New Sasol GTC cars set for thrills

The iconic Grand Prix Circuit will present a new challenge to the GTC drivers as they tackle the country’s fastest racetrack on June 16.

Suzuki’s new Swift hatch and sedan in SA

Suzuki kicks off its new model assault with an all new Swift hatchback and standalone sedan called the Dzire.

Column: The Stig's identity crisis

2010-09-09 10:04

Lance Branquinho

Four of the biggest names in motoring entertainment, yet one was forced to always keep his mouth shut. Was The Stig’s enigmatic cult of personality always heading for disaster?

It was worse than happening upon the true identity of Santa Claus when you were five years old.

Last week, the world’s most famous nameless driver was identified; in case you missed it, Ben Collins is The Stig.

Top Gear, being one of the world’s most popular TV shows, dictated that the revelation of The Stig’s identity was news. Big news.

On a scale of leaked secrets, The Stig’s identity was near the top, on a level with the truth about JFK’s assassination and whether Justin Bieber is female.

Predictably, the BBC, with Jeremy Clarkson spearheading its verbal assault, has castigated Collins for forcing public disclosure concerning his identity as The Stig.

Many have deplored him for ruining one of the longest-standing gimmicks in entertainment. It is, in hindsight, remarkable that The Stig’s identity remained a secret for nearly seven years.

This is of course the second time the BBC’s most popular show has been compromised by its fabled test driver. The original Stig, who debuted with the relaunch of Top Gear in 2002, was Perry McCarthy.

Attired in faux Darth Vader racing regalia, McCarthy revealed his identity by accident and lasted merely a year before being written out of the series courtesy of an elaborate aircraft carrier crash sequence.

McCarthy was replaced by – as we all now know – Ben Collins.

Before unpacking why the relationship between Collins and Top Gear has soured to the extent that it has, it is worth discussing exactly why the show’s producers, and Jeremy Clarkson in particular, kept Collins on board for as long as they did.

Good, but not too successful

Firstly, The Stig could never be a tremendously famous and successful driver as the demanding schedule of both competing and delivering testing duties for Top Gear would prove too punishing – not to mention the possibility of an identity-revealing lapse being too likely. Sure, the Stig had to be a talented wheelman, but preferably one shunned by the system – a driver who could operate on a haphazard timetable at Top Gear’s every whim, without arousing suspicion.

The original Stig, Perry McCarthy, was an example of this peripheral racer archetype.

McCarthy had nominal success in the single-seater F1 feeding formulas yet his career at the highest echelon was horrendous. Driving for the terribly unorganised Andrea Moda team during the 1992 F1 season, McCarthy failed to qualify for a single GP – hardly surprising when one considers he was only allowed a few laps' practice before qualifying session.

McCarthy, then, had the driving ability and the marginal profile Top Gear required for its in-house test driver. Collins filled the role after he was ousted in 2003, debuting in the white race suit and helmet which would launch a thousand conjectures as to The New Stig’s  identity.

Collins had been a relatively successful driver, yet most of his best performances occurred outside of the UK (leading at Le Mans and producing some storming drives in American Nascar series), which ensured he was not the first name nominated as a possible British racing driver masquerading as The Stig.

As The Stig’s popularity grew, Collins matured into the role.

He drove to work with his helmet on, even taking snack breaks in a special van to shield his identity from Top Gear employees.

Collins got on with the job of driving an array of very rapid cars with the required urgency on Top Gear’s test track too, although it has long been rumoured the more exotic driving duties were, from time to time, filled by factory-approved test drivers.

Preventing celebrity obituaries

His greatest achievement while at Top Gear, other than keeping his role under cover for seven years, was an ability to tutor the array of celebrity guests invited to complete laps as part of the show’s Star in a Reasonably Priced Car segment. Although the relatively modest Suzuki Liana (and its successors, the Chevrolet Lacetti and Kia C’eed) seemed harmless enough, any accident involving the calibre of celebrity Top Gear was dealing with would have proven disastrous.

The Stig, despite never removing his helmet and feigning various accents, managed to get the likes of Cameron Diaz, Lionel Richie and Geri Halliwell to navigate the track safely and at (some sort of) speed.

Although the Dunsfold aerodrome may appear a benign environment devoid of retaining walls and fencing, consider the machinery on hand. Any high-speed ‘off’ in one of the front-wheel driven Star in a Reasonably Priced Car machines would have resulted in terminal understeer – and barrel rolls.

Collins, then, was exceptional in his ability to placate celebrity egos and guide them through the driving experience. The Top Gear team was genuinely fond of him too, which played a fundamental role in the BBC retaining his services for seven years.

The thousand yard stare was not an act

In many ways Collins was the perfect Stig.

A brave under-achiever in global racing terms (where finance and politics count as much as driving ability), Collins was disciplined, honest and quick enough for all Top Gear’s requirements. Why, then, did he opt to write a book about his time as The Stig - an action which clearly would lead to his dismissal from Top Gear and undo the mystique of his alter-ego?

The answer, as it often is, is simple: money.

Although Collins was earning a rather neat R1.5-million a year retainer from Top Gear for his duties as The Stig, Ben Collins' company Autosport was haemorrhaging money. Structured to provide logistics and third-party insurance for track day events, Collins was soon in the red to a tune of R10m. During the last 36 months this issue was severely compounded as his family grew by three children.

Collins was frustrated by not being able to cash in on his celebrity as The Stig while the other Top Gear presenters made a  fortune in books and personal-appearance fees.

An advance of R2.5-million for his autobiography from Harper Collins proved irresistible but Collins knew the BBC would try to keep him to a secrecy clause, something which could be circumvented by enough legal deliberation.

Last week a British court granted Collins permission to publish his autobiography detailing his life as The Stig.

All things considered, then, is Collins the greasy Grinch who ruined car Christmas or simply a good bloke who was forced to keep up a ridiculous charade for too long, while being paid far too little?


There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.