, people would come up to me and say it was me almost from that first year, but I'd just tell them it was a pack of lies. All the time I was thinking 'crikey, if I'm found out, I'll lose my job'."

There were other times when he was nearly found out - when Richard Hammond suffered a near-death crash on the show, Collins's name appeared on the health and safety report. As a result, Collins got himself a fake BBC ID with the name Richard Jameson on it to further cover his tracks.

Ironically, it was a BBC publication, the Radio Times, that effectively outed him, and slowly but surely his spell as The Stig came to an end.

The Stig has done a series of high-profile stunts for Top Gear as well as help prepare the presenters for driving and come up with ideas of his own. But he is arguably best known for getting celebrities ready behind the wheel for a segment of the show called Star in a Reasonably Priced Car.

"I've not got a bad word to say about any of the celebrities I worked with, which ranged from Tom Cruise to a space scientist.

"I thought Tom Cruise would be some trumped-up A-lister, but he was the complete opposite. He had time for the whole crew and was all smiles until he was driving, when he switched characters and was amazingly focused.

"He was quick, but I'd say Ronnie O'Sullivan [the snooker player] was the most naturally gifted racer of the celebrities. Simon Cowell was also very quick, but was the most pushy about finding out who I was. A sweet guy, though."

Amazingly, all the celebrities got to see was the man in the white helmet and racing suit, who himself endured a bizarre mix of challenges on Top Gear.

"There are so many standout moments, but I particularly liked the ones I came up with," he says, "like car football. Another time, I got a mate to parachute into a car I was driving at 50mph [80kph], and that was amazing when that came off."

Remarkably, only one driver has ever beaten The Stig's lap time at the Top Gear circuit in Surrey, England, where Star in a Reasonably Priced Car is filmed: Brazilian F1 driver Rubens Barrichello, although not even world champions Jenson Button or Lewis Hamilton could match him.

"That's good to know and I would say one thing about Rubens's lap," he says. "Watching it back, it was very quick, but some changes had been made to the track since my time and I know they affected things, as I did some much quicker times in supercars on the revised track."

There is life after The Stig for Collins. He has recently been signed up by rival motoring show Fifth Gear in the UK and is also focusing on next year's 24 Hours of Le Mans.

He has competed in the endurance race twice - although is yet to finish - but still has plenty of racing ambitions, which include F1.

"I'll never give up on F1," he admits. "I appreciate the opportunity has probably passed me by, but you can never give up on something that you dreamt of since you were a kid.

"If I'd blitzed the F3 championship when I had the chance [in 2000], it might have been different and, I know it sounds like a racing driver's excuse, but I had a crap engine. I was second in the first race and the engine went and, after that, Opel didn't have the resource to risk another engine."

As well as F1 and endurance racing, Collins's other motoring ambitions lie with Nascar, where he would like to finish his career as the first British champion in the US series.

Whatever path he next takes, it has already been an eventful journey. His career has also included five years in the British army after leaving university - where he studied law - after failing to land a race drive.

"I exhausted ringing every team out there for a drive, so I joined the army as a squaddie," he recalls. "I loved my time there and it taught me a lot. I ended up getting a drive with an army-backed team so it worked out well on the racing front and I met some amazing people who stayed in the army.

"A lot of them have been out to Afghanistan and Iraq, which could well have happened to me. Thankfully, all of them have come back OK."

Whatever he does, he will always be remembered as The Stig, something he is more than happy with. "Why not? It's been a lot of fun."

 

The Man in the White Suit by Ben Collins is published by Harper Collins. It is available from amazon.co.uk for Dh53.