Ben Collins

THE DRIVER

Land Rover AFRICA Magazine - - SHORT WHEELS -

Bri­tish-born Ben Collins has an im­pec­ca­ble racing pedi­gree and has com­peted in mo­tor racing since 1994 in var­i­ous dis­ci­plines. Ben pro­vides pre­ci­sion and stunt driv­ing ser­vices, par­tic­u­larly for BBC tele­vi­sion and the film in­dus­try. In 2010, it was widely re­ported that he might be one of the iden­ti­ties of The Stig – an uniden­ti­fied char­ac­ter on BBC’s Top Gear. This was con­firmed dur­ing a court bat­tle over his im­pend­ing au­to­bi­og­ra­phy.

Land Rover AFRICA edi­tor spoke to Ben ex­clu­sively about the In­ferno challenge. He added (we felt it is worth a men­tion) that his daily drive is a De­fender 90 Wolf soft-top (light mil­i­tary ver­sion).

Were there any pre-race jit­ters for a daunt­ing challenge like this? Yes, there were a few mo­ments of hes­i­ta­tion, espe­cially when I signed up for the challenge. My agent asked: “Do you know what you’re get­ting your­self into? You re­ally need to read this.” But in all hon­esty, it was amaz­ing. Nav­i­gat­ing a 2.5 to 3-tonne ve­hi­cle down a slip­pery moun­tain, I al­ways knew there was go­ing to be some risk in­volved. There were no walls to hold me in and if I made a mis­take, I was likely to go over the cliff­side. Look­ing back, it was risky, but it was such a phe­nom­e­nal challenge and ex­actly the kind of thing I love do­ing. It ticked every box for me. There were some ner­vous mo­ments, but I fo­cused on the job at hand and get­ting the best pos­si­ble re­sult. At what stage did you feel, ‘This is it, I’ve pushed my­self to the limit’? The whole way, re­ally. There were a cou­ple of tricky cor­ners where I had to turn on a down­hill sec­tion, go­ing about three miles an hour too fast, and I ex­pe­ri­enced a slight bit of un­der­steer­ing and teetered to­wards the edge. But I man­aged to find enough grip to make it around the bend in time. When you look at the course, it can look quite be­nign. But the width of the track was the same width as the car. There was no space for wide slides and very lit­tle mar­gin for er­ror. Dur­ing one of the runs, black ice had formed on the road and the car moved one me­tre to the right, which took me to the edge of a huge drop-off that would have taken me right off the cliff.

That could have been the end of Ben Collins … It was espe­cially daunt­ing be­cause you can’t re­ally see black ice. I had to keep a close eye on the tem­per­a­ture gauge. The con­di­tions were con­stantly chang­ing, with black ice in the morn­ing and rain dur­ing the main speed run. One level of grip was ef­fec­tively halved when I drove down the wet, grassy slope sec­tion, which is pretty much like driv­ing on ice. Luck­ily, I had a day with Land Rover Ex­pe­ri­ence to learn the ins and outs of the Range Rover Sport. That def­i­nitely helped. There are sev­eral sys­tems in the car that can be used for var­i­ous road sur­faces so you can get the most from the car’s tech­nol­ogy. Did the Range Rover Sport ex­ceed your ex­pec­ta­tions? I couldn’t be­lieve how rugged the Range Rover Sport was. I tried to con­vince the Land Rover tech­ni­cians to in­stall plated ar­mour un­der­neath the car. I was cer­tain that the car would crash into boul­ders and dips and po­ten­tially dam­age the en­gine. But the Range Rover Sport’s sus­pen­sion ad­justs 500 times per se­cond. When you’re go­ing crazy off-road at high speeds, it’s easy to go into that see-saw ef­fect. But the Range Rover Sport’s sus­pen­sion irons that out. I’m not say­ing that it wasn’t a bumpy ex­pe­ri­ence in­side the car, but the car’s abil­ity to level out pro­tects the ma­chine and en­ables it to with­stand any pum­melling you might ex­pe­ri­ence. I be­lieved in the car and it meant we could shed a lot of time over the runs. To be hon­est, I abused it and it just kept on go­ing – I couldn’t have asked for a bet­ter ma­chine to do the job.

How treach­er­ous was the ter­rain, re­ally? Dur­ing the recce run, we had a tyre punc­ture within the first five min­utes of be­ing there. The pro­ducer com­mented that this was a sign of things to come. The ques­tion was how many tyres did we have? There were about three or four sets, but the Land Rover team man­aged to bring in an ad­di­tional 25 sets. We ex­pe­ri­enced punc­tures at reg­u­lar in­ter­vals.

The stones on the course were the flinty kind, in­cred­i­bly sharp, and they struck holes in our side­walls. It wasn’t ideal. The sharp stones showed no mercy what­so­ever. On the sec­tions that were cov­ered in black ice, I re­ally wanted to push the car to 150 km/h, but I found it re­ally dif­fi­cult to stop. I opted to use the ve­hi­cle’s Hill De­scent mode as I didn’t trust my feet on the ped­als to get enough grip on the tyres.

What spe­cific driv­ing tech­niques did you ap­ply on the course? At times, I found my­self go­ing air­borne. It was like be­ing in a boat where you hit a wave and you have to be think­ing about where you’re go­ing to land. From the footage, you’ll see shots where all four wheels are off the ground. That hap­pened reg­u­larly through some of the sec­tions. The big­gest driv­ing skill for these con­di­tions was an­tic­i­pa­tion, which is key to any kind of driv­ing, and be­ing able to pre­dict what would come next. Also, as best as pos­si­ble, I had to mem­o­rise the course, which wasn’t all that straight­for­ward. But look­ing back, I now know the course like the back of my hand. Per­haps a re­match is on the cards?

Any mod­i­fi­ca­tions on the ve­hi­cle? The Range Rover Sport was stock stan­dard. The only ad­di­tion was a roll cage, for if the car did go off a cliff, there was some form of pro­tec­tion at least. We also added slightly more rugged road tyres (for all the good they did!), but that was it.

What safety mea­sure were taken on the course? I was for­tu­nate enough to work with a fan­tas­tic guy named Ste­fan Zürcher who was our safety guy. I col­lab­o­rated with him on some the Bond films. He’s the go-to guy for moun­tain safety. Be­ing a down­hill racer him­self, Ste­fan un­der­stands ex­actly what is re­quired in terms of mar­shalling. He and his team were al­ways pre­pared for the worst. There was also a med­i­cal team on standby. Prior to the challenge, Ste­fan said that there’s no way we could com­plete the course in un­der 30 or 45 min­utes. It did give us a bit of a re­al­ity check, but I was very happy to beat his pre­dic­tion.

Do you think any other pro­duc­tion ve­hi­cle would have done it? If there is such a ve­hi­cle, I haven’t been in it. I’m sure there are other pro­duc­tion cars that can do the course. But in terms of what you get from a re­fined, lux­ury ve­hi­cle like the Range Rover Sport, it’s un­sur­passed. I can’t think of one ve­hi­cle that could do this or be­have like an off-road-only car. I didn’t be­lieve it was pos­si­ble and I was blown away by its ca­pa­bil­i­ties. Lux­ury cars tend to be show ponies. I’ve taken other cars of­froad and on the first bump, wiring ap­peared at the wheel arch. The Range Rover Sport is the real deal. It took a con­stant beat­ing and the car never had a fault. It’s a unique beast.

Your over­all im­pres­sions of its han­dling and per­for­mance? You im­me­di­ately no­tice the power. When it was time to put my foot down, it gave me fan­tas­tic re­sponse. Whether you’re on a moun­tain or mo­tor­way, a car with the guts to pull you out of trou­ble and give you great re­sponse is very re­as­sur­ing. With the adap­tive, dy­namic set­tings, the car can morph into what you want it to do. In off-road mode, you get a fairly loose drive, you’re able to put it into short ra­tio gears and you get a car that feels like it re­ally suits the con­di­tions. But when you’re back on the tar­mac, you can drop the sus­pen­sion, opt for the longer ra­tio gears and you’ve back in SUV-land! It’s re­ally ca­pa­ble of be­ing an all-road, all-pur­pose wagon. It’s a so­phis­ti­cated ride and, as I dis­cov­ered, it can be a real an­i­mal when set up for off-road driv­ing. That’s ex­actly why it has been such a pop­u­lar ve­hi­cle all around the world.

THE RANGE ROVER SPORT IS THE REAL DEAL. IT TOOK A CON­STANT BEAT­ING AND THE CAR NEVER HAD A FAULT. IT'S A UNIQUE BEAST.

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