Better known as The Stig, Ben Collins coached hundreds of celebrities around the racetrack, organised high voltage car chases and tested hundreds of priceless cars to the brink. He holds many credits: Championship-winning Le Mans Racecar Driver, bestselling author, TV presenter, world record breaker and Hollywood stunt driver. Today Ben gives the Paddock magazine five exclusive tips on how to drive like a real stunt driver.
- Drive it like you stole it
There’s often only one chance to make a lasting impression on celluloid. Many moviemakers have tried using digital cameras where you can film a sequence again and again without burning film stock, including the 007 franchise, only to return to the energy of real film to capture that one special moment. So give it rock all, otherwise cinema audiences will yawn their disapproval.
For the stunt driver that means unleashing everything you have when the director calls for action. Car chases always involve a high-speed race through traffic, with inches to spare and bumper-to-bumper. Timing is everything, which is why we rehearse these sequences so much. But ultimately it comes down to being able to summon that little extra to squeeze through a vanishing gap or dig yourself out of trouble when a fluid situation throws a curveball.
- Don’t overcook it
Top Gear was the perfect training ground because we had to live within our means. We would be given one car to film with and told “not to put a scratch on it.” One night in Basingstoke I was chucked the keys to a shiny new black Corvette and we had an entire shopping mall as our playground. I was handbrake turning past Costa Coffee and smashing through their tables and chairs, exploding though fruit stalls and generally abusing 1 million square feet of prime retail space. Between takes Pat Doyle, the Series Producer, was monitoring every fleck on the surface of the car and “buffing out” would-be scars.
My first movie was National Treasure 2, which featured the biggest car chase in London’s history. I had been put on standby for almost three weeks, which means waiting on the film set to be given something to do, and found myself distracted by the heavenly bounty inside the catering wagon.
Out of nowhere the stunt coordinator’s assistant came running towards me with an incredulous look in his eye. To my shame I looked down and realised I hadn’t turned my radio on, nor realised that I was keeping Nicolas Cage and Ed Harris waiting… It was hard to make excuses with a Mr Whippy in my hand.
I had four broken ribs from a racing accident, so running was really out of the question. Well… I sprinted like I was running from a seething volcano. I jumped onto the roof of the Mercedes, where we had a chair with steering and pedals so that I could drive it from a special ‘pod’, and spent the rest of the day swinging my rig around the backstreets of London City. Suffice to say, it was a lesson learned.
- Tweak the Car
You need a car with a decent handbrake so that you could spin the car around on its nose and slide it whenever you want to. Today’s car manufacturers have lost their minds by installing push buttons that are as useful as a white crayon. You can bypass all that rubbish by fitting a hydraulic handbrake that attaches to a line to the rear brakes, or go in search of a car that still has old school creature comforts.
If you find one, you can jam a five-penny piece into the latch button and gaffer tape it in place to create a flyaway handbrake. That prevents the handbrake sticking which makes life a whole lot easier when you’re juggling the steering and obeying the scenery filling the windscreen.
- Find the camera
Regardless of how well you can drive, it doesn’t count for a thing if you miss the shot. The camera lens is Lord of all. Knowing where the cameras are, and more importantly what they can see, is a crucial skill for avoiding the dubious compliment, “that looked awesome, but we couldn’t see you.”
We filmed Fast 6 around Piccadilly Circus, which involved drifting sideways through the bustling streets at speeds of 70mph. After skating around the statue of Eros and dodging a few metaphorical arrows in the bus lane, we usually backed off for a leisurely return via Haymarket street. Only this time there was a giant crane looming overhead, so we carried on at full pelt and blasted past an extra camera lurking four feet above our rooftops.
I realise I haven’t said much about how to handle the car itself but there’s really not enough space here, which is why I wrote a book called “How to Drive”. There I explain how to execute the perfect donut, j-turn, handbrake turn, sideways drift and plenty of other morsels for turning you into a driving God. Releasing in paperback just in time for Father’s Day (!), June 21st.