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.