Is the the identity of The Stig a matter of national security? You might think so from the portentous warning delivered by the BBC's lawyers to newspaper editors at 11.50pm last Wednesday.
Into their email inboxes dropped an urgent notice from the corporation, forbidding any disclosure of the identity of The Stig, the mysteriously helmeted driver who appears every week on Top Gear.
His forthcoming anonymous autobiography has triggered this latest round of media repression, as his contract apparently contains a confidentiality clause to protect the mystique of his royal stigginess – and, presumably, the lucrative merchandising opportunities he represents for the BBC.
Exercised as the corporation is, the rest of the nation may be simply bemused. Writing as a proud petrolhead and former editor of Independent Motoring, I always find the Stig segment the dullest bit of Top Gear and was never much bothered about whom or what the Stig was.
The latest candidate for Stighood is reportedly a Formula 3 driver named Ben Collins, 35, who has messed about in Aston Martins for Daniel Craig in the James Bond movies.
The Sunday Times claimed yesterday that accounts filed at Companies House for Collins Autosport prove he has a commercial relationship with the show, starting in 2003, thus coinciding with the incarnation of Stig mark 2.
In accounts filed in December 2003, the company recorded a "cornerstone year" and "driving services provided for the BBC, mainly in the Top Gear programme", which offered "good long-term prospects for continuing income". Mr Collins is also named as a "high-performance driver and consultant" on the show in the safety report into the crash that left presenter Richard Hammond with head injuries in 2006.
Mr Collins has a varied CV: he spent four years in the Army, has worked as a TV presenter and a manager for Hornby's Scalextric brand. He took up motor sport in 1994. He has raced in Gran Turismo cars at Le Mans, on the Nascar circuit in America and won seven races in Formula Three. So far he has declined to comment.
One might conclude that the BBC's lawyerly missives are just another round of Top Gear marketing, designed to stoke up the "great debate" again.
Like the head of MI5 was once, or perhaps a more wholesome version of the riddle of Jack the Ripper, guessing the real identity of The Stig has been a national parlour game for some years. Every so often a new name is put forward and, in their playful way, the Top Gear stars and producers refuse to confirm or deny, or, alternatively and for the sheer hell of it, they confirm false speculation, as they apparently did in the case of Michael Schumacher.
From a chartered accountant to Damon Hill, many faces have been painted on to that famous darkened visor. The earliest Stig was fired after his identity was revealed. Perry McCarthy was literally fired, propelled from the deck of an aircraft carrier in a Jaguar. His replacement was the current white-clad mark 2 version.
There is less of a mystery surrounding the Stig label. Rejecting the initial suggestion of "The Gimp" , the Top Gear producers agreed to Jeremy Clarkson's suggestion of Stig, the nickname given to new boys at his old school, Repton.Reuse content