x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Unmasking the driving force of Top Gear

For seven years, Top Gear's greatest secret, and some say the key to its success, has been the mystery of The Stig. Now a book threatens to reveal the driver's identity.

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Some say his ears have a paisley lining, that his heart is on upside down and that on his face is a precise tattoo - of his face. Furthermore, he lives in a tree, surviving on cheese and the moisture he sucks from ducks. His voice can be heard only by cats, his teeth glow in the dark and, if he caught fire, he would burn for 1,000 days. All we know is that these are just some of the myths and legends that have grown up around The Stig, the mysterious, silent and always-helmeted test driver who, since his first appearance on the BBC motoring programme Top Gear in 2003, has, until now, successfully defied all attempts to reveal his true identity. The Stig's job is to set benchmark track times for cars tested on Top Gear and to coach the celebrities who compete to set lap records in the show's "Star in A Reasonably Priced Car" segment. The true genius of The Stig, however, is his carefully preserved anonymity and a mystique that have helped Top Gear to become one of the BBC's most internationally successful programmes, earning the corporation an estimated £25 million (Dh142m) in 2009-2010 alone. The BBC says: "We never comment on speculation as to who or what The Stig is." But, for fans around the world, his identity is the subject of constant speculation, kept alive by his own Facebook page (with more than 2.5 million fans), Wikipedia entry, international fan sites, Twitter page and a "Who is the Stig?" iPhone application. Without doubt, the robotic Stig exudes mystery from every pore. When he visited the UAE in May 2008, to hurl a Bugatti Veyron up and down Jebel Hafeet for Top Gear magazine, Neil Vorano, The National's motoring editor, noted that not once did the man in white go to the toilet. "He managed to stand outside for extended periods of time in the extreme temperatures, with no shade and in his Nomex fireproof suit, arms folded as usual," wrote Vorano. "Only twice did he have his visor up - just halfway - but somehow he sensed we were trying to get a glimpse of his face and he immediately snapped it back down." Vorano may have had a lucky escape. "Only seven people have looked The Stig straight in the eyes," according to Top Gear's website. "They are all dead now." Top Gear, first broadcast in the UK in 1977, ran for 24 years before its relaunch with The Stig in 2002. Jeremy Clarkson, today the show's humorously irascible frontman, was a co-presenter on the original programme between 1988 and 2000. When it was threatened with closure in 2001, he and Andy Wilman, the executive producer, put together a proposal for a relaunch, and in 2002 Top Gear was reborn. Today, the show is filmed before a live studio audience in a hangar at Dunsfold Aerodrome in Surrey, England, a former Second World War fighter base for the Royal Canadian Air Force. In the UK, each show regularly attracts more than four million viewers. Worldwide, it has an estimated following of 350 million in more than 20 countries, including the UAE. The Stig, who plays a central if silent part in the show's success, was born at Repton, the British public school in Derbyshire, England, where Clarkson and Wilman met as 12-year-old pupils, and where all new boys were known as "Stigs". The first incarnation of The Stig lasted for just the first two series of the new show. "Black Stig", dressed in all-black racing suit and helmet, was introduced by Clarkson as an "it" - "We don't know its name, and we don't want to know" - whose job was to "just go out there and drive fast". But Black Stig was the author of his own demise. The BBC has always been ultra-secretive about the identity of The Stig - black or white - and his contract says that if his identity is revealed - by him, it or anyone else - his employment will be terminated. Black Stig's employment was terminated in spectacular fashion in July 2002, after the British racing driver Perry McCarthy outed himself as the mystery man in his autobiography, Flat Out, Flat Broke - Formula One The Hard Way. Black Stig was killed off at the beginning of the third series, broadcast in the UK on October 26, 2003, when he drove a souped-up Jaguar XJ-S off the flight deck of the aircraft carrier HMS Invincible. All that surfaced was a single black driving glove. That, remarked Clarkson, "was unquestionably the end of our Jaguar. But what about The Stig?" On the very next episode of the show, on November 2, 2003, Clarkson announced the "death" of Black Stig and introduced his successor. White Stig's first task was to take the limited-edition BMW M3 CSL around the track, which he did in 1:28 in wet conditions, and then to coach his first Star in a Reasonably Priced Car, the actor and comedian Stephen Fry. Since then, he has coached dozens of celebrities for the show, including Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz, who last month were photographed in publicity shots for their appearance trying unsuccessfully to lift off The Stig's helmet. The Stig has made a number of appearances that have only deepened his mystery. In 2008 he was sent to the British National Television Awards to collect Top Gear's third award as Best Factual Programme. The Stig, of course, said nothing, but handed over a letter from the three presenters. "Please remember to give The Stig the award in his left hand because the right one is magnetic," it read. "Also, it's probably best to keep him away from the cast of Coronation Street since he seems to have got it into his head that northerners are edible." In June last year - in an episode broadcast this week in the UAE - the programme had fun at the media's expense by revealing that The Stig was none other than seven-times F1 champion Michael Schumacher - and then dismissing him as an imposter after he drove the wrong way, badly, around the test track. Whoever he is, it is clear that The Stig is a very good driver. His record for lapping in the show's Reasonably Priced Car - 1:44.4 in a Suzuki Liana - has been beaten only once, and only just, when Rubens Barrichello, the Williams F1 driver, managed to shave one tenth of a second off the time in July this year. Many names have been put forward as candidates by various commentators and fans of the show; they include the British racing driver Damon Hill, the stunt driver Russ Swift ("I wish I had a fiver for every time someone asked me") and comedian Rowan Atkinson, the creator of the character Mr Bean and a motor-racing enthusiast. Even James May, the show's co-presenter dismissively labelled "Mr Slow" by Clarkson and fellow presenter Richard Hammond, has his believers. Many are the hours that have been spent by fans sifting painstakingly through the show's footage, analysing such details as the racing lines taken around the track by different drivers. One recurring suspect is Tiff Needell, one-time racing driver and former presenter of the show in its first incarnation - "happy to go sideways, fast, accurate on the apexes, similar height" - while others are certain it's "a different driver every week... just check out the neck ... different colour skin every time". Last January, suspicion fell briefly on Julian Bailey, a former F1 driver and friend of Wilman, when locals in the village where he lives, in Surrey, built a snowman in his garden, complete with Stig helmet. Another of the many drivers who, from time to time, have been suspected of being The Stig is the former F1 racing driver Martin Brundle, now a TV commentator. "People all around the world ask me who The Stig is," he once told The Sunday Times. On one occasion, Brundle was piloting his helicopter "and one of the air-traffic controllers said, 'Will you please just tell us something: are you The Stig?' It wasn't quite protocol." However, evidence has been mounting that The Stig is Ben Collins, a 35-year-old British racing driver who, since 1994, has competed in everything from World Sportscars, GT Racing and NASCAR to F3, F1 and Le Mans, with a sideline in film stunt work (he doubled for Daniel Craig on the James Bond film Quantum of Solace), driver training and corporate track days. In January 2009, the Evening Post in Bristol claimed that Collins had revealed his alter ego to the owners of a photographic gallery near his home in the city. A man who said he was a BBC marketing executive came in to order 200 prints of a photograph of The Stig taken in Arizona. He supposedly "let slip" that he was actually the man in white - and then asked the gallery staff to sign a confidentiality agreement. On the other hand, admitted the owner of the C2 Gallery, "I suppose it could be a wind-up". None of this amounted to incontrovertible evidence but now, if the British press is to be believed, The Stig is close to being exposed. On August 19, the BBC confirmed that The Stig, like Black Stig before him, had turned on his handlers and was planning to publish his autobiography. The BBC confirmed that it was "bringing legal proceedings to restrain from publication the identity of an individual who plays the character". Last weekend, The Sunday Times claimed to have unearthed conclusive proof. Checking the financial reports of Collins' company, reporters found that, starting in December 2003, the month after White Stig's first appearance on the programme, the company recorded a "cornerstone year", thanks in part to "driving services provided for the BBC, mainly in the Top Gear programme". It was, commented the newspaper this week, "not hard to see why the BBC is defensive. Top Gear is one of its most successful programmes ... worth a fortune. While the wit of Clarkson, May and Richard Hammond drives the show, its global star is the man behind the dark visor. And his value lies in staying nameless". Contacted by the paper while driving, Collins resorted to a stock tactic: "I can't speak to you," he said. "I'm going into a tunnel." Some say The Stig is Everydriver. All we know is that if he really is about to spill the beans he could soon be taking a long trip off a short flight deck. @Email:jgornall@thenational.ae