Inside Revolution: Lessons Learned with Ben Collins

Wednesday 09 August 2023

In July’s edition, Revolution caught up with Ben Collins to discuss some of the biggest lessons he has learned on and off track after almost three decades of motorsport.

Revolution is available online, as a PDF download and on the Revolution app (for both iOS and Android devices). 

Ben Collins began competing in motorsport almost three decades ago, rising up the ladder to Formula Three in UK single seaters before heading to the US to drive in Indy Lights then moving into Sportscars, ASCAR – where he won the title in 2004, GT racing and, most recently the Praga Cup. He is also known for his former role as Top Gear’s ‘Stig’ and has been a stunt driver for major movies including many James Bond films. We caught up with him to discuss some of the biggest lessons he has learned on and off track.

Balance risk with reward

Formula First, Snetterton, 1994

I was in my first season of racing, I had written off three cars, and I was on my last life. There was clearly no common sense between my ears! I was young and I had no sense of what was dangerous, whether a move was or was not on. They were all on, so it was just continuous attacks and I was often getting into the wrong place. It was only when I was threatened with ‘break this car and you are finished’ that I enforced risk analysis, which was the bit that was missing. Once that had finally settled, I started getting podiums and patiently worked my way towards winning a race, which I eventually I did in the final event of the year. I was in second and the leader had got away a bit, he seemed uncatchable. So, I decided to ring the car’s neck as much as possible – but within the limits – and it paid off. He had run too light on fuel, got fuel surge, and lost about a second and a half. That was enough for me to close up, we drag raced to the line. In the past, I might have thrown it all away by pushing too hard, but I found the balance, gained every tenth I could, and won it.

Flatten out your emotions

F3, Oulton Park, 1998

It had been a very up and down season but I had finally got a good engine package and when I got to this race I was expected to win. I was on the front row and I stalled the engine! It was horrific. In those days, you could not restart the engine, so it was game over. I lost my composure and I chucked it off on the warm-up lap for the following race. I think flattening out all emotion is the biggest lesson of all. It was a stupid outcome from a weekend but it taught me that even in the middle of the weekend, if something goes wrong, reset, restart and off you go again. In the end, what I learned did pay dividends, but the experience, particularly with the stakes in F3, trying to get to F1, was one of the lowest lows.

Be at one with your team at all costs

ASCAR, Rockingham, 2003

I was leading the race when the safety car came out and my boss, who was a serious chap and rarely made mistakes, said on the radio, ‘don’t pit, come in the next lap’ but everybody else filed in. I said, ‘are you sure that’s the right thing to do?’ because I could see we were going to lose a lap, but he just said again, ‘do not pit.’ So, I went around on my own, slowly behind the safety car as everyone did their pit stops, and I went from first to last! When I eventually came in, I was sat there with the car on the jacks and he said ‘well, we’ve screwed that right up!’ So, I just thought, okay, it is what it is, and got on with it. I great run from last to finish on the podium, then we won the next race and eventually ended up with the title. It was a good lesson about taking perspective. There are times when you have to override, but you have got to be pretty strong to do that, and if things go wrong you just have to unite together and pick the best bones out of the weekend, whatever it throws at you. I was racing with RML, who are fantastic, and when the bond of the team is so good, it makes it easier to accept mistakes when they happen.

Never be afraid to explore a different set-up – but avoid the rabbit holes

Indy Lights, Chicago, 1999

The cars in this series were effectively Lola F3000s with 4-litre Buick engines, really heavy, with a tub at least 10 years’ old. Everyone had well-prepared set-ups and on shorter ovals we would all back the wing off to go faster. At this race, one of the teams rolled out with full wing on, maximum settings, and everybody was pointing, taking pictures and laughing. Then it got going, and with all that downforce it was taking the one mile oval pretty much flat. It was lapping within a second of the ChampCar, which was just unbelievable. After that, we all banged the wing on! It was an interesting lesson that, after 10 years of racing with those cars, nobody had tried it, they thought they would be stupid to try it, but actually it was worth trying and it worked. It has been the same recently with Praga – I was always trying different things in testing and we did unlock something unusual by playing with the toes, gaining grip in the front axle and making it considerably quicker. It is very easy to chase your tail with set-up and go down rabbit holes that make a car slower or confuse the engineers, but there is also that pot of gold out there and it is always worth looking for.

Use every bit of knowledge you have

LMP1, Le Mans, 2001

This was a high point in my racing career, at Le Mans for the first time in a proper top-class prototype with an F1 engine putting out 850bhp, massive downforce, doing 220mph in the dry. It was really awesome stuff. Then, in the race, it rained for 17 hours! I got in at around midnight and it was bonkers – rain absolutely hammering down, puddles in the pit lane. Off into the beyond I went in this car that had a feather-light throttle and was spinning wheels all the way up to fourth gear! Loads of people crashed, and it is a pressure cooker when you have a 24-hour race and you are the one in the hot seat. When I went onto the straight for the first time, I was in fifth gear and the car aquaplaned. The wheels lifted off the circuit for what must have been seconds. It is just gnarly and you know you are close to being that one who has got his helmet in his hand, explaining to everybody why the car is smashed to smithereens. So, I pulled together all the different things I had learned in the UK racing single-seaters in the rain and hunted for the line, trying to find a different way around the track. It was dark and I could not see very far ahead, particularly with the spray effect, which is massive, but I just started using interesting markers around the track to see physically where I was and ended up finding really curious lines. The straights were so flooded in some places that I had to corner on them! I worked out a route that was really working and it was very fast, we were lapping consistently up to four seconds quicker than everybody else! Putting together that combination of experience definitely paid dividends.

Learning how to crash helps you respect your machinery

James Bond Quantum of Solace filming, 2008

Stunt driving and motorsport are poles apart. In the movies, we are trying to make things look good on screen that would look slow on track. I basically had to learn how to crash cars on purpose! In the first Bond film I worked on, we were doing continuity, the door had been ripped off, there were all kinds of collisions happening, and the car I was in was new – so they took the door off and started smashing it up with Stanley knife and a rock! In TV, you have to give cars back exactly as you got them; in racing you do all you can to avoid damaging them; but in movies we have done terrible things with them – ridden them up kerbs, jumped them, t-boned them. I really enjoy it and I have no guilt whatsoever because the cars are there to do a job and it looks great when you see it on the big screen. You eventually get into a mindset where the car is, to a certain extent, an expendable asset – but I am happy to flick that switch back to protection mode when I get in the race car!

To tap into Collins’ wealth of driving experience, pick up a copy of his book, How to Drive, which explains all the car control elements you need for performance driving through a culmination of entertaining stories from TV’s Top Gear, movie making and motorsport.

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