Editorial: The Truth About Stigs

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth
editorial the truth about stigs

Writing in the Telegraph, Top Gear presenter James May says The Stig is a “ harmless fairytale.” So much for the autoblogosphere’s paroxysms of go-faster gossip. The fact that most of Top Gear’s readers and viewers will continue to agitate themselves about the Stig’s “real identity” says a lot about their preference for theater over reality. As is often the case, the truth is far less glamorous than fiction. At least in this example, it’s no less interesting. Let’s start with this: if you take the Stig’s “Power Lap” times as reasonable statistics with which to compare the performance of two different cars, you’ve been seriously misled.

The TG lap times are recorded year-round on a track subject to various extremes of heat, cold, and precipitation. The gap between the Volkswagen R32 at 1:30.4 and the Lancer Evo X “FQ-300” at 1:28.2 is just over two seconds. In fact, it’s not uncommon for lap times at a track of this length to vary by two seconds or more, as the track “rubbers in” and then “washes out” over time.

I remember absolutely obliterating the lap record for my class at Mid-O last year. I shaved almost 1.7 seconds from the record during morning warmup. Later, I had to knock another four tenths off just to qualify in the front row of a regional sprint race. A big IRL test a few days previous had left a fantastic amount of high-quality rubber bonded to the track surface. Simple as that.

Applying a “surface factor” to Top Gear’s lap times, the R32 could be just as fast as the Evo around that track under identical conditions… or it could be as much as four seconds slower. Depending on conditions, the Enzo could have been the fastest car ever tested by the Stig, or it could have been slower than the Corvette Z06.

Power Lap times are like calls to Dionne Warwick’s Psychic Friends Network: use them for entertainment purposes only.

And then there’s the “Stig factor”: the difference in driving skills between one Stig, or two Stigs, or half a dozen different Stigs. Only there isn’t one. It doesn’t matter if the Stig is Ben Oliver, Damon Hill or Lewis Hamilton. The lap times will be roughly the same.

Surely Lewis Hamilton would be much faster around the test track than an older F1 driver, or a Touring Car winner, or even (gasp) a regular old American club racer like yours truly? Nope. The main gap between the best drivers and the regular Joes is minimal.

This is particularly true in relatively undemanding vehicles like street-tire, street-alignment street cars. The talent and experience required for a fast lap in something like a Corvette or GT-R can be found in literally thousands of drivers across the Western World. The difference between the very best street-car time-trial driver in the world and a mildly competitive Spec Miata racer might be half a second, if that.

As we’ve already seen, that half-second gap is much less than the potential variation in track conditions. It’s also less than the improvement possible with careful tire pressure selection and an extra session of familiarization in the car. Which reminds me: the “very best street-car time-trial driver in the world” mentioned in the previous paragraph isn’t Lewis Hamilton, Perry McCarthy, or anybody famous. It’s probably some introverted, Tilley-hat-wearing, weekend-warrior “nobody” in NASA’s Time Trial program or one of the overseas “time attack” deals.

Real racing drivers aren’t obsessed with extracting the very last tenth of a second possible in a single lap. It’s assumed that any race driver can put in about the same max-effort lap. Strategy, car conservation, traffic skills, on-track positioning… that’s where the superstars shine.

There are a few guys out there who could probably turn a faster single lap in a Ferrari F430 than Michael Schumacher. But Schumi will be within a fuel-adjusted two-tenths of a second for every lap in a forty-lap session, he’ll monitor and report effectively the car’s condition, and he’ll be aware of the position of every other driver on the track, even if he can’t see them. That’s the job of a racing driver.

If Top Gear wanted to provide serious, repeatable performance numbers, they would find and hire that aforementioned time-trialer cubicle rat, run all the cars under the same conditions on the same day, and rigorously enforce everything from tire pressure to oil temperature. In other words, they’d do what National-caliber autocrossers do when they conduct tire testing.

But if you’ve ever attended a National Solo event, you know there’s nothing sexy, interesting or impressive about that kind of process. It looks like a Star Trek convention without the fake ears or the fun shiny outfits.

Nobody would watch it. So instead we get an imaginary android, lurid powerslides and a “Power Lap” board to sit next to the “Cool Wall.” It’s a fake. But let’s be honest: isn’t that what you want?

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  • Kgurnsey Kgurnsey on Jan 30, 2009

    I don’t expect that the majority of mock thrown about around here was ever aimed at non petrolheads. More likely, and for my part at least, chiding those who take TG seriously is meant in the context of this site, as from one car-nut to another. Surely mocking one of your gear-kin, regarding some commonly held knowledge, is fair game. Without doubt, non-car people exist in this world. No one is an expert in everything, and one certainly can’t expect a petro-layperson to tell the difference between good car data and bad. Still, non car people get their bad info from a variety of sources of ill repute; my local newspaper’s so called ‘auto’ section would be a good example. Certain buff books could be another, but to me these sources are all the more insidious because they pretend to be serious and unbiased. Top Gear is no better or worse when it comes to truthiness, but it is at least so grossly biased towards entertainment as to be obvious to anyone in-the-know (and many of those not-in-the-know I would expect). People mostly watch because it’s good fun. If they serve as the bait that gets non-car folk interested enough to do some further research, then all the better. I did actually like the article. I thought it was an interesting insight in to the world of real motor racing, highlighted nicely by contrast with Top Gear’s decidedly less than rigorous methods. My pound of bovine flesh is with what people seem to expect Top Gear to be. Some seem to want it to be something it’s not, when what you are really looking for is in fact staring you right in the face. As others have already noted, for those who lament the passing of the ‘old’ Top Gear, the show “Fifth Gear” is exactly what you are looking for. Top gear didn’t change, it just changed names. Indeed, Fifth Gear was intended as a re-release of the original format of Top Gear, with Tiff, Vicki et al., minus Clarkson. It was even supposed to be called Top Gear, until the BBC said bugger off. Where Top Gear went a different way, Fifth Gear stayed the course. If Fifth Gear didn’t so glaringly exist as such, I might understand all the cries of mourning. The majority of complaints seem to be with the format of the new show and/or with Jezza himself. Well, again, the original format of Top Gear, sans the middle aged bigot = Fifth Gear. There is no need to get hung up on the name. Let Top Gear be what it is, for those of us who enjoy it, and rejoice that the original format of Top Gear still lives on in Fifth Gear. Personally I like them both, watch both, and am entertained by both, but for entirely different reasons. I could even see TG acting as a bridge, using the power of entertainment to entice and lead non petrolheads to the Valhalla of truth about… well you know. Like that first fruity rose, that in time leads to the love and appreciation well aged and full bodied reds. I could understand taking TG to task for being bad entertainment, but journalistic integrity went out the window as soon as that bus tried to jump a row of motorcycles. Reputable criticism, as far as TG goes, is limited to witty, tongue in cheek, sensationalized, and opinionated editorials, edited for the best possible audience effect. And what a successful effect it is. Those who think that Captain slow can’t drive should check out the segment where he lead foots a TVR around a race track with Jackie Stewart in the side seat. He may not be a natural behind the tiller, but after some instruction from the ol’ scot, he actually gets ‘round rather well. Though he may be all left feet when it comes to power slides and hooning about, but I reckon that Captain Slow can indeed shed some rubber when pressed.

  • RogerB34 RogerB34 on Jan 30, 2009

    TM of many sensors beats driver assessment. Cold hard facts in time sequence. Driver sensation essential too. Get the order right.