The BBC sprung a surprise on Sunday evening when the long-concealed identity of the hero of cult motoring show Top Gear, The Stig, was finally 'revealed' - and when the helmet was removed, the man inside was none other than record-breaking seven-time F1 World Champion Michael Schumacher.

Whilst the 'unveiling' has been dismissed in most quarters as merely a publicity stunt, it was undoubtedly a popular one - and was followed by an amusing exchange of banter between the 91-time grand prix-winner and the programme's host Jeremy Clarkson, who had initially pretended not to recognise who Schumacher was.

When asked if he is 'illegal in 17 US states', the German quipped straight back: "No, it's much exaggerated - it's only nine." Then when it was put to him that The Stig 'only knows two facts about ducks and both of them are wrong', Schumacher replied 'well obviously they can fly', which Clarkson swiftly interrupted by joking: "No, they were right - you don't know anything about ducks!"

Prior to the unmasking, Schumacher had completed a lap of the Top Gear test track in Dunsfold Park, Surrey in his own ?1million Ferrari FSX, seven seconds faster than has ever been done before. Clarkson subsequently wrote in his newspaper column that 'as a television moment, it's up there with Neil Armstrong walking on the...corpse of JR Ewing'.

Few, however, believe Schumacher to be the real Stig, with as many as eight people believed to have played the part of the mysterious 'tame racing driver' since he first appeared when Top Gear re-launched back in 2002. Ex-F1 ace Perry McCarthy revealed himself to have been the original 'Black Stig' in his autobiography Flat Out, Flat Broke, losing his job for his trouble as he was swiftly 'killed off' in series three in 2003.

The subsequent 'White Stig', however, is widely believed to be played by former British F3 and sportscar star Ben Collins - a man who acted as a double for Daniel Craig and drove the Aston Martin DBS in stunt scenes in the latest James Bond movie Quantum of Solace, what he described as 'a dream come true'. He reportedly 'outed' himself at a Bristol art gallery earlier this year, when he asked staff to produce a limited-edition print of The Stig in action for him.

According to the Daily Telegraph, the health and safety report into Richard 'Hamster' Hammond's life-threatening jet-powered car accident at Elvington Airfield near Yorkshire in September 2006, noted that Bristol-born Collins had 'worked closely with Top Gear as a high performance driver and consultant'.

It is also alleged that The Stig's unmistakeable white racesuit and gloves were found on display at the 34-year-old's home by a builder - but Collins and the BBC have always denied his involvement, keen to retain the secret as closely-guarded as possible. Other names mentioned in connection with the role include 1996 F1 World Champion Damon Hill and former grand prix and touring car driver Julian Bailey.

The Stig's task on the show is to train celebrities for the weekly 'Star in a Reasonably-Priced Car' feature, and his name comes from Clarkson's days spent as a pupil at Repton Schoool, where new students were referred to as 'Stig'.