Their clash in the 1992 BTCC finale is infamous; but now enough time has passed for John Cleland and Steve Soper to calmly relive the experience…
By Paul Fearnley
Two copper-bottomed tin-toppers, one piece of silverware. An ex-club rally/hillclimb charger and a one-make scrapper made good. A never-say-die racer with an ever-ready quip and a DTM superstar ringer. A ‘goodie’ and a ‘baddie’. John Cleland and Steve Soper. Their collision in the final round of the 1992 British Touring Car Championship is perhaps the most famous/infamous of any UK series. For some, aka the purists, it was indicative of everything bad about foot-in, head-down, elbows-out saloonatics. For others, aka a surprisingly sizeable chunk of the population, it was a thrilling bare-knuckle climax to a barnstormer of a race and title chase.
You see, it had been a season of three phases: Vauxhall, Toyota and BMW. John had topped the points all season, yet not since the first two races had his Cavalier been the fastest. First the powerful Toyota Carinas of Andy Rouse and reigning champion Will Hoy usurped him, and then it was the turn of the BMWs. Vic Lee Motorsport – and Prodrive – had been charged with giving Munich’s new E36 iteration its global motor sport debut. It struggled with it initially, but a simpler, stiffer rear suspension, coupled with a 25kg reduction of the rear-wheel-drive car’s original mandatory 100kg penalty, saw it leap to the front. Tim Harvey, with Steve riding shotgun, ticked off six wins – including five in a row – from eight starts to move into title contention during the second half of the season. But come round 15, on Silverstone’s Grand Prix layout, it was still the dogged, opportunistic Cleland who was out front: 145 plays 142 (Harvey), plays 141 (Hoy).
John Cleland: “The BTCC in that period, right up to when I won it in 1995, was about Vauxhall and another manufacturer, be it BMW, Renault or Volvo. I was always the thorn in their side. We were the car that would give them the biggest run for their money. I loved that role. It was great. Ironically, Vic Lee had offered me the seat alongside Steve. But at that time Steve was the DTM man, BMW’s blue-eyed boy, and I thought, ‘That’s never going to work. I’m never going to get fair and equal treatment.’ So I turned it down, and Harvey got the drive instead.”
The finale was promoted as a straightforward ‘first past the post is champ’ affair, but a rain-hit qualifying left John in seventh, Will ninth and Tim 12th. A nice, clean win was now unlikely. It was going to be action-packed back in the pack. Steve was on the second row. Jumped at the start, he immediately set about regaining places.
Steve Soper: “I was quite aggressive to David Leslie [in an Ecurie Ecosse/Ray Mallock-run privateer Cavalier] and went down the inside of him at Club. I passed him but, when I tried to shut the door to stop him coming back at me, he was having none of it and spun me round. I felt there was something wrong with that at the time, but I would have done a similar thing had I been in David and Vauxhall’s position.”
Already the hackles were rising, the paranoia was seeping in – unnecessarily so, according to John.
JC: “Yes, it was Leslie who spun Steve round, but it was no team game. There was absolutely no collusion. In fact, we didn’t get on at all well with the Mallock team. We saw them as our biggest competitors. I had been warning ‘Cookie’ [Dave Cook, builder of the works Vauxhalls] for ages: ‘We have to move forward from here or you’re going to get your arse kicked. Mallock is going to take this contract from you if you’re not careful.’ So the last thing we were going to do was share information with the Mallock boys.”
Leslie, however, would later wave through Jeff Allam, John’s team-mate, into second place, a move that would give Vauxhall the manufacturers’ title by two points.
SS: “Unfortunately, I didn’t know the situation between the Vauxhall teams.”
Steve’s mood wasn’t improved any when Robb Gravett’s Peugeot 405 Mi16 collected his spun Bimmer and created the first 3-series Compact. In a horribly crumpled car that now hated right-handers, Steve began another of his amazing charges. He had squeezed 11 BTCC races between his DTM commitments, and in seven of them, for one reason or another, had been forced to stage a jaw-dropping comeback drive.
JC: “He came from the back [21st] with bits hanging off everywhere. He’d have been black-flagged for that today. But for some obscure reason he wasn’t, and never looked likely to be. He just pulled his way through the field bit by bit. Did that BMW have a 2.5-litre engine? [The BTCC was a two-litre formula.] We knew he was good, but was he that bloody good?”
SS: “At one point mid-season we had been waiting for a phone call from BMW to hear if we could continue [the team had been rocked by the imprisonment of Vic Lee following a drugs bust]. And having got BMW to agree to us finishing the season I can assure you there was nothing hookie-cookie in those cars. Bear in mind the car had one thing which none of the others did: ABS.”
JC: “Aye, a safety feature!”
SS: “If you have ABS, and you understand how it works, it’s a huge advantage. Plus, obviously, the adrenalin was flying by then. ‘F***ing hell, the masterplan hasn’t worked! You’re stone-cold last, with the car all piled up.’ But don’t forget, from there until I caught back up with John. I never touched another car, not one.”
Cleland, a ferocious fighter, was always going to be a tougher proposition. The title race came to a head on lap 14 of 15. Rouse, Allam and Leslie were battling for the lead; Hoy, despite a below-par engine, was hauling them in; and he was being caught by Harvey, Cleland and Soper…
JC: “When Harvey nudged Will off in a fairly ham-fisted effort [at Copse] I remember thinking, ‘Ah, this is what it’s going to be like.’ But I wasn’t expecting how brutal it would become. If it had happened part-way through the year you could have said, ‘Okay, we understand the rules now, we know the guidelines.’ But it was the last race. BMW had held everything up their sleeve.”
John and Steve grabbed the chance to draft past Harvey and the grasstracking Hoy. Advantage Cleland. But it didn’t last long. Steve dived past at Club. It was a clean move, but tempers were hot: Cleland flicked him the finger.
SS: “I was pretty revved by then. And I guess John was, too. He’s a very verbal guy, even when he’s driving, and unfortunately for him he was wired-up – and I had all the in-car footage. [I’d got to the studios first on the Monday morning after the race!] It’s “F***ing, f***ing Soper!”
Nor was John’s mood improved any when Steve “buggered him about” at Bridge to allow Harvey back past them both. It was a masterful piece of racecraft, which went totally unappreciated by John. He had other things on his mind. Taking a wider, faster line through the left-hander at Priory, the Cavalier Scot lunged down the inside of Steve at Brooklands. John didn’t have to pass Harvey to win the title but he did have to finish glued to his bumper.
JC: “Everything on that last lap was about the championship. I wouldn’t say my move was snow white, but I needed to be past Steve. I knew there was enough room to get through, but when I got there the gap had perhaps narrowed. I leaned on the [inside] kerb and that flicked the car up on two wheels. By trying to avoid contact I’d made it look more dramatic than it actually was. There was no real damage to the right hand side of my car, or the left side of his.”
SS: “There was a bit. You leant on me hard.”
JC: “I think you were surprised. You thought when you’d passed me that that was that. But with a championship at stake, I was never, ever going to lie down.”
SS: “I was surprised because I didn’t think I’d left enough room. And I hadn’t! But, to be fair, John could have gone straight into my rear quarter and spun me off.”
JC: “Had I known how brutal the whole thing was going to become in the next hundred yards, I would have nerfed you off onto the infield and that would have been the end of it.”
He didn’t, though. And it wasn’t. Having been shouldered to the edge of the concrete apron, Steve attempted to immediately repass at Luffield – at that time two 90 rights linked by a short straight. Despite hooking a wheel over the kerb, he whacked the Vauxhall in its driver’s door. Both cars spun out. The title was Harvey’s. It was ugly. It looked blatant.
SS: “The TV coverage made it look horrific from a sporting aspect. True, I didn’t want to take any prisoners, but my objective was not to wipe John out at the next corner. My objective was to get my position back. If I’d wanted to eliminate John I could have just held back and tapped him going into Copse, or any number of places. That way I wouldn’t have taken myself out either.”
JC: “The main hit was a really hard one. I could hear he never came off the throttle. That BMW was going flat chat. I knew he was there but I couldn’t see him. And then round we went.”
SS: “I’ve looked at it over and over again, and I think John thought I’d gone. I don’t know where he’d thought I’d gone but, because he’d lost his door mirror during his acrobatics, he didn’t see me. I didn’t expect him to give me a bloody car’s room, but I suppose I half thought he would give me some room. Unfortunately, he didn’t.”
JC: “Steve didn’t say much after the accident, mainly because I had his Adam’s apple in my left hand. The thing is, had he just tapped me on the chest I would have fallen over…”
SS: “You’d bust your ribs? In the shunt?”
JC: “No, I’d crashed testing at Donington and broken my sternum. That was something else which made it look even more dramatic. I had foam padding tucked inside my overalls to ease the pain when I tightened the belts. I looked like an American footballer when I got out of the car. It looked like I intended to kill him.”
Marshals intervened and cameramen descended gleefully. John won the subsequent soundbite squabble, labelling his rival “an animal” and accusing him of DTM-type tactics. The good burghers of the RAC and BRDC bristled at the very thought.
JC: “That crash was the point when you realised that touring cars was hugely important to win, at any cost. Whether it was BMW or the team – I doubt very much it was BMW – that team went to the end of the earth to win that title. That’s what surprised me most, that someone would go to those lengths. I’m no angel when it comes to pushing and shoving, but from then on it went from ‘After you’ to ‘No, that’s my piece of track and I’m going for it at any cost.’”
SS: “Yes, BMW wanted to win the title, and my job was to help Tim achieve that. My role was to take points off everybody else. But there was never a situation whereby BMW GB, Munich, or anybody in the team said, ‘We are here to win at all costs.’ There were no last-minute orders. DTM wasn’t any more brutal than the BTCC, but it was very open about team orders – not eliminating rivals, but messing them about. I was used to that sort of thing. If I’d had an argument with John about what had happened at Bridge I would have felt quite happy and relaxed about it. I wasn’t happy about eliminating him. I was the spoiler, not a hitman.”
The post-race spat, however, was the tip of the iceberg. Months of legalese and an RAC tribunal were to follow.
JC: “They wanted to nail Steve to the wall.”
SS: “No sanctions were taken at the track because they wanted to do something bigger and ‘better’ to me at a later date. It got very critical over the next six months, to the extent that I was hearing they wanted to take my licence from me. I spent a fortune on legal advice. As did John.”
JC: “We got no support. Vauxhall [and BMW] were like, ‘Guys…”
SS: “… You’re the drivers. We pay you to drive.”
JC: “But this is your problem. Go deal with it.’ And we did.”
SS: “Our relationship was frosty… I didn’t get a Christmas card from John…”
JC: “Yeah, you did. It had a BMW on top of a bonfire on it!”
SS: “… But my clever friend was even smarter than I thought. Full credit to him. He rang me the day before the tribunal and said, ‘I think you were in the wrong, I think you’re probably going to get done, but I’m not sure. However, I’ve been told that if they can’t do you, they’ll do one of us. We should have a chat before it all starts.’”
JC: “I’d lost something I had worked for all year. Nothing was going to give me that back. I didn’t see any point in the RAC taking Steve’s licence off him for 100 years or whatever. All that would have done was have given him pain, and that wasn’t the point. I wasn’t after him.”
SS: “We met two hours before the tribunal and reached a gentleman’s agreement whereby we wouldn’t criticise each other’s actions. We both said it was a racing accident. You should have seen their faces.”
JC: “They were really confused. Even if they knew we were in cahoots, what could they do? I wanted to draw a line under it all. I didn’t want there to be appeals. Instead I wanted to see if we could get something good out of it. Which was where the Touring Car Drivers’ Association came from. It wasn’t perfect, but it was better.”
SS: “I guess John and I will never agree, in the way that Senna and Prost, Hill and Schumacher never did. John can say I’m to blame, I can say he’s to blame. But I know the truth: I have huge respect for John as a driver, a person and a friend… I didn’t want that outcome.”
JC: “Looking back, both moves were probably marginal. There were some high-level people at the RAC who were pissed off they didn’t get a result out of that tribunal, but it wouldn’t have done touring cars any good. Instead the whole affair lit the blue touchpaper for touring cars. It raised awareness. It was on all the front pages: a couple of used-car dealers beating the living daylights out of each other! We’d proved that, yes, the BTCC was bruising, but it’s also exciting racing full of drivers who clearly want to win. Suddenly the BTCC was big news.”
It had all kicked off for the protagonists in its aftermath, but there’s no doubting that the BTCC – its profile, viewing figures, ad revenue and manufacturer involvement – kicked on from their point of impact.
Club News, August 1947
We Hear F. P. Thornpson is getting good service from a 1925 Austin "Heavy Twelve-Four" and considers that the more stolid vintage cars should receive their meed of praise. He…
Radio Ga-Ga, but Michele Prevails
In his book, designer Tony Southgate recalls how Michele Alboreto overcame electronic failure in a Ferrari at Sebring Tony Southgate’s long-awaited autobiography – From Drawing Board to Chequered Flag –…
Vintagery at The Verzons
Vintage-car drivers apparently regard bad weather as a challenge, because more than one hundred pre-war cars turned up on New Year's Day for the annual gathering at The Verzons Hotel…