20 Oct 2015
This feature was originally published on October 20 2015.
Mark Higgins is one of Britain’s greatest rally drivers and arguably one of Hollywood’s biggest stars – even though you’ve never seen his face on screen.
A three time British Rally champion, Higgins more recently has appeared in a number of hit films, including The Sweeney, Fast and Furious 6 and three James Bond films – one of which is the upcoming release, Spectre.
Despite hailing from the Isle of Man, a land famous for its motorbike racing, Higgins’ grandparents, parents and uncles all competed in rally events. So it was only natural that he and his brother David carried on the family tradition.
“I did trials riding but then went onto karting. I was definitely better on 4 wheels,” Higgins said of his early two-wheeled exploits, “I love bikes and have a race bike and enduro but I keep braking bones!”
The decision to compete on four wheels instead of two proved to be a fruitful one. Higgins’ professional career began at the young age of just 17 and in 1997, at 26 years of age he’d won his first British Rally Championship title.
Two more BRC crowns would follow in 2005 and 2006, making it three years in a row someone from the Higgins clan took British rallying’s top prize after his brother’s triumph in 2004.
Three BRC championship wins put Higgins in a very elite club alongside some of rallying’s biggest names such as Ari Vatanen, Stig Blomqvist, and Jimmy and Colin McRae. Having a place on such a roll of honour is something that Higgins certainly sees as very special.
“It’s hard to imagine these moments when you were a kid who idolized them all,” he said, “I remember Ari Vatanen after my first British championship win congratulating me on the recce of Rally GB which was special back in 1997.”
Higgins continued to compete in the BRC for another three seasons after his final championship win. In those years, he finished second in every season – each time getting agonisingly close to adding another championship crown to his CV.
In recent years, the British Rally Championship has faced a sharp decline. Spiralling costs, lack of interest from manufacturers, and the domination of one particular car are amongst the things hindering what was once one of the world’s top motorsport series – something Higgins is sorry to see.
“It’s very sad to be honest. I learnt my craft in the BRC and had some fantastic years,” he admitted, “I hope it comes back again but it’s become very expensive and we need the manufacturers back to support it.”
“When you need a half million pound budget to do the season in the R5 car it becomes difficult for the guys with talent to come through without a team’s support,” Higgins added. “Last year there were events with 12 cars entered in the BRC which is not good. The championship needs depth and atmosphere and the more cars the better.”
After leaving the BRC following the 2009 campaign, Higgins didn’t compete in a top-level rally event on UK soil until 2013 when he made a one off appearance at the final round of the World Rally Championship, Wales Rally GB. He finished tenth that weekend, third in the WRC2 class.
Since then, the majority of Higgins’ rally outings have taken place in China, where he competes alongside some top names from the world of rallying.
“It’s a great championship with top teams, European drivers and good cars,” he said, “The last event had 130 entries with Alister McRae, Nial McShae, Manfred Stool and Chris Atkinson competing in very good cars.”
Despite his adventures in Asia, a lot of Mark Higgins’ most recent work has centred around the world of action movies; in particular, the James Bond franchise.
Remarking on his transition from the stages to the screen, Higgins said, “I worked on TV shows such as Top Gear and Ben Colins, the old Stig, who was working on Quantum of Solace was asked to find a rally driver for the opening gravel scene down the quarry. Myself and Ben had worked over the years together so this is how it started.”
In recent years, long periods away filming have tended to limit Higgins’ competitive career, in particular in 2012 when participating in the productions of Bond film Skyfall and Fast & Furious 6 meant that Higgins didn’t compete in a single rally for the first time in several years.
“Doing Fast 6 and Skyfall in the same year was the first time since I was 14 that I did not do a rally,” he recalled, “It was great to get back to rallying the following year, and it was then I realised how much I missed the competing.”
“The China season starts late so I have been lucky recently as I’ve been able to do both.”
Like many stunt drivers, Higgins is called upon by production companies to sit behind the wheel most of the time, but on occasion the star actors do their part too.
“We do get to work closely with the actors” Higgins revealed. “With insurance and their busy schedules the actors do very little in the cars and they’re often on a different film unit than the stunt guys, but all get involved when they can.”
Higgins regards one of those moments when the actor was absent – doubling for Daniel Craig as James Bond – as a professional highlight. Including the upcoming release, Spectre, he has appeared in all but one of Craig’s outings as 007 as well as a handful of other pictures; but which of his on screen outings does Higgins consider to be his favourite?
“They’re all different,” he said, “Fast 6 was great because of the variety of cars I drove and people I doubled, although it’s not every day you get to be Bond in the Aston which is definite highlight of my career so far.”
From Alfa Romeos to Aston Martins, Jensen Interceptors to outlandish ‘flip cars’, the movie world has allowed Higgins to get behind the wheel of some pretty impressive machines. Though none are perhaps quite as special as his latest office, The Aston Martin DB10.
Built specifically for Spectre, the DB10 will never be offered to the public. Only 10 were made and special agent Higgins got to drive each and every one of them.
“The DB10 was great to work with as it’s obviously got loads of grunt, it sounds fantastic,” he said. “The car never missed a beat through the film and was a pleasure to drive sideways most of the time”.
Although the finished film is yet to be released, a lot of intrigue has already surrounded not just the DB10, but the car chase scene in which it will feature – which also includes the Jaguar CX75, another car which is unlikely to ever hit the road.
In recent months the internet has been flooded with images and incognito footage from Rome, where Higgins was seen speeding and sliding his way through the streets for the cameras.
Working through the night – often for 12 hours at a time – over a thousand people helped put together the car chase sequence literally a mile at a time. The ancient cobbled streets, complex camera equipment and darkness didn’t always providing optimum driving conditions though.
“Once all roads were locked off we would film on the same bit of road, approximately one mile at a time, many times with different angles of the car,” he said, “The challenges were the conditions, cameras strapped to the car, vision and the stunts that were all done for real on the film.”
While he loves his job, Higgins does admit that the process of filming isn’t always a perfect way to spend the day. “The only downside [to filming] is the time away on a film and sometimes a lot of hanging around although we were flat out every night in Rome for Spectre.”
There are still many secrets surrounding the completed chase sequence, such as who comes out on top, Bond or the villain, Hinx? What tricks does Bond’s new ride have hidden up its sleeve? and so on, making not just the film, but Bond’s latest car battle one of the most eagerly anticipated things in cinema this year.
Transitioning from the stage to the screen is nothing new in the world of cinema, although it’s usually from Broadway or the West End, not the forests of Wales. But what’s better, the life of a professional driver, or that of a super spy, master criminal, police officer or whatever the script throws at him?
“They’re very different but I still love competing, that is my passion,” Higgins concedes, “there is still a great buzz from the filming when you do a difficult scene, and a different pressure.”