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Friday favourite: The forgotten prototype racer that charmed 'Stig'

Through his work as Top Gear’s ‘tame racing driver’ between 2003-2010, Ben Collins has experienced some of the greatest road-going machinery on the planet. Collins has hardly been starved of rapid technology in his day job though, and picks out the Ascari LMP900 he raced in its A410 and KZR-1 guises as his favourite car

Ben Collins

Ben Collins

Motorsport Images

Ben Collins may have garnered fame through his television work, but he is no stranger to the cockpit of a racing car. Across his career, he has raced everything from Le Mans prototypes to a Citroen 2CV. It will come as no surprise that the machinery Collins looks upon most fondly comes from the more powerful end of this list – not that there is anything wrong at all with 2CV racing! And no, his favourite isn't the BMW330d from Top Gear’s 2007 Britcar 24 Hours adventure either. 

Instead, the 2003 ASCAR champion picks out the Ascari A410, later renamed the KZR-1, which was powered by a monstrous 590bph Judd GV4 V10 engine. Posed the question of which car from his back catalogue is his favourite at his long-awaited British GT return last month, Collins tells Autosport: “That’s easy, the Ascari LMP1, or LMP900 it was called.

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“The two years I had then the fastest car in the world almost. It was an F1 engine with huge downforce.

“On a bumpy track in the dry, you had wheelspin in first, second and third from the Judd engine which was a V10 screaming thing. Huge brakes, speeds of 200 miles-per-hour nearly everywhere. We were racing at circuits all around the world like Monza and Le Mans, that was a really special time.”

The A410 had endured a troubled development and failed to prequalify for Le Mans in 2000 with Ascari boss Klaas Zwart joined by Canadian Robbie Stirling and Formula 3000 nearly man Max Wilson. But by 2001, with Collins and Werner Lupberger joining the project, its gearbox woes had been resolved and the car was a more competitive proposition.  

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Racing the A410 for Team Ascari in the FIA Sportscar Championship, Collins and Lupberger took fourth in the standings in a season capped by victory at Donington. After retiring from the Barcelona season-opener, the pair bounced back to finish second in the Monza 1000km, taking the chequered flag less than six seconds off the GLV Brums-run Ferrari 333SP of race-winners Giovanni Lavaggi and Christian Vann.

Collins and Lupberger took fourth at Spa, but they tasted victory spoils in the Ascari A410 at Donington in 2001

Photo by: Sutton Images

Collins and Lupberger took fourth at Spa, but they tasted victory spoils in the Ascari A410 at Donington in 2001

A trio of fourth-place podium near-misses came at Spa Francorchamps, Brno, and Magny Cours, but this streak was ended in spectacular fashion at Donington, as the Ascari's sole win was secured with a margin of close to a minute over the title-winning Scuderia Italia-run 333SP driven by Jean-Marc Gounon and Marco Zadra. Collins also piloted the Ascari at the Le Mans 24 Hours, but fuel pump problems meant it failed to reach the chequered flag.

For 2002, the A410 evolved into the KZR-1. Collins raced this iteration on three occasions, including at Le Mans, but was unable to recapture his Donington success. Sixth in the Sebring 12 Hours was the high point, as suspension failure put the car out at Le Mans.

“I did two seasons of that in a car that was just so lively and had no power steering,” the 48-year-old continues. “You had a sequential shift, but it was a really physical battle and unbelievably satisfying.

"Really, the only thing you can say would be a step up from that would be a Formula 1 race. That was awesome and I loved it" Ben Collins

“For me, that was the pinnacle of what I raced. Really, the only thing you can say would be a step up from that would be a Formula 1 race. That was awesome and I loved it.”

Moving onto which of his many team-mates stand out above the rest, Collins points to Indianapolis 500 winners Scott Dixon and Takuma Sato - he raced alongside the six-time IndyCar champion in 1999 during an Indy Lights season with Johansson Motorsport, then with Sato on his return to the UK in British Formula 3 with Carlin in 2000 - before returning to his former Ascari partner Lupberger.

He describes the South African as a driver who, “on his day, was a superstar and his qualifying was unbelievably rapid”.

Joking as to why he didn’t choose any of Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May following their 2007 Britcar jaunt, Collins adds: “Well, they were funny, that’s for sure. That was an entertainment show, but it was funny watching them in the real world.

“Actually, it was meant to be a 24-hour race where you shared the car. But from memory, I did most of the laps. The Stig was very busy and it was a lot of fun.”

Collins cites Lupberger as his favourite team-mate and believes the only possible step up from the Ascari was racing in F1

Photo by: Sutton Images

Collins cites Lupberger as his favourite team-mate and believes the only possible step up from the Ascari was racing in F1

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