From racing in the prestigious 24 Hours of Le Mans to giving Tom Cruise a driving lesson in his role as The Stig on BBC Top Gear, few people have had a more memorable career in motoring than Ben Collins. Recently, we were lucky enough to catch up with Ben about his experience as a professional driver – and you can read the full interview below.
Hi Ben, thanks for agreeing to chat with us. Firstly, could you tell us about your introduction to motorsport? Where does your love for cars and motoring stem from?
“My passion for speed probably began in the back seat of my Dad’s car – a Rover SD1. No two journeys were the same and he put the pedal firmly to the metal. There were a lot fewer cars on the roads back then, and he quickly overtook anything that did get in the way.
I grew up on a farm and my daily mission involved getting the keys to the machinery to see how fast it could go. I dreamed of being a fighter pilot, but when I sat in a single-seater racing car for the first time at Silverstone I only had one vision, which was to become the best racing driver I could be. I was, and remain, totally hooked.”
You’ve enjoyed a varied career in motoring, having competed in the likes of Formula Three, Le Mans and the British GT Championship. What would you say has been your biggest racing highlight?
“I’ve loved my career and have been fortunate to chase the dream. Not winning Le Mans remains a bugbear, but despite that it remains my racing highlight. In my rookie year at Le Mans in 2001, I was driving an 800-horsepower prototype with more downforce than an F1 car, capable of doing 230mph. It rained for 18 out of 24 hours and during the heaviest rain I was faster than anybody else for four hours. It was the pinnacle of my racing career and it meant a lot to be able to cut it amongst the best drivers in the world. I’m glad that we at least won the European Le Mans Series later in 2010.”
Despite all your successes in motorsport, most people probably know you best as The Stig from BBC Top Gear. Could you tell us a bit about what playing The Stig was like?
“The Stig was the perfect character for me because I never wanted to be on TV – I just wanted to hammer all those cars as fast as they could possibly go. The Stig remained anonymous and driving fast was the job description so that was perfect for me. As time went by, and The Stig was allowed out of the house more, I started having just as much fun messing around with the camera crews doing funny walks and getting confused by escalators.
To answer your question properly though, being The Stig with all the gear and the helmet on did feel special, and it came with a duty to drive exceptionally well. People were slightly intimidated by it in a ‘Darth Vader’ sort of way, which was pretty funny. And it worked wonders with the Police…”
Who was your favourite celebrity to work with, and how did you feel when your identity was finally outed in 2010?
“I had a lot of fun with all the celebs. It’s too tough to pick one, but the most memorable moment was when Cameron Diaz and Tom Cruise tore up the track. Cameron was exceptionally gifted. She was smooth and steely-eyed, and her lap times in the rain were extremely fast.
When Tom did his fastest time, the track had dried out and I’ve never seen anyone more focused and determined to learn how to succeed on the track. I gave him a couple of tips for his final run, including a note to slice the apex of the final corner. He took quite a big bite out of the kerbstone and the car flipped over onto two wheels. A lot of people would have panicked at that moment and gone for the brakes, but he just feathered the throttle and crossed the line to set the fastest time – it was incredible.
After eight years as the The Stig, I was very reluctant to let it go, but the number of reports online confirming my identity had made it more like an open secret. I started picking up the vibe that one way or another my time was up, so I decided to call it time and hand in my notice. At the time, it was a huge adjustment from constantly covering up that part of my life to talking about it openly, but I’ll always treasure those days in the white suit.”
You must have driven a lot of amazing cars in your time. If you had to choose one, which would be your dream car to own and why?
“My dream car is the Porsche Carrera GT. It was almost made by mistake. The V10 engine was originally designed for competing in Formula One but when that project was canned, the engineers were left with an engine with nowhere to go. They built it into a supercar that is just stunning, and with the most aggressive handling of any car I’ve driven. If you turn your attention off for a nano-second, it will bite your arm off.”
Do you have an interest in fixing your cars, or do you leave that part to the professionals?
“When I’m driving, I like it when the wheels don’t fall off and I don’t arrive at the other side on the back of a recovery truck. For those reasons, I enjoy watching professionals do all the hard work and I only build Lego. If anybody needs a slow, confused, messy and incompetent mechanic, then just give me a call.”
As a successful racing driver, you must know a thing or two about driving on tracks and circuits. What advice would you give to amateurs looking to get involved in their local track day race events, and what kind of car do you think is most suitable for the job?
“The fastest way to learn to drive fast is to listen to an instructor, and ideally to follow someone good around the track. The car doesn’t matter, it’s all in your head. Your head should be like a sponge and the instructor needs to fill the empty space between your ears with their years of experience. You never stop learning.
The best kind of car for track driving is a rental. You can normally book one at a track through their on-site operators. They have mechanics on the payroll, so the wheels don’t fall off. I personally wouldn’t buy a car for track days, but if I did, I’d probably buy a Caterham because you can use them for drifting as well as fast lapping.”
Can you tell us a bit about your plans for the future? Do you plan to write any more books or make any more TV appearances, or is there any other work or events you’re excited about?
“I’m working on a big film at the moment which is exciting, but I can’t disclose what it is – sorry! I’m also researching a book project which is very different to what I’ve done in the past, so I hope to get that into shape for next year. TV-wise I hope to do some more mad projects with my friends at Jay Leno’s Garage, and to get myself back in a racing car, too. Got to chase that elusive Le Mans win!
We’d like to thank Ben for agreeing to chat with us about his motoring experiences. For more stories about Ben’s exploits with Top Gear, speeding around Le Mans and making movies like James Bond, check out Ben’s Bestselling Book The Man In The White Suit or follow him on Twitter and Instagram.”
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