Tin top drivers -- Steve Soper Number 1

And the winner is... a tyre fitter from Harrow. Paul Fearnley assesses the saloon racers' saloon racer, a man who shunned single-seaters and only went 'blue sky' 27 years into his race career...

It's all twirling arms and jutting elbows in the hurly-burly of touring cars, right? No room, or need, for style in these saloons of substance. First rolling wreck across the line wins. Simple, but brutal. Populist, not purist. Yet Steve Soper, silver open-face, its peak tipped back, shoulders relaxed, wrists flexed, torso tipping-in like Jimmy Clark, was calm amid the storm. As war raged on the windward side of his 'screen, 'Soperman' was at his ease in a favourite armchair, remote to hand, somehow controlling races as if he were watching your review-of-the-season vid, too.

Out of the car it was different: red-faced with perspiration, he wore his dices heavily. It's not that he wasn't fit — he was winning long-distance races in 650bhp Prototypes as he approached his personal half-century — it's just that he always emptied his tank, be it an Oulton Park 17-lapper or Bathurst's James Hardie 1000. For few have been as hungry as Soper. He tried to win his first race "at the first corner" (on the second lap, reportedly) and his self-prepared Escort "fell over". That was 1971, an Eight Clubs meeting at Silverstone. For the rest of the decade this tyre fitter from Harrow (his father owned the firm) slogged around the British scene: Transit, trailer, Escorts, Minis and Imps. He was confident of his ability but never had the money to make things happen — and the call didn't come.

"What changed it was the emergence of one-make championships," he says. "I was attracted to them because I felt your results depended more on talent than budget." He was right: between 1977 and '81 he won the National Mini 1275GT class, the National Mini Challenge outright, the Ford Fiesta Cup and the MG Metro Challenge. Now the calls came. And continued to do so for the next two decades. But while his phone went into meltdown, the titles, weirdly, dried up. Only one more would come his way. But Soper is proof that there's more to motor racing than titles: the Stirling Moss of saloons. Which is why BMW wanted him as early as 1984, eventually landed him in '89 and hung onto him until '99. Only Ford, the other kingpin marque of saloons, and Austin-Rover, the firm that gave him his break, were able to wedge themselves between Soper and his dream drive: "I remember watching a TT and being impressed by how BMW went about its racing: the trucks, the presentation of the cars, lots of little things." He was a teenager and the impression was vivid and lasting.

The roles were reversed in the 1983 Tourist Trophy. In his first season with the Rover Vitesse, and always brilliant at old, balls-out Silverstone, he blitzed the field with a mature (well, he was 31), stupendously fast drive in wet-dry conditions to open his ETCC account. Hans Stuck, whose 635CSi had floundered in Soper's wake, immediately recommended him to the Munich marque. Austin-Rover's competitions boss John Davenport countered with a two-year contract; Soper accepted. And spent two years fretting about it.

While Tom Walkinshaw's Jaguar XJ-Ss were mopping up the 1984 ETCC, TWR's fallback Rovers gave Soper one finish in nine starts. And his partial British campaign, meanwhile, was curtailed when the courts argued the validity of his stunning, straight-from-little-nipper-Metro-to-big-banger-Rover BTCC title of '83. He was eventually stripped of it, in August. The reason? The single-cam V8's hydraulic tappets had been fitted with grub screws for ease of adjustment.

Asked to jot down ideas for improving his Rover lot for '85, Steve's thoughts ran to a couple of sides of A4— and ran and ran: "The next thing I know Tom is on the phone asking me why I was being critical of TWR." Soper was left out of Rover's squad for the first two ETCC races of 1985, returned at Donington Park — and suffered a huge accident in practice. Matters improved — a third and three seconds — but his contract was up, and he was off.

"Steve could be troublesome," says Davenport. "He knew what he wanted: Mr Soper winning. All pro drivers want to win, it's just that he was a little more open about it than most. But he never gave me a moment's disquiet in the car. Once the door was shut he was totally focused. You didn't have to bother with any of that psychological motivation stuff, all you had to do was tell him where the race was and when it started.

"There was a streak of paranoia about him. He seemed to think certain people were out to get him. The TWR situation didn't help that: Tom was not only the team's boss, he was its number one driver too. Steve had two particular problems in that situation: he couldn't hide his feelings and he was a bit too quick"

Soper: "Tom was the boss in every respect; I was inexperienced at that level and was unable to stand my corner. I couldn't control my destiny. All I could do was drive as fast as I could." And for the first time he discovered this wasn't always enough in the professional ranks. It was a hard lesson well learned.

Soper's next career move was more ambitious and far-sighted: he joined Ruedi Eggenberger's squad. This Lyss-based Swiss-German outfit, the reigning ETCC champion with Volvo's unlikely 240 Turbo, was now Ford's team of choice. 1986 was always meant to be a learning year with the Merkur XR4Ti and the win at the Estoril finale was a bonus, for what Soper had had his eye on all along was the Sierra Cosworth teed-up for the inaugural World Touring Car Championship.

This series was mired in politics from the off and lasted for a single season. But Soper had his own problems closer to home. The arrival at Ford of Klaus Ludwig had upset his apple cart. Soper and Klaus Niedzwiedz were split up to allow for a German 'dream team' and Steve was now paired with talented but undemonstrative Belgian racer/scribbler Pierre Dieudonné. It was clear which duo was number one. Even Soper's consolation of winning at Bathurst was denied him several months after the event when his evo RS500 was disqualified because of illegal... plastic wheel arches. "I wasn't too bothered at the time," says Soper, "because I knew I'd won on the road. But now I've retired it annoys me more and more that this win, and my BTCC title, aren't in the record books."

Soper's Ford situation improved during 1988. Ludwig missed the opening ETCC round — he was snowed-in on a skiing trip — and after a non-score in the next decided to concentrate on the 1989 DTM, which he won; Niedzwiedz, meanwhile, broke his arm in a crash. Soper was now clearly top dog and his team-mates revolved around him as he won at Monza, Estoril, Jarama, Dijon, Nürburgring and Nogaro to secure the manufacturer title for Ford. But BMW's Roberto Ravaglia and the best-in-the-business Schnitzer team, as they had in the WTCC, somehow squeezed between the leading Blue Oval man and the drivers' title. The key to this was Soper's TT defeat by the privateer RS500 of Andy Rouse/Alain Ferté — a situation that would not have been allowed at BMW, as Steve was about to discover.

"I worked hard at being professional," says Soper. "I made it my business to know what was going on, what was expected of me — and made sure I would be a player for the following year." But there is an extra, subtler layer to the tin-top pecking order. When Soper (finally) signed for BMW in 1989 he did so as just one of its dozen or so contracted drivers. And he was the only regular Brit in the competitive DTM for the next four seasons. He revelled in that, won nine times (plus an ITR Cup victory at Brno in 1991) and headed the point standings for portions of '89 (with Zakspeed) and '90-91 (with the Italian Bigazzi team), but he never landed that Schnitzer deal and so usually found himself behind Ravaglia and/or Johnny Cecotto in the 'latest bits' queue.

Soper: "Titles slipped away from me, true, and I must accept some blame for this — but it wasn't always purely down to me. Although I was near the top of most manufacturers' shopping lists I wasn't always able to get myself into the position of being the chosen man for the championship: Ravaglia at BMW, Ludwig at Ford. I have the greatest admiration for Bigazzi, but maybe with Schnitzer I might have won the DTM; Bigazzi was more focused on winning races."

The Schnitzer call finally came in 1993 and it was not without its problems, but after a difficult 'return' season in the UK (see below), a move to Japan in 1994-95 saw the liaison bear fruit. Soper: "None of the others wanted that job because of the schedule involved but I've never minded the travelling. I could have contested the German Supertourenwagen Cup (STW, run to the 2-litre, four-door formula) but I wanted a new challenge." Ranged against all-out efforts by Honda, Toyota and Nissan, he finished third in 1994 and took the title in '95. "It was a tough task: the car was run out of the back of the transporter because we didn't have a workshop. And although the Japanese wanted us there for the kudos, they didn't really want us winning; the Japanese manufacturer cars would be in and out of scrutineering in 3sec flat whereas we'd be in for hours. It was something we had to swallow."

From caressing 500bhp of Ford turbo power on marginal 9in rubber over long distances to max-attacking a kerb-hopping BMW sprinter, Soper had been a saloon force for a decade. But he was about to blow the roof off. While securing another touring car runner-up slot — in the 1996 STW— his career entered a glorious Indian summer courtesy of GTs and Prototypes. BMW was now gunning for Le Mans and, as a warm-up, Soper put his Bigazzi-run McLaren F1 GTR on pole at Silverstone. He was running away with his very first GT race, too, when he overstayed his fuel welcome by a lap. At Le Mans he finished 11th with Jacques Laffite and Marc Duez; but it had been his qualifying — eighth, and fastest McLaren — that had caught the eye.

Soper: "JJ Lehto couldn't understand how someone could be faster than him in the same car at Le Mans. That's why he chose me as his co-driver for the following year's FIA GT series." Lehto was widely regarded as the best in this field and Soper soon gave up trying to match him over a lap in the Schnitzer-run, long-tailed machines. His, though, was a considerable contribution to their success, setting the car up and registering impressive stints on worn rubber left on to save time at pitstops. They won at Hockenheim, Helsinki, Spa and Mugello but could not stave off the title advances of Mercedes' CLK-GTRs.

More impressive still was Soper's adaption to BMW's open-topped, Williams-built V12 LM Prototype, which he and Tom Kristensen spent much of 1998 readying for Le Mans. They ultimately retired early from the enduro classic — but again qualifying there had a major impact on Soper's career: "Tom and I had been similar in speed in testing and we had a verbal agreement that we would both have a shot at qualifying. But the team changed all that when we got there and I never got my chance. In the past I would have fought back, but this time I decided to let it go. I'd been with BMW a long time and I'd relaxed, let my guard down — not in the car, but out of it. And that came back and bit me when Gerhard Berger took over as BMW's motorsport boss: he saw me as an old bloke who couldn't qualify. He'd retired from racing so why couldn't I?"

The writing was on the wall when Soper was placed in a privateer Prototype at Sebring in 1999. It didn't help that he put it in the wall. But when Jörg Müller was seconded to BMW's nascent F1 programme as its test driver, Soper found himself back alongside Lehto. Again he and JJ fought a losing title battle, this time against Audi's A8, but they were impressive, winning at Sears Point, Laguna Seca and Las Vegas. But that, and a fifth at Le Mans, wasn't enough to keep Soper in favour at BMW...

"At Sebring in 2000 I was with Bill Auberlen Jnr and Jean-Marc Gounon, not JJ. They fought over set-up; we went with Gounon's and it was undriveable. I walked away from that race (they were fourth) having driven harder than ever, and suddenly I decided I didn't want to do it any more. It just didn't feel right."

The hunger had gone. His 2001 BTCC season with Peugeot was, by his own admission, a campaign too far, his crash at its Brands Hatch finale one impact too many. That neck injury made the decision for him, put the tin lid on a brilliant 30-year career. Sure, Soper never competed in single-seaters, but then Michael Schumacher was not much cop when he raced a Mercedes in the 1990 DTM finale. And my guess is that Mika Hakkinen will get a shock in this year's DTM. Every theatre of the sport has its benchmarks: you knew you'd arrived in touring cars if you were close enough to tug on Soperman's cape.

***

The home fires extinguished. A glorious homecoming turned into another missed title for Soper in 1993.

Ten years after his BTCC title had been annulled, Soper returned for another shot at the championship. He'd been an occasional visitor since 1983 but this time he was back full-time, and he and Schnitzer arrived as red-hot favourites. Charly Lamm's outfit duly swept the board, winning the team and manufacturer titles. The only thing that didn't go as expected was that Soper did not win the driver's title: teammate Jo Winkelhock did.

"There was a lot of pressure on me" says Soper, "but I found it hard to motivate myself when visiting all the old places; people forget I'd done 13 years in the UK before Rover signed me fully. And after a decade of racing in Europe at places like the old Nürburgring and Brno, Snetterton had definitely lost its wow factor."

Soper won two of the first three races, but on each occasion Winkelhock had led. The eventual victory count would be 5-3 to the German.

"Jo had been with Schnitzer longer than I had. He was not given preferential treatment. It's just that he knew how the team worked; and the team knew better how he worked. Plus he had the motivation to beat me at home. He did a bloody good job of it."