by Matt Ayres
'Some say that he sucks the moisture from ducks, and that his crash helmet is modelled on Britney Spears’ head. All we know is he’s called The Stig.'
Between 2003 and 2010 bizarre intros like this were all that fans of Top Gear knew about Ben Collins. But as the first 'White Stig' (following on from 'Black Stig' who was killed off from the show after just a year’s service) Collins became as synonymous with the show as its three outspoken presenters.
The difference was that nobody knew his name, his face or even his voice. All anybody really knew about Collins’ masked moniker was that he drove very fast and very well, using his talents to demonstrate the pros and cons of different vehicles and coach hapless celebrities around the Top Gear test track during 'Star in a Reasonably Priced Car' feature.
That all changed in 2010 when Collins released an autobiography revealing the true identity of The Stig, as well as details of his life before Top Gear. Following the release of his latest book How To Drive: The Ultimate Guide, The Essential Cyclist recently spoke to Collins to learn more about his intriguing past.
How did your passion and talent for driving come about?
I've always loved driving and I grew up on a farm which gave me ample opportunity to drive the wheels off different kinds of machinery. As you can imagine I was very popular with the farmer – my Mum. But the real bug got hold of me when I first drove a single seater around Silverstone's Grand Prix circuit. I felt at home straight away and life was never the same after that. I was totally hooked on speed.
How important was your time as a Special Forces driving instructor in shaping the career you've had since?
When I was training drivers in the army there were more soldiers being killed by car crashes than bullets. That's hard to believe, but sadly true. Working to address that by teaching them how to control speed safely was a privilege, and because the army instils discipline they were very quick learners. But it really showed me how poorly prepared all drivers are for a lifetime on the road and I've wanted to share my knowledge ever since.
What led to your transition into racing?
After I obtained a racing license I started at the bottom of the racing ladder and worked my way up to Formula 3 and finally the Le Mans 24 Hours where I still compete.
How did you get the job as The Stig?
I sent in my CV! The boss of the show, Andy Wilman, sent me down to the Top Gear track, chucked me the keys to a Ford Focus and he timed my progress around the circuit. He wouldn't say if I had done well or badly so I was left hanging for a few months. Then one day I got a call and it turned out that the Black Stig was being killed off, and I found myself wearing a white suit for the next 8 years.
What was the most unbelievable experience you had while working on Top Gear?
Unbelievable is the best way to describe one gentleman that attempted the 'Star in a Reasonably Priced Car' challenge. He wanted to beat the slowest time we had, set by Terry Wogan, which didn't sound very impressive…bar the fact that he was completely blind. I spent two fantastic days with Billy Baxter, and by the end of it he had beaten not just Wogan's time, but four other sighted celebs. I loved Top Gear for that. They were never afraid to take a chance on someone, myself included.
Perhaps The Stig's defining characteristic is his mysterious identity - why did you decide that you wanted the world to know it was you?
I knew it was time to leave the show when my name could no longer be removed from Wikipedia, and rumours were circulating of my imminent replacement. When the BBC's Radio Times published my identity it was a seminal moment. I decided to part company with the show and tell my side of the story, because I suspected there might be some bickering with the BBC when I left. It turned out that I was right but I'm glad to say that we have all made up since.
You have since reappeared on the show, how has your relationship with the presenters and producers changed since 'coming out' as The Stig?
Honestly I didn't have much to do with the presenters outside of filming, and in that sense not much has changed. I've made up with my old boss, Wilman, and that meant a lot to me. We got together in support of the Help for Heroes gang who took part in the Dakar Rally, and that put things in context. Those soldiers, who were all amputees, put up with unbelievable hardship, heat and pain in order to raise funds for their comrades. And somehow they managed to achieve the impossible by completing Dakar.
Your latest book is focused on being a good driver, rather than just a fast one. Why, in your opinion, is this such an important message?
Anybody can make a car go fast, but it takes an expert to understand how to slow things down. By that I mean looking further ahead, which slows down time, and being smooth with the controls which saves fuel and keeps you out of the ditch. The skills I've learned at the extreme end of driving can make anybody a safer, better driver and learn to enjoy the ride.
HOW TO DRIVE: The Ultimate Guide – From The Man Who Was The Stig by Ben Collins is out now, published by Pan Macmillan at £20.