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The Man in the White Suit
I have been an avid fan of Top Gear since I first saw an episode a few years ago. Fifth Gear, albeit a similar program, was never quite as entertaining as Top Gear mainly because of the chemistry between the presenters and because Top Gear is more focused on entertainment. Ben Collins' book is not just an autobiography, but also a behind the scenes look at Top Gear. As I suspected, Top Gear is more about entertaining the audience than a factual car review show. Ben Collins revealed that a lot of the driving sequences, such as the Corvette and Fiesta duel in the mall, was mainly action sequences taken in piece meal with the presenter driving sequences cut/pasted into the whole affair to make them look good. I understand that there are a lot of people there heavily criticizing Ben for leaving Top Gear and the "best job in the world", but I read this book and reviewed it objectively as possible even though I am a Top Gear fan and gearhead/petrol head. As an example of how Top Gear's final production sequences are aimed at entertainment, Ben Collins said in a South African interview after the release of his book that out of the 3 presenters, the best driver was James May. The reason is that May has an engineering background and is more sorted out. In the book, Collins described May as always pretending to be a poor driver to provide some hint of comic relief. In stark contrast, Fifth Gear is too heavy on professional drivers. I've seen episodes where Jason Plato, Tiff Needell, Ben Collins, and Victoria Butler-Henderson bored me to sleep because there wasn't any "cocking about" or entertainment - it was too factual and precise.
So let's start from the beginning.
Ben is a well-articulated speaker and writer. From his presenter segments on the latest season of Fifth Gear to his interviews, he is a knowledgeable and well-spoken individual. His description of vehicle dynamics is almost on-par with some of literatures greatest masterpieces. His line-by-line recital of track experiences and races is not only riveting, but also very descriptive. As a reader, I could visualize what was happening at the track. It helped that I watched some of the episodes (e.g., Top Gear 24-hour British touring car race at Silverstone with the diesel BMW) but his writing took that experience to another level.
Some examples of his story telling technique are exhibited in his driving role for Ascari at Le Mans and Catalunya, as well as his military training. His writing is easy to understand, and although I have never met him in person, his ability to describe events would make him an outstanding instructor. Based on some of the comments and feedback drivers have made about Ben, it appears this is the case. I also learned something technical and useful - I've wondered why a lot of the open wheel racers tended to pump their brakes or jab at them periodically. Page 34 describes how brake pads could be knocked farther away from the discs while driving over kerbs, causing excessive pedal travel especially when the fluid could be hot - thus requiring a periodic jab or pump to seat the pads.
Ben Collins did not start driving or riding motorcycles before he could walk, unlike famous Formula 1 and MotoGP riders (such as Valentino Rossi, Michael Schumacher, or Jorge Lorenzo). Ben actually started driving or rather competitively driving at 18. The fact he started at such an "old age" and the level he has achieved nearly 20 years later gives hope to all and is a testament that one could in fact start later and attain a level of success.
The most controversial aspect of this book and Ben's stint at Top Gear was how he revealed himself to be the second Stig. Many, including the BBC, argue that the Stig was meant to be anonymous and to present a sense of mystique and entertainment to the show. However, as Ben mentions in the book, he was close to being discovered due to extensive digging by journalists. Some of the other racers, like Mark Webber, already knew it was Ben Collins but didn't reveal the secret. As a Top Gear fan, I had seen the You Tube videos where fans did comparisons of the Stig with Ben Collins about a year before this book was published. Honestly, I didn't care too much either way. The Stig was part of the entertainment, but in the same sense having a new Stig would keep the mystique going and present something fresh to Top Gear. It will keep the viewers guessing about the new Stig, and possibly draw more viewers. It is a win/win situation. I hear lots of rumors about Sabine Schmitz being Stig's German Cousin or even perhaps the new Stig. It's things like this that can draw viewers back to the show.
Based on the reasons Ben gave for considering leaving Top Gear, I don't blame him. Much of his driving is displayed publically as The Stig, but he can't use that on his resume. He needs to eat, and his raw talent would go to waste as a side act on Top Gear. He mentions numerous times how he wishes to race professionally. His job as a stunt driver seems to be going well. I saw some YouTube videos of him on the set of the new Batman movie (Dark Knight Rises). His role as the Stig obviously opened doors, and from what I recall he was able to leave on amicable terms with the presenters according to the book. Something must have changed during the time between the announcement of the book and the BBC's lawsuit.
From my perspective, Ben Collins is a knowledgeable and well-articulated professional driver that exemplifies what one could achieve with mental focus and energy. I highly recommend this book to any gearhead/petrol-head that has enjoyed Top Gear and is interested in cars.
Overall: 5/5 stars, highly recommended