The British M-Power

BMW’s great record in touring cars owes much to two Brits – Andy Priaulx and Steve Soper. Now they come together to switch cars and experience very different eras

A bitter wind snakes through the Brands Hatch pits. Three cars stand within, racers of three distinct generations. Crew members check, prime, plug in starter batteries. Two race-suited figures look out at the empty track, talking quietly, then one jerks his head towards the furthest car.

“Had a look yet?” They walk over and admire the shape, pointing and nodding. Under the raised bonnet six huge orange intakes, like a bank of mortar launchers, gape silently, ready to inhale the cold Kent air. The two men gaze. They know it’s one of the great racing power units, and that if they were racing 40 years ago, this is what they would be driving. It carries the blue and white roundel they both revere, badge of the Munich marque that earns them both their living. BMW called it the 3.0CSL. Everyone else took one look at its fins and named it ‘Batmobile’.

Homologated for the European Touring Car Championship in 1972, its alloy, Perspex and thin steel qualified it to wear ft.’ for ‘light’. Having taken the title in 1973 it grew up a little, sprouted those wings and carried the series every year from ’75 to ’79. In different forms CSLs scored successes in endurance racing, at Le Mans and in IMSA, and if you need an image of BMW’s motor sport passion it has to be a CSL off the deck at Pflanzgarten with Hans Stuck at the joystick.

This is what ‘touring car’ used to mean — long bonnet, long legs — but the meaning had changed by the time these two men raced them. By then ‘touring car’ was a way of avoiding the phrase ‘saloon’ — too prosaic. But there’s nothing prosaic about what this pair can do with a ‘family car’.

Steve Soper — touring car legend with a reputation for tight-lipped toughness — and Andy Priaulx — touring car legend with a ready smile and four titles under him. Racing in different eras — overlapping by just one race — they tackled the same job in very different ways. Soper wrestled victories out of anything he could elbow his way into: brawny V8 Rovers, popping and banging Sierra Cosworths, snarling homologation ‘saloon’ BMWs and McLaren’s F1 in Le Mans trim. He retired 10 years ago, but not before coming up against a young stand-in for the Vauxhall team in a BTCC round at Oulton Park. From nowhere Priaulx put his Astra on pole, and Soper noticed. Thanks to his lobbying Priaulx signed early for BMW, and that suited both. Soper’s Munich allegiance is strong — he’s now a dealer — and he still wants BMW to win. And he recognised that the affable young Guernseyman would be good for the marque. Now that one has inherited the other’s mantle, they’re here to swap mounts: Soper to try Priaulx’s 2010 3205i World Touring Car, while Priaulx gets into a DTM M3 and relives the 1980s. But first, some neutral ground, a car neither knows, the CSL.

“Right,” says Andy, rubbing his race gloves together. “I’m looking forward to this.” It’s not happy with the cold at first, but within a lap or two that six-pot bark rings out clear and sharp. Andy sticks scrupulously to his rev limit, but very quickly he’s getting the most he sensibly can from the orange-nosed beast. Though it carries emotive livery, this was not a Schnitzer Jagermeister racer — but owner Roger Wills has the perfect excuse for the paint job. He has another CSL, a works Alpina car with great history and so original it would be a crime to risk it. This is the ‘costume jewellery’ version, which Wills can and does race with gusto.

Now a gruffer noise joins the CSL’s deep exhaust boom; Soper wedges himself into the WTC car and gives the signal to fire up. It takes a whirring age to catch — the injected, restricted four has none of the CSI2s eagerness. WTCC is a showroom formula, tightly tied down. Yes, its 275bhp is 100 up on stock, but block, head, suspension layout, H-pattern shift, bodyshell all match the road car. Barring a million mods by Belgian team RBM which has turned the car, and Priaulx, into title winners, first in ETCC, then three times in WTCC. But equivalency regs have jumped on such success — now it’s frontdrive diesels which make good box office…

With a last blaaap Priaulx rolls into the pitlane and climbs out of the Batmobile. “I don’t know how Stuckie drove that round the ‘Ring,” he laughs. “In compression the steering practically locks solid!” But he loves the torque, the noise, the forgiving nature. “It’s quite an oversteering beast, but it’s progressive, not snappy. You expect to slide it, where you never slide my car. That’s just throwing away time.” He knows the history, too; knows who drove them, what races, when the first Art Car CSL appeared at Le Mans.

Steve returns, levering himself out from the deep seat and complex roll cage.

“Thought I’d better come in before I crashed. It’s so heavy, once it goes it doesn’t want to come back.”

Priaulx knows what he means. “Shame it was cold. If there was some heat in the tyres you’d like it more.”

Now it’s Soper’s turn to be Batman. “I’ve never driven a CSL.” His brow furrows. “Or have I?”

“Stevie, be careful,” calls Andy. “The throttle and brake are very close.” A flash of orange and Soper is away, plunging through Paddock, blipping into Druids, surging on to Cooper Straight as we watch. He’s at home now, and soon Andy is after him in the compact, muscular, blaring M3.

Ah, the ’80s — when if you wanted your car to win in Group A you built a racer that looked like it and sold some to the public. It might be going a bit far to call it a silhouette racer, but they say it shared only bonnet and sunroof with the road car. And it didn’t have a sunroof. Instead it had a 2.3-litre four, virtually two-thirds of the glorious M1 unit, a Getrag gearbox, LSD and wide-track suspension, all clad in a stiffer, broad-arched, airdammed body. In various Evo iterations it raised its spec, its capacity and its game, muscling its way between 1986 and ’92 to a sheaf of British, European, Italian, German and Australian saloon titles, not to mention rallying, and — especially if Soper was inside — continuing to punch above its weight in Germany’s much more liberal DTM even when the Audi 4WD steamroller looked unstoppable. A race winner which privateers could buy with theoretically the same shot at success as factory-supported teams. Except that they had first call on the aces — Roberto Ravaglia, Johnny Cecotto, Marc Duez and that man Soper.

Since then there’s always been an M3 for road and track — in fact, there are currently two racers, both V8s. There’s an almost standard GT4 and a more radical GT2 which races in the American Le Mans Series, won the 2010 Niirburgring 24 Hours, and ran at Le Mans as the latest Art Car, bedecked by Jeff Koons. And Andy Priaulx drives it, so when Soper makes unappreciative comments about the WTC car you can sense his frustration that his mate hasn’t enjoyed what a proper current BMW racer can be.

But now both are out in these historic machines, enjoying themselves remembering what opposite lock feels like, the urgent scream of the M3 interweaving with the Batmobile’s deep bark. It’s not racing, but it’s more joyful than running your dealership or battling midfield in a ballasted car… Andy returns first.

“Enjoyed that more than the CSL. Really nice, really racy.” The CSL crackles into the pitlane and with a defiant last blip shuts down. The guys from CCK Motorsport who maintain it on behalf of Twyman Racing (and handle four other CSLs) roll it inside and Soper unbuckles. Priaulx is there to quiz him. He’s never effusive, Steve, but he’s nodding, mouth pursed in restrained approval. He liked that.

“Yes, it drove well. Good car for long distances.”

“I’d love to do a lap of the ‘Ring in it,” says Andy. “But only one!” Then he hesitates. “Steve, did you feel — um, scared?” Soper looks puzzled; he never raced with the sort of protection the WTC car gives Priaulx.

“I liked it,” Andy continues. “The only thing that was tiring was the feeling that you’re going to die at every corner!”

Steve approves too. “If it weren’t for my back injury [in a Peugeot in that 2001 Oulton event which ended his career], I’d like to do some historic racing in that.”

Meanwhile there’s a warm M3 begging for walkies, and it’s clear from the crisp way Soper nips onto the track and attacks Paddock that, although he hasn’t been here for a decade, he’s feeling at home. We hear the revs whisk up to the identical limit on each gearchange, see him skittering on the edge of adhesion without falling off it. He’s in the blue-and-white zone.

Andy pats him, laughing, as he climbs out. “Didn’t want to come in, did you?” And even Soper has to release a grin. They’ve both met this M3 before; both have caned it up the hill at Goodwood. Plus it’s one of Steve’s own racers, part of the Bigazzi team for the Mainz DTM race in 1990, with Jo Winkelhock and Jacques Lafitte. Owner Howard Wise is still trying to confirm who drove which when, but anyway it brings back favourite days for Soper.

“Those years with Bigazzi in the DTM are my fondest memories of racing,” he muses, gazing at the M-power stripes. “Zakspeed were too German, but I clicked with Bigazzi.” After his Cosworth triumphs and the demise of the ETCC, it was Zakspeed which in 1989 gave him his first BMW drive, a loyalty which lasted 11 years, mostly with the Italian outfit.

There’s a whine as the Batmobile is winched onto its transporter, leaving the saloons. Side by side in the pit it’s a shock to see how distinct these two 3-series are. Though the M3 arrived in 1986, that body shape dates back to ’82, and with its slim pillars and clear-cut, boxy outline it looks leaner despite its bulging wheel arches than the squat and solid 320. Today’s car, hunkered down on rubber-band tyres, is larger, a softer, subtler shape despite the aero add-ons, while inside it the crash cradle of rollcage, deep. A-pillar brace and bearhug seat with helmet lugs seem to imprison the driver. Did Andy feel exposed in the M3?

“I must admit I did. In the modern car you’re so shut in you can hardly see the road, but the M3 is much more like a stripped road car. Of course, I came from hillclimbing, so I’m used to not much protection, but things have changed a lot. For sure it’s not as safe as the car I drive now. And the performance is like a mountain peak — it falls off rapidly just a fraction either side. What revs did you use, Steve?

“This is red-lined at 9200. The hot ones hit 10k, but they’d only last 300km. You couldn’t practice and race on the same engine.”

“But you can get away with a lot more,” Andy continues. “In my car you have to drive to the grip. After only a lap in the M3 I felt ‘this is a proper racing car’ and I got aggressive with it. WTC punishes you for overdriving, whereas in that DTM car you can push the envelope. I think that’s why you see the driving you do in WTCC. Steve was always known for being aggressive, but now WTCC is like karting, or BTCC. You’re touching, you’re pushing, you’re nudging because you feel safe. It still hurts when you go off, though, when you stop dead from 150mph. I suppose when you were driving that DTM car you never thought about it?”

“Never gave it a thought. But we did lose a couple of people in touring cars. Kieth Odor was T-boned and didn’t survive. I thought — bloody hell, touring cars are meant to be safe…”

“Mind you,” Priaulx recalls, “I won a historic race in Copenhagen this year, in an old BMW 2002, and it got a bit stupid because I was racing with Tom [Kristensen] and Allan McNish. And it was raining, a street track, but you go for it, don’t you? Your pride won’t allow you to back out.” The two of them muse on how you forget to be scared once in the car, how Soper hated Le Mans but always said yes, how Priaulx sometimes says hopefully ‘I don’t mind if I don’t do that one’, but always signs on because racing is a team game.

“Of course,” says Andy, “if you’re scared actually in the car it shows in your lap time.”

“I was scared at Le Mans,” Steve ripostes with a sly glance, “but it didn’t show in my lap time.” Gamesmanship doesn’t stop just because you’ve retired.

“You could get away with some nice drifts,” says Priaulx of the M3. “It would reward slight overdriving where in our car you’re really penalised for it.”

“I think that’s right,” Soper replies. “In WTC there’s a lap time technique, and it’s not a race technique, it’s to get the max out of the car. Very tidy and early on the throttle with lots of grip is quick, and the ragged edge is slow. Because it’s so heavy, once it gets away it scrubs off speed very quickly, and the delay in getting that slide back takes even more time if you have to get out of the throttle. A little slide in a single-seater can lose you a split second, whereas in that a big oversteer will probably lose you three tenths.”

“I don’t think your DTM is as stiff as ours,” says Andy. “I wouldn’t want to clatter over too many kerbs in that car. I don’t know if you used a lot of kerbs in DTM?”

“Yes, we did. But on Howard’s car the ride height is set too high; we’d be burning wheel arches. (Here Howard points out that surprisingly there’s no series to race his car in, so he hasn’t needed to tweak it.)

“Your car would do a quicker lap time than mine, I would think,” Priaulx says.

“Oh yes. And if you spent a day messing with it you’d get more out of it for you than if I spent a day in adjustments with yours.”

“Yes. You might find a tenth, a tenth and a half, but you could find much bigger chunks with the DTM. But that’s because these formulas nowadays are so controlled, so restricting; they’re so much about equality it doesn’t give you much you can do technically.” Both men look ruminatively at the 2010 car. Priaulx is a sound company man, putting up with the heavily restricted machine because the close-racing stock series brings brand exposure. And of course there’s always the GT2 to race for enjoyment. One wonders if Soper would have been so tolerant.

“I’d love you to drive the GT2 car, Steve.” He turns to me. “Can we do this again sometime with the GT2?”

“We could compare it with the last of the DTM M3s,” says Soper. They’re both excited by the thought, even though Priaulx has come here straight off the plane from Macau. Well, it’s another chance to drive racing cars. If he can find a gap between WTCC, ALMS, V8 Supercars and the GT2 programme. Not to mention doing pretty well in the Race of Champions. Soper used to be the same —37 round trips to Japan in 18 months.

“Or the new DTM car. You’d love that, Steve.” Following its withdrawal from F1, BMW is preparing to return to the DTM for 2012 with a new M3.

“What’s the spec?” asks Soper.

“The regs aren’t out yet, but it’s going to go in the direction of a GT2 car. But it’s good. It feels like a sports-proto — you can really feel the aero. Round the Nordschleife it’s very, very quick.” Enthusiasm for DTM bubbles out. “All rear-drive, all the same weight, same spec engines — that’s more like production racing. That to me is exciting; you can push the envelope, whereas with the WTC you have a very small envelope you’re trying to expand.” Steve wants to know more, but I have to steer them back to today.

“Jumping into the WTC car after 10 years away,” says Soper, “it just felt heavy, underpowered, under-tyred. Engine and gearbox were quite nice, and all the seat and security. But it made me focus very quickly that if you’re not careful this thing will bite. It’s what — 1200kg and 280hp? Mine was probably 975 kilos, with plastic glass, etc. That’s 200 kilos lighter, and over 300 horsepower. It was hard work to get them under 1000kg, mind you, and the more successful you were, the more weight you had to carry.”

“We’re on 1175. But in this formula they’re trying to equalise everything all the time. Clearly the BMW would be the best car, with RWD and better brake balance, so they slow our car down to make it equal to a FWD diesel. And the tyre is made for a heavy front-drive diesel and doesn’t work for us.” This is why the triple WTC champ was mid-grid last season (what he calls ‘the shunt zone’) while Chevrolet and SEAT made hay.

“But having driven sports and DTM Steve will never be impressed by a WTC car,” Andy says. “I’m not impressed by it — but what makes any championship exciting is how close it is.”

“I know — it’s the regulations, not the car. But having driven it — well, I knew Andy was good, but if he can win in that sort of car he’s even better than I thought!”

“Steve, from you I take that as a real compliment.” Andy turns. “I grew up watching this guy race. I always said I’d like to be Steve Soper in a BMW. I owe him a lot. He’s the reason I wear this badge.”

Slightly gruffly, Soper explains about pushing a guy he didn’t know at the time towards the team. “There were a lot of phone calls,” he concludes. “But I knew he was right for them. After all, I’ve got BMW branded on my forehead. They’re good guys. At Munich even the receptionists know your last results. It’s in the blood. That’s worth a lot when you drive for a company like that.”

With so much to look forward to next season and beyond, Andy Priaulx’s repeated nod of agreement is entirely genuine.

We’d like to thank: BMW Park Lane, Roger Wills, Joe Twyman, CCK Motorsport, Howard Wise Cars, Soper of Lincoln, Brands Hatch