The man who was once The Stig isn’t happy with the state of driving in Britain today, and he’s on a mission to do something about it.
And Ben Collins, who secretly worked as the Top Gear’s man-in-a-white-suit for eight years, knows more than most about driving. He not only set some of the fastest laps on the show’s test track whilst driving glamorous supercars, but also tutored celebrities on effectively driving ‘reasonably priced’ family cars.
Collins has also spent many years racing, which he calls his first love, competing in Le Mans and the notoriously difficult Bathurst 1000. He has been filmed performing stunts in the Batmobile and on three James Bond films.
Still, you might wonder what the man whose most expensive mishap was crashing a £500,000 Koenigsegg CCX through a wall at 120mph has to say about safe driving.
But Collins has legitimate credentials when it comes to teaching others. In addition to his work on Top Gear, he has taught the military and the police, and highly values the chance to pass his knowledge, often learned the hard way, onto others.
“I’ve had some very close shaves, I’m lucky,” says Collins, whose early driving experiences include writing off a Toyota Supra. “There are other people like me that have either been killed or their friends have been killed or they’ve had horrific injuries from driving.”
He says this is partly because manuals are boring, the Highway Code is dry stuff, and few people have any interest in learning new skills once they have passed their test, which is often after just 20 or so hours of lessons.
In addition, the government has populated the streets with “too many signs, too many changes to the speed limit and too many speed cameras.”
Collins answer is to publish the new book, How to Drive, which mixes information on driving with funny and entertaining experiences from his career. He spent a lot of time ensuring the book was as memorable as it is informative, to ensure it gave readers some value.
But can an everyday driver really learn from a star of track, TV and film?
“The high speed technique that we use on the race track is really not much different to what I’m describing for general day-to-day driving. I’m not saying everyone should go faster, but everybody should drive smoother and look further ahead, and that is the main skills that we deploy on the race track to get faster times.”
Collins really believes in his methods. He says there was no celebrity he worked with on Top Gear that didn’t walk away a better driver - Jeremy Clarkson included.
“Jeremy is very difficult to teach anything, he’s quite a know-it-all,” says his former colleague. But after teaching the show’s host to make the best of his time at Silverstone, he did earn some respect.
The Stig did get starstruck in the early days of the show, especially when meeting Christian Slater. “I was a big fan of his films and I loved True Romance,” said Collins. “But then we got into my environment, which was driving, and that broke the ice and we were away.
“Tom Cruise is nothing like the character you hear about in the news. He’s very down to earth, very fast in a car and learnt very quickly. It was really nice to get to meet these people up close and see that they’ve got just as many frailties as anybody else learning to drive, and then teaching them the secrets of controlling speed safely. It was a lot of fun and I’ve used many stories from those days to bring driving skills to life in the book as well.”
Is there anything from his Hollywood work that helps him drive safely around town?
“Stunt driving is different and has a different mindset,” says Collins. “You’re actually doing the opposite, you’re deliberately upsetting the car and deliberately crashing it! That’s playtime, and only for the movies.”
How To Drive: The Ultimate Guide – From The Man That Was The Stig by Ben Collins is available now, published by Macmillan (£20).