The identity of the Stig - the iconic suited and helmeted figure from cult, Jeremy Clarkson-fronted BBC motoring TV programme Top Gear - has been a well-guarded secret for years, but now some details about his real-life persona have come to light...and it is not as glamorous as some might think.

Double Formula 1 World Champion Fernando Alonso once remarked that the Stig was 'a seriously good driver' and 'definitely ex-F1' after seeing him lap Silverstone behind the wheel of a two-seater Santander grand prix car [see separate story - click here], and there has been considerable debate about who he really is for some time.

Names bandied about have included 1996 F1 World Champion Damon Hill, former touring car stars Julian Bailey and Darren Turner, two-time Le Mans 24 Hours winner Allan McNish and even Jamiroquai singer Jay Kay, who last year claimed to have played the part 'on several occasions'.

The mystery has never been resolved, but the News of the World has revealed that the Stig is in fact a married former racing driver-turned stunt and test driver in his thirties who 'lives quietly in a comfortable ?300,000 home'. Not only that, but 'when he's not screaming around the show's famous Gambon corner at break-neck speed in his white suit and black-visored helmet...[he] likes pootling around in a ?15,000 car that would even bore James May'.

The Sunday tabloid goes on to claim that the Stig earns ?150,000 a year with his Top Gear role and other driving duties, and that he used to compete in Formula First, GT racing and stock cars - but found his first driving experience 'terrifying'. The Daily Telegraph also suggests that his home is a shrine to his high-speed stunts, with innumerable photographs and his famous suit and helmet on display in a glass cabinet.

Six years ago the Sunday Mirror reported that the original black-suited Stig was sometime F1 ace Perry McCarthy, a man who after a promising early career failed to qualify for eleven grands prix with the chronically-uncompetitive Andrea Moda in 1992. The 47-year-old refused to either confirm or deny the rumour at the time - saying only that he knew who the Stig was - but subsequently admitted to it being him, which led to him being 'killed off' after 22 appearances on the show when he was fired off the end of aircraft carrier HMS Invincible in a rocket-powered vehicle at the beginning of season three.

"It was great fun," McCarthy enthused, "and I'm still a big fan."

The mysterious character's cover was almost blown, however, earlier this month when Roger Whitehead, the owner of a photographic gallery in Bristol, confessed that the Stig had gone into his shop to print some pictures of himself in his racing gear - adding that he had been made to sign a confidentiality agreement promising never to reveal his identity.

"This is the best-kept secret in motor racing," a BBC spokesperson concluded, "and we want to keep it that way. No one will ever officially confirm his identity."

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