Steve Soper never used to be the friendliest of racing drivers. The first time I met him was at the Sebring 12 Hours in 1999, when he was racing a BMW V12 LM sports prototype for wealthy amateur Thomas Bscher. As first encounters go, it wasn’t the best.
As a child of the 1980s, Soper had always been a bit of a hero to me. Here was a Brit who’d been schooled in the rough-and-tumble world of British saloon car racing, taking on – and beating – the cream of Europe in the exotic DTM. We’re used to it these days, thanks to the likes of Gary Paffett and Paul di Resta, but Soper’s exploits abroad back then marked him out as special. Whenever he returned to the BTCC, as trouble-shooting team-mate to Tim Harvey in 1992 and full-time with the crack Schnitzer squad the following year, he carried an air of authority and intimidating quality. Everyone knew Soper was an A-list draw, the man they all wanted to beat.
He continued to carry some of that power into sports cars, but at Sebring in ’99 things had not gone well. The story goes that team manager Dave Price got on the radio to warn him of a full-course yellow, that someone had gone off. “I know,” said Steve. “It’s me.” He’d smacked the BMW into the concrete wall at the final corner.
Now, as Autosport’s race reporter I had to go and ask him what had happened, cursing that I hadn’t introduced myself before the race. I approached him with plenty of trepidation, only too aware of his prickly reputation – plus it’s never a good time to talk to a driver when they’ve just stuffed it.
“Steve,-I’m-Damien-Smith-from-Autosport,-glad-to-see-you’re-OK,-can-you-tell-me-what-happened-please?” I blurted. He didn’t even look at me. “I crashed,” he replied flatly, then turned on his heel and stalked away. Oh dear. So much for bringing the reader that exclusive one-on-one insight.
I told him about our unfortunate encounter recently when we met at a BMW dinner where the marque launched its new UK ‘Classic’ arm. “I’m sorry about that,” he said with a wry smile. “I wasn’t always the easiest of racing drivers to deal with.”
He’s different now. Today, he sells cars for BMW as a respected dealer, and he has definitely mellowed. You can still sense the old intensity below the surface, but he is engaging, friendly and clearly very relaxed with his legacy as one of the great touring car legends. He said he’d be happy to help if we had any feature ideas for the magazine – so we took him up on it!
At a cold and windy Brands Hatch in November, BMW helped us gather three classic racers from three very different eras: the modern 320Si which races in the World Touring Car Championship, a Bigazzi M3 from the heart of Soper-era DTM and a fabulously botoxed CSL ‘Batmobile’ from the 1970s. We then teamed Steve with Britain’s modern-day BMW tin-top hero, triple World Champion Andy Priaulx – who came straight off a plane from Macau – to join him for our test and compare notes.
As you can read in Gordon Cruickshank’s excellent story in the March issue, Soper and Priaulx have a bit of shared history and get on well. They thoroughly enjoyed swapping mounts for the day – and trying something completely different in the form of the Batmobile. So two genuine stars of the touring car world who together span over 30 years of frontline action, three of the finest Munich ‘road rockets’ and Britain’s best-loved race track: it’s a heady mix.
Elsewhere in the March issue, Adam Cooper pays tribute to another touring car ace, Tom Walkinshaw – who of course went on to greater acclaim as the man who made Jaguar a force once again at Le Mans, and helped Michael Schumacher to his first F1 world title at Benetton. Tom died of cancer in December and Adam’s profile of this complex man frames his career in perfect perspective.
Ed Foster meets Dany Bahar and Claudio Berro, the men behind the revolution currently taking place at Lotus; Simon Taylor has lunch with two-time Le Mans winner and, er, BMX World Champion Alex Wurz; Rob Widdows interviews veteran team boss Mike Earle; and I get to meet the charismatic – and eccentric – Italian hero of the 1970s, Arturo Merzario. Reuniting motor racing’s very own ‘Marlboro Man’ with the car he raced for Frank Williams in 1974 and ’75 was a real treat, if a little nerve-wracking…
Finally, if you usually skip over my Matters of Moment editorial (and I don’t blame you if you do!) you might miss the chance to enter a special competition. So allow me to tell you about it here. We’re offering five tickets (plus a guest each) to our exclusive Motor Sport Hall of Fame event, to be held at the Roundhouse in London on February 15. The evening is sure to be one to remember, so click here to answer a simple question and give yourself a chance of being there on the night. Hopefully, I’ll see you there!