Profile: The Stig in the dump

SOME say he's wanted by the CIA and and sleeps upside down like a bat. Some say he's illegal in seventeen US states and blinks horizontally. Some say that he sucks the moisture from ducks, and that his crash helmet is modelled on Britney Spears' head

All we know is that he's called "The Stig." Well Jeremy Clarkson: that was all we knew. Until last week, when television's best kept secret was blown wide open and Top Gear's covert boy racer was revealed.

The mighty Stig revved onto our screens eight years ago in the BBC's hugely successful motoring entertainment show. Swathed in a black racing driver's protective suit and helmet, his persona was inspired by Clarkson's school years, where the "Stig" moniker was given to quiet, new boys. Never revealing his face from under its helmet and refusing to utter a single word, The Stig's job on the show was simple: to test-drive cars around the Top Gear track, train celebrities in the Star in a Reasonably Priced Car section, and provide easy gags for his car-loving cohorts. Yet the Stig phenomenon has become so much more.

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For a start, this is not the first time he has been outed. The show's original Stig was killed off in the first episode of series three in 2003, when he was unmasked as British racing driver Perry McCarthy, only to be replaced in the next episode by a new recruit, this time wearing a white helmet and overalls. A mythical man/machine, The Stig became a figure reborn, his reputation enhanced by Clarkson's humorous introductions and references to his alleged superhuman faculties.

Now a familiar "face" in millions of homes, his cult status grew. Speculation surrounding his identity has become so intense that he regularly features in the ten most-searched-for terms on search engines. Last year, The Stig Easter eggs sat on supermarket shelves, while everyone from Formula 1 champion Damon Hill to Jamiroquai singer Jay Kay has been either rumoured to be, or claimed to be, the man himself.

So what, then, is the appeal? On a basic level, perhaps, it's simple. Men love cars and love the show: offered the chance to be The Stig or his co-hosts Clarkson, James May or Richard Hammond, most would surely opt for his cool man of mystery every time. More than that, in a world filled with too little surprise and harmless pleasure, The Stig's anonymity is a smidgeon of fun; a little bit of make-believe for grown-ups. This was a belief compounded by an insider at the BBC, who last week lamented to journalists: "You wouldn't write a piece saying that Santa didn't exist." .

The Stig's latest unmasking follows revelations that racing driver Ben Collins was locked in a legal battle with the BBC over plans to reveal his identity in an upcoming autobiography published by HarperCollins. BBC's lawyers warned that the secrecy surrounding The Stig was essential to his role in the programme, but their attempts to bring the revelation screeching to a halt fell on deaf ears. Visor up and helmet off, the faceless found a face last week, a voice too, in Collins. That The Stig's real-life alter ego was revealed as having worked alongside 007 seems fitting. More old-school charioteer than chauffeur, The Stig's appeal lies in his ability to appeal to the Everyman. So what exactly do we know about Collins? He began motor racing in 1994, appearing in major competitions for Formula Three and the British GT Championship, following four years in the army. He is reported to have been a reservist in the SAS and given the full-timers driving lessons. His company, Collins Autosport, provides precision and stunt driving services for Top Gear, as well as for film, and Collins has stunt doubled for Daniel Craig's James Bond in Quantum of Solace and Nicolas Cage in National Treasure: Book of Secrets.

Rumours have been rife for years that Collins could be The Stig, although he had previously always denied the claim. Until now, he's lived a relatively quiet life in Bristol. Last week he welcomed home his new baby boy. He told a waiting media: "It's been a difficult few days. However anything which has happened work-wise has rather taken a back seat while my wife Georgina has been in hospital having Cassius." Cassius? Even The Stig's progeny have great names. But with anonymity stripped away, that all looks set to change.

Rumours are already rife that Collins may now front a Top Gear style show himself. Whatever the truth, he leaves behind a reservoir of bad feeling. Some of those behind the programme believe The Stig's mysterious allure is vital to the role on the show and that the more we know about him, the less effective he is. Certainly there's little doubt that the money-men and the presenters themselves are fiercely protective of their asset.

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Top Gear's executive producer Andy Wilman posted an angry blog in response to reports that the Collins' book would go ahead: "The whole point of The Stig is the mystique - the bizarre characteristics he has, the wonderment created about who he might think, feel, do, or look like. Kids adore the conceit, and I believe adults buy into the conceit because they find it entertaining. HarperCollins decided none of that is as important as their profits." Top Gear's James May was similarly swift to drive home his feeling on the unveiling of his "co-host": "It's a shame.

"The whole point of being The Stig is that you are nobody. The Stig is a character. It's a testing device, The Stig, and [the anonymity] protects it from corruption if nobody knows who it is. We can get another one," he said, as rumours started to circulate that the next The Stig will be clad in red.

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May has further suggested that Collins could be banished in similar style to his Stig predecessor Perry McCarthy, who was fired in a rocket off the flight deck of HMS Invincible, after his identity was revealed.

Certainly, whatever Collins' final lap, there's little doubt that now revealed, he's no longer the star of the show. With Top Gear heads surely smart enough to realise that the mileage of the show isn't ultimately in the great reveal, but in wondering about the identity of The Stig reincarnated.