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Gypsy
22-08-2010, 16:21
Meet the Stig

The identity of the white-overalled racing driver on the hit BBC show Top Gear has remained a mystery — until now. We unpick the evidence
Richard Woods
Published: 22 August 2010
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Some say his identity is a riddle wrapped in an enigma locked in a small room at the back of Jeremy Clarkson’s brain. Some say he is more puzzling than the Great Pyramid of Giza or Area 51 or even James May’s hair.

And some say the Stig, mystery superstar of Top Gear, was born from a Bugatti Veyron and has a heart with 16 cylinders and that we will never, ever know who or what he really is.

But they are wrong. Because now we know. The great unanswered question of life, the universe and everything — who is the Stig? — has been solved. His name is ... oh, sorry, hang on a minute.

Before I reveal who the Stig is, I had better explain that the BBC would prefer not to let you in on the secret, even though the Stig wants to tell you himself. In a stroppy letter from its legal department last week, the BBC confirmed that it is doing battle with the racing driver.

The Stig, arguably the most famous unidentified flying object in the world, apparently wants to publish his autobiography, including the inside story of the hugely successful Top Gear show. That, says the BBC, would be very naughty.

So the corporation is “bringing legal proceedings to restrain from publication the identity of an individual who plays the character”. Nor does it want him to divulge what he knows about the programme.

The Stig, says the Beeb, is strapped down by confidentiality clauses in his contract tighter than a five-point harness.

It is not hard to see why the BBC is defensive. Top Gear is one of its most successful programmes, sold around the world and watched by an estimated 350m people. It is 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.

As Martin Brundle, the former Formula One driver turned commentator, said: “People all around the world ask me who the Stig is. Wherever we go in Formula One, everybody wants to know. It must be one of the most watched programmes on the planet.”

Such is the uncertainty that Brundle is sometimes suspected of being the Stig himself. “I was even flying my helicopter one day, doing all the proper call signals,” he recalled, “and one of the air-traffic controllers said, ‘Will you please just tell us something: are you the Stig?’ It wasn’t quite protocol. The whole thing is up there with Father Christmas.”

Even Hollywood gets in on the act. When Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz appeared on Top Gear in July, they tried to wrestle the Stig’s helmet off his head. Mission impossible, of course.

News of the BBC’s legal action spread fast last week, stirring fans around the world to comment. Some expressed doubts about the Stig revealing himself. “I like him to be mysterious for ever,” wrote one. “That’s the fun ... although I really badly want to know who the Stig really is.”

Another posted: “Say NO to the Stig bio ... keep him, it, whatever, a mystery.”

Some fans suspected a book might divulge less than the BBC fears, however. One posted: “The Stig probably uses some ancient language that is undecipherable to us mere mortals. I say let him write it.”

Either way, the BBC’s legal action just redoubles interest in the character’s true identity. Various names have been suggested, some famous, some not. None has ever been proved to be the Stig.

Now, however, The Sunday Times has unearthed new evidence — documentary evidence from one of the key suspects.

To understand who the Stig is, you need some brief context. The character emerged when Top Gear was relaunched in 2002 and the production team had a brain wave: alongside Clarkson and Co, they would have a masked racing driver who would remain anonymous.

The mystery driver was called the Stig after the nickname given to new boys at Clarkson’s school, Repton. Dressed all in black, the first Stig soon began to take on an almost mythical dimension.

In 2002 and 2003 the man behind the visor was Perry McCarthy, a former F1 and sports car driver. He last appeared as the Stig driving a car off the deck of an aircraft carrier in the episode broadcast in October 2003. McCarthy appears to have parted company with the show after a disagreement over money.

A new Stig was hired and, clad all in white, surfaced on the show the following week. Looking like a Star Wars stormtrooper, he soon proved even more popular. Speculation abounded as to his identity.

He is Rowan Atkinson, the car-mad actor, reckoned some. Damon Hill, the former F1 world champion, said others. Jack Bauer, Darth Vader and Shergar, joked online fans.

Many more claim that they or their brother/ son/dog are the Stig. As one posting says: “My son known as the Stig is a bio-engineering experiment gone wrong ... if you really must know he wasn’t conceived in the usual way.”

Interest reached such a pitch that Clarkson and his team came up with a brilliant answer to the mystery: during a Top Gear show last year the Stig finally removed his helmet to reveal Michael Schumacher, the seven-times F1 champion.

But why would the multi-millionaire Schumacher want to spend his time anonymously hurtling round an old aerodrome in Surrey, where Top Gear has its test track?

Instead suspicion has fallen on top-class drivers who are not so famous. One is Julian Bailey, a former F1 driver and sports car champion who lives in Surrey, where he owns a pub called the William Bray.

Bailey is a friend of Andy Wilman, the producer of Top Gear, who sometimes pops into the pub. In January he was fingered as the mystery driver after locals built a snowman complete with Stig helmet in the garden of the William Bray.

Is Bailey the mystery man? He has, on occasion, filled in as the Stig. So have others. As Brundle points out: “If you notice, the Stig is sometimes a bit taller and sometimes has a bigger belly on him than the usual Stig.”

Although Bailey has been an occasional stand-in, however, he is not the main Stig. The BBC letter makes it clear that the Stig is writing a book and Bailey’s wife, Deborah Tee, said last week: “I’m sure Julian is not doing an autobiography. He can’t write a sentence.

“He’s a good driver, a world sports car champion, but I’m pretty sure that unless my husband is doing strange things at night without me knowing, he isn’t writing a book.”

Who is the real Stig? Previous reports have suggested that Ben Collins, a top sports car racer, is a strong contender.

When Hammond had his spectacular high-speed crash during a Top Gear show in 2006, Collins was named in the health and safety report as being present as an adviser on the show.

In 2009 it was claimed that Collins had asked a picture gallery in Bristol to make some high-quality prints of an image of the Stig taken at a salt lake in the United States. During discussions over the prints, Collins allegedly let slip that he was the man behind the visor. The gallery owners later said they had had to sign an agreement not to divulge the Stig’s identity.

Collins is a suitable candidate for Top Gear’s mystery man, having competed in Formula Three, Le Mans sports cars and Nascar racing. In F3 he recorded seven wins. A would-be Olympic swimmer before he took up motor racing, his website says that his “tenacity behind the wheel has earned him a reputation for being fast and aggressive”.

At the same time he is a bit of a softy at home: in his thirties, he is married, has a home in Bristol and off the track drives a pretty ordinary car.

Nevertheless, there was a gap in linking Collins to the Stig: nothing has tied him to the programme at the time when the new “white” Stig surfaced in 2003. Nothing, that is, until now.

For records of the driver’s own company, Collins Autosport, show that he signed up to work with Top Gear just as the Stig was being reincarnated in his present form.

In 2002 Collins was appointed a director of Collins Autosport. In the accounts filed on December 31, 2003 — barely two months after the new Stig first appeared on Top Gear — Collins Autosport recorded a “cornerstone year”.

Partly it was down to Collins’s success as a racer. But the accounts noted, too: “In addition, driving services were also provided for the BBC, mainly in the Top Gear programme.”

There has previously never been any mention of Collins working for Top Gear in 2003. Yet the directors of the firm clearly thought this work consisted of more than the occasional stunt. They recorded that it “offers good long-term prospects for continuing income”.

Good long-term prospects? Had Collins signed up as the Stig? Contacted last week, he said: “I can’t speak to you, I’m going into a tunnel.”

The connection went dead and later calls were diverted to an answerphone. Contacted by email, Collins replied that he was “racing a car in Hungary” and answered no further questions.

He was, in short, only marginally more communicative than ... the Stig.

Those who do know who the Stig really is also remain tight-lipped when asked for a direct identification.

“Is it Ben Collins?” I asked a well-known figure in broadcasting and motor racing. He replied with fake innocence: “Is it? It’s a bit like the tooth fairy: you don’t tell.”

For some reason, however, the Stig now wants to tell his story himself — if he can get past the BBC lawyers. Whether he would be allowed to give evidence in any court battle while wearing that helmet must be open to question.

More importantly, if the Stig does come clean as Collins, the mystery may not be entirely solved. For the Stig could be reborn again, perhaps in red, faster, stranger and even more alien than before.