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Ben Collins | The man in the White Suit | Book ReviewThe Man in the White Suit
The Stig, Le Mans, The Fast Lane and Me

On September 1st 2010, Ben Collins and his publishers won a High Court case, overturning an injunction placed on them by the BBC that prevented Ben releasing his autobiography. That landmark decision opened the way for HarperCollins to press the button that set the presses rolling, and a fortnight later, The Man in the White Suit hit the bookshelves.

Within its 300-odd pages Ben tells a remarkable story and explores a myth. As many within the motorsport industry had accepted for years, he confirms that he, Ben Collins, is (or was!) The Stig. That white-suited faceless one, the perplexing and inscrutable test driver who, as everyone knew, could punch a horse to the ground with a single blow, never blinked, and had a left nipple shaped like the Nürburgring, was actually a chap from Bristol, married with three children.

The announcement swept across the media like the 1987 hurricane, toppling legend and folklore like so many lofty poplars, and sending lanky, curly-haired TG presenters (allegedly) apoplectic with rage. It was all a bit bewildering at the time, and some wondered what the fuss was all about. After all, hadn’t the media exposed Ben almost a year previously? Hadn’t even the BBC’s own publication, the Radio Times, run a feature that pointed the finger at Ben? It was bizarre. Now, a month later, the dust has settled, and Ben’s chat show appearances are all but over. In that atmosphere of relative calm we can have a look at the item that created this furore; Ben’s book.

Ben Collins | The Stig | Photo: The IndependentThe Man in the White Suit is the tale of a man only a very few people knew, but everyone had heard of: Ben Collins, alias The Stig, and it falls into two fairly distinct halves. The first bobs and weaves like Cassius Clay on PowerBoks, dancing some chronoclastic tango as it swirls between Ben’s first Top Gear “audition”, his childhood in America, trials to join the Army, and the realisation that a future in Formula 1 was probably beyond his grasp. The second half concentrates on Ben’s experiences as Top Gear’s Stig, from testing high-performance supercars to firing up the Blackpool illuminations.

Ben’s early dream had been to become a fighter pilot, but failing the 20-20 vision test put paid to that. Ben could have made it as an Olympic-standard swimmer, but you get the feeling that the early morning plunge and tedious training sessions didn’t really appeal. Instead, Ben looked to motor racing, and with the help of his Dad, he embarked on what proved to be a very successful grass-roots introduction.

Ben joined the ranks of those many hundreds of talented, eminently capable and possibly mercurial racing drivers who could have made it all the way to Formula 1. In Ben’s case, he got closer than most, and certainly made many of the right moves, but like all those others, lost out for the simple fact that he hadn’t got the financial backing. Money, supposedly, talks. In motor racing it positively screams, and Ben’s tale of oh-so-nearly-but-not-quite comes across strongly in the opening chapters.

If what he says is accurate, then Ben’s case was a very strong one, but he arrived too late at the party. Most of those around him were a year or two younger and had flourished in the karting academy. They were mere whippets compared to Ben’s Great Dane, and being too tall to have made it in karts was a factor that worked alongside his lack of money to deny him the future he craved. Few, aside from Ben’s good friend Mark Webber, have been tall, lanky, and successful Formula 1 drivers.

Ben changed direction, and looked for drives in sports and GT cars. Luck smiled, and chance encounters with the likes of Werner Lupberger created the introductions and opportunities that lead to a Le Mans debut with Ascari. I remember Le Mans in 2001, and recall being eternally grateful that my work that year allowed me to stay indoors for much of the race. There I could watch the timing screens and follow the race on TV, while drivers like Ben – and particularly those, like Ben, in open-topped prototypes – endured hour after hour of unrelenting rain.

Ben Collins | Team Ascari | Le Mans 2001It was a Biblical deluge that took no prisoners. Track conditions were treacherous and totally unforgiving, but Ben relished every moment, and for four hours was consistently the quickest driver on the track, sometimes by as much as ten seconds a lap. It was the kind of performance that makes stars, opens the eyes of factory head-hunters, and secures a top flight future. In Ben’s case, it didn’t, and for two very simple reasons.

Firstly, the car didn’t take the lead, as it evidently would have done. In fact, it didn’t even record a worthy top-five finish, because soon after Ben had unlapped himself, and was chasing down on the leading Audi, a simple five-bob bit of wiring gave way. He coasted to a halt at Indianapolis and the Ascari was out of the race. Even so, his stint had been so extraordinarily brave, so stunningly quick, that surely someone would have noticed? Well, no, and for Reason Number Two. All this happened in the middle of a miserably wet night, when chief executives and decision makers were tucked up in bed, leaving the hard work to pitwall managers and engineers. It must have been a bit like the star performer in a stage production coming out for the curtain call only to discover that the audience has abandoned the theatre because of a burst pipe. It’s a sad fact in endurance racing that remarkable stints from mid-race drivers are so often forgotten, simply because it’s the results sheet that records those races for posterity. If the car fails, so does the memory.

Ben and the Ascari did win races, and the nimble A410 could have become a very successful sports prototype if the reliability had been better. 2002, the year after Ben’s Le Mans debut with the works team, the car finished 6th at Sebring (although Ben recalls it as fifth!) and was running high at Le Mans too before a suspension failure pitched the car off-piste. That effectively signalled the end of the Ascari LMP works effort, and with other opportunities drying up, Ben was forced to consider a back-up career; the Army.

After failing to pass physical for the Air Force, having to join the pongos must have seemed like second-best for Ben, but he nearly didn’t make it through the Army medical either. This time it was because his hearing had suffered from nearly ten years with his head stuffed up against a racing engine, and he needed a surreptitious in-ear deaf-aid to sneak through the examination. He joined the Army Reserve Regiment and embarked on a gruelling sequence of training exercises that weeded out the top twenty or so from over 200 new recruits. Ben made the grade.

As luck would have it, 2003 was the year it all kicked off again for Ben. His appointment as the new Top Gear Stig, replacing Perry McCarthy’s “Black Stig”, was confirmed. Ironically, Perry had lost the job because he’d admitted to his alter ego in an autobiography. His “death” was staged to great effect when the Jag he was supposedly driving was catapulted off the flight deck of an aircraft carrier and sank without trace.

Perry had lasted little over a year, and long before his admission appeared in print, his identity as the Stig was common knowledge. Ben’s characteristic dedication to duty ensured he’d hold onto the job for more than seven years, and even if his erstwhile colleagues are reluctant to admit it now, Ben was largely responsible for establishing the style and persona that came to epitomise his enigmatic Top Gear character. Like many good actors, Ben took the part and built it up, creating a role for himself that made him increasingly indispensable.

Ben Collins | RML | ASCAR Champion 2003Ben pitched in as the “White Stig” with gusto, and ultimately did much to establish what became the mysterious cult of The Stig. Back in 2003, when he embarked on his journey as the fourth TG presenter, the rest of his life was also falling into place. His long-standing on-off relationship with Georgie, who would later become his wife, was flourishing once again; he had a future in the Army; he had a paying job (albeit a rather open-ended one) with the BBC; and he was back in the driving seat with a winning race team; RML.

The American craze for racing round in circles had arrived in little ol’ England in the shape of the astonishing Rockingham Oval. This massive colosseum of a racetrack had recently been built on wasteland outside Corby in Northamptonshire, just down the road from RML’s Wellingborough headquarters. They were to run one of the stock-built cars that would mimic the Stateside NASCAR championship, called ASCAR (Ass-car!? queried the incredulous Yanks) in Europe, and sponsored by the Army. Ben’s newfound status with the ARR made him the perfect candidate for the driver’s seat. An initial trial proved he was well up to the task, leading both races and winning one. Despite a lack of funding, RML persevered with the season, and Ben duly rewarded their faith by dominating the year and taking the title.

If Ben believed this put him back on track, in every sense, for a career as a racing driver, he soon had to think again. RML withdrew, and his replacement car for 2004 with another squad was a total dog. Things went from bad to worse, and before 12 months was out, Ben’s racing future was back to square one.

Ben’s loss is his reader’s gain, because from this point onwards the book regains a cohesive structure that had been in danger of slipping out of reach during the mid-race stint. Trying to juggle tales of derring-do in the Brecon Beacons with his early days at Dunsfold, while simultaneously keeping us up to speed on his racing exploits and (admittedly only in passing reference) his personal life, seems to have been a bit of a challenge, but having weathered the storm, Ben then settles down into a more regular pattern focused upon Top Gear and The Stig.

That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy the opening sequences – I did, and thoroughly so, probably helped by the fact that Ben was recalling incidents in his life in which I had played a very small part. His accounts of racing at Le Mans are vibrant, pacey and well-crafted. His descriptions of overcoming the challenges of forced marches through the mountains of Wales are gritty, dark and atmospheric, capturing the physical pain in equal measure with the elation of success. It’s a good read, but it’s the second half of the book that will be this book’s major appeal, at least to the Top Gear cognoscenti who, one hopes for Ben’s sake, will propel The Man in the White Suit into the best-seller chart.

Ben Collins | The Stig | Britcar 24 Here Ben devotes the pages to his life as The Stig, and they’re packed with anecdotes about celebrities and stunts, exotic cars, glamorous locations and his relationship with the guys on Top Gear. As anyone who’s met him will affirm, Ben’s an affable guy; friendly, open, and easy-going, and he obviously slipped into the groove very readily. He soon learned what was required of The Stig, understanding the film crew’s expectations yet ever conscious of their skill and the risks they took. He also came to know his fellow presenters, developing a respect for all three of them: Jeremy Clarkson for his abilities as a quick-fire presenter and, it seems, a bewitchingly competent driver; Richard “Space Hopper” Hammond for his selfless bravery and sense of fun; and James May for his encyclopaedic knowledge and baffling capacity to portray a slightly off-planet personality which, if not exactly true to life, was the perfect foil to his colleagues.

Ben Collins | The StigAlthough The Stig played a boundless variety of roles within the Top Gear panoply, it was his coaching of the Stars in the “reasonably priced car” that occupied most of his time at Dunsfold. As a result the index in the book reads like a who’s who of contemporary celebrity, and Ben recollects their strengths and weaknesses, foibles and idiosyncrasies in an amusing and insightful way. Sportsmen and women such as Usain Bolt, Lawrence Dallaglio and Ellen MacArthur rub pages with comedians like Harry Enfield, Eddie Izzard and Jimmy Carr. Musicians Lionel Ritchie and Jay from Jamiroquai are analysed and reported with as much enthusiasm and honesty as filmstars Ewan McGregor, Tom Cruise or Hugh Grant. There’s also room for the ladies, of course, with Cameron Diaz, Geri Halliwell, Sienna Miller, Jodie Kidd and Katie Price all being strapped, some more tightly than others, into the driving seat.

Ben evidently has admiration for many of those he tutored into the delights of Gambon or the Hammerhead, and especially celebrity chefs Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay. Both passed muster with flying colours, as did Mr Nasty himself, Simon Cowell. Even comic turned actor Johnny Vegas, who’d never really driven before, clocked an almost passable time under Ben’s direction, but like all the others, had no idea who’d transformed his hesitant hops into fluid motion. Ben was always hidden behind the darkened visor, and if ever he met one of his protégés again under different circumstances, had to feign ignorance and walk on by.

Ben Collins | The StigBen fills in the gaps on several of his Top Gear highs and lows – the Bugatti Veyron clearly left a lasting impression, as did the awesome but aerodynamically challenged Koenigsegg CCX. Ben’s heartfelt concerns over Richard Hammond’s crash in the Vampire jet car are expressed with compassion and a genuine sense of anxiety (if rather briefly), and he rounds off with some zesty recollections of some of Top Gear’s best-remembered stunts, including blowing up a Mitsubishi Evo 7 with his old chums in the Army.

The end, when it comes, is the only disappointment in an otherwise very enjoyable romp. I’m sure there was so much more of this story to tell, but Ben throws in the towel almost as an afterthought. The reader is just getting into the swing of another tale about the Veyron when, in three short paragraphs, Ben’s career as The Stig abruptly ends. Aside from a few hints that things at Dunsfold weren’t going as smoothly as they once had, there’s no warning, and very little explanation, for what must have been a monumental life-changing decision. Although I can accept that Ben was under pressure to get the book published soon after the High Court decision was announced, I still believe this final instalment could have been given more of a flourish and tied off a little more neatly.   

Ben Collins | The StigThat aside, Ben has a frenetic, edgy style that keeps the book rattling along at a fair old pace. I have to be honest and admit that this is often not the Ben I’ve come to know. There are phrases and a word structure here that I could never hear coming from Ben in conversation, and I suspect he’s made a huge effort to adapt his style to meet the expectations of his Top Gear fanbase. There’s a potential 350 million readers out there, dedicated TG enthusiasts from across the world, who might be tempted to buy his book, and those that do won’t be disappointed. It’s a far better read than most “celebrity” authors ever manage, and it will largely meet the expectations of those seeking an insight into the shadowy, furtive world of The Stig.

That said, I can’t help feeling a little sad, and even some degree of personal loss, that the enigma that has been The Stig is no more. I rather enjoyed being one of those few who shared the knowledge of The Stig’s true identity. There was a certain frisson of quasi-celebrity from knowing that others knew that I knew, but knew I wouldn’t tell. I’m sure I’m not the only one who’ll miss that. Ben undoubtedly will, but as he insinuates in the final chapters of the book, he was left with little choice. The “White Stig” had run his course. It had been a wonderful experience, and enormous credit to Ben for keeping the mystery alive for so long. Regrettably, however, the unrealistically restrictive contract, the lack of appreciation for the character he’d created, (but could never benefit from) and the enormous imbalance between his perceived status within the Top Gear hierarchy and the meagre paypacket he took home meant that the end was in sight.

Ben Collins | The StigIf the writing wasn’t actually on the wall yet, it certainly had to go down on paper, and Ben needed to have everything in place before the fan started spinning. He tells us there’s an unfinished graffito on the wall in the Dunsfold dunny that reads “Richard Hammond is a . . .” One suspects that others far more colourful and invective will have joined it by now, and all signed “JC”.

Some say he can read a book from its cover, and can control the keyboard merely by using the power of his mind, but we now know him simply as Ben Collins, author and one-time Stig.


Postscript
Ben has joined Channel 5’s Fifth Gear programme as a co-presenter with Tiff Needell, Vicki Butler-Henderson and Jason Plato. He made his first appearance tonight, Friday October 8th, track-testing a dragster at Santa Pod raceway. Channel 5 head of factual entertainment, Steve Gowans said that they were "delighted to have Collins on board. It will be great to see him going head-to-head with Jason and Tiff, the best drivers on television." Check out the Fifth Gear website for more details.

Ben has recently launched a new website: Ben Collins


For further information, please contact the publishers, HarperCollins.

Ben Collins | The Stig

Team News
The Man in the White Suit

by Ben Collins

Reviewed
Issued October 8th 2010

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