An Englishman Abroad
When the 1990 racing season comes to an end, most people will have something to reflect on. A championship win, a dreadful year or maybe the hope of better things. Whether he wins the German Touring Car Championship title or not, Steve Soper can at least be certain of one thing. He knows that his name is always going to be one of those on the list of every leading Gp A touring car manufacturer in the world. Not that there are many left that he hasn't driven for. In the last 12 seasons, Soper has brought victories across the globe to both Ford and BMW, the leading names in European Gp A circles since 1986. With one hand on the German crown, and the full backing of BMW right behind him, there's every indication that his reign at the top is set to continue for a great deal longer.
"You simply cannot guarantee that you're going to go to one of those races and come out a winner. It really is that competitive," explains Soper of the German Touring Car Championship.
Since the abolition of a pan-European Gp A series, it is the German championship which has flown the standard for touring car racing. With the weight of Ford, Mercedes, Audi, BMW and Opel behind it, and an agreement to work together for the common good of the championship, the GTCC is flourishing. One element in that successful mix is the high quality of drivers who have been tempted to the German series.
The 1989 champion was Roberto Ravaglia, the Italian who can lay claim to the title of sole World Touring Car Champion as well as two European crowns. Yet he has no doubt that winning the German title meant more to him than any other.
"The driving standard is very, very high. It certainly isn't easy to drive a modern Gp A car, they're very different to the days of road cars with a little bit of work on them. The M3 I drive is a very sophisticated car with adjustable wings at the front and back, cockpit adjustable anti-roll bars, helper springs, dampers, ride heights and over 50 different set-ups plus telemetry read-outs. It's a real racing car," notes Soper.
It takes a skilled driver to obtain the best from a car as technically advanced as those which Soper and his contemporaries now handle. For the past 12 seasons though, the Briton has worked with the leading names in European Gp A racing, starting from humble beginnings in the club racing scene in the UK. Success in Minis was soon followed by a works-assisted effort with Fiat, driving an X1/9 for Radbourne of Wimbledon and then other championship crowns for Ford Fiesta success.
However, it was victory in the Austin Rover Metro Challenge which was the first positive step on the road to the success of today. That championship win resulted in a season of British Touring Car racing, handling a Tom Walkinshaw-prepared Rover Vitesse. By the end of 1983, Soper's name was established as a man of the future in Gp A, although legal wrangles over the eligibility of the TWR car's engine spoilt the championship win he had achieved.
Months and then years of legal wrangles followed until that series win was finally taken away, but by then the Soper name had been established. What had been important about 1983 was not so much the success, but the manner in which it was achieved.
At that early period, the Rover was in the initial stages of its development as a Gp A car. The opposition was led by none other than Hans Stuck, a name already revered in touring car circles, and whose handling of the potent BMW 635CSi left many in his tracks. That number did not include Soper. The pair fought out a number of fine duels during the season, none better than a televised scrap at Donington which the Austin Rover man won fair and square.
Those performances not only increased Walkinshaw's interest in his young driver, but also attracted the attentions of Dieter Stappett, then at BMW. For the first time, the leading names in European motor sport were taking notice of Soper. However, he stayed with Walkinshaw, progressing through a couple of lean seasons in the European Touring Car Championship but learning the new circuits and proving his pace. It was soon clear that he was becoming just one member of a squad which was well established in success and had Walkinshaw and his co-driver Win Percy as the figureheads. Keen for achievement in his own right, Soper began to look further afield.
Finally, for 1986, the opportunity came. BMW had again loomed large in his decision-making but eventually his name went onto a Ford contract. For the first season the XR4Ti was to be used but for 1987, the potent Sierra RS Cosworth was in the offing. A further sweetener in his verdict was the choice of Ruedi Eggenberger as the man to prepare the cars, the Swiss already having managed to turn the Volvo 240 Turbo into a race winner.
The first year was hit and miss, with some success. For 1987 though, the Cosworth programme began in earnest as Soper and his team-mates regularly racked up the points for the Texaco sponsored cars. As as indication of his abilities, Soper tracked F1 guest driver Thierry Boutsen for lap after lap at the Spa 24 Hour race before passing him to pull clear.
The arrival of Ford's RS500 Evolution design further extended the Cosworth's advantage at the front of the field but, as was the way of the WTCC points system, the BMW M3s of a capacity class lower were busy scoring equal points for their successes. The title went to BMW at the last race although the Fords secured the manufacturers' title as some compensation.
The story was repeated in 1988, albeit at an ETCC level as Soper's once-real championship hopes finally dimmed with a head gasket failure at Zolder. The championship, a former shadow of its once great self, was binned at the season's close. Both Ford and BMW looked towards Germany, with its burgeoning national championship, and all the leading drivers followed suit.
The German handicapping system, enabling all cars to race as one class irrespective of engine capacity, worked far better for the nimble M3 than it did the powerful Cosworth. When the opportunity was offered on this occasion, Soper chose to move, joining the Zakspeed BMW team.
1989 was his first year and there were race wins but the championship slipped away. For 1990 though, BMW was committed to the Briton and a new team awaited Bigazzi. It could have been seen as a risk to join a team which had little experience of the German series. Soper had calculated the risk.
"I'd seen how Bigazzi was the only team regularly to beat Schnitzer (BMW's WTCC, ETCC and GTCC winning team) in the Italian championship. They knew how to run M3s well and had Yokohamas a modern GpA car can produce."
However, it is still clear that Soper is extremely happy in what he does, and he'll keep racing for as long as he stays competitive. After that? The options are varied but it seems unlikely that he would ever be away from racing. "How about running a team? That would be quite nice. I like the sound of that." GD