Exclusive Interview with Steve Soper
Today marked a special day, as legendary driver Steve Soper was kind enough to grant an interview for BTCC Crazy. Steve is now the top man at the Sopers BMW dealership in Lincoln, and he was kind enough to spare some of his time to talk a little bit about his career, past and present, and his views on the current state of play in the BTCC.
His track action will never be forgotten, but before the end of his driving career, in 1999, he purchased the Lincoln BMW dealership that now bears his name. Being 48 at the time, it was considered as an investment to keep a lifestyle going beyond racing, knowing that he was approaching the end of his driving career. A year on he started to think about stopping racing, having been driving prototype, Le Mans series cars.
“From one year to another, from October to March I felt that I’d lost something in a prototype. And although I could do the same time, and the same lap times, to drive the cars I was digging incredibly deep to do the same job whereas before it seemed to come quite easy and naturally.”
Round about 2000, he fell out of favour ever so slightly with the new boss of BMW, as Gerhard Berger was introduced to take over motorsport. “He didn’t rate me, he reckoned I was too old!” At the end of 2000, Peugeot contacted him about driving for them in the BTCC in the 2001 season, which initially Steve turned down. “I wanted to actually end my career with BMW, I didn’t want to drive something else.”
Peugeot persisted, and eventually he agreed as Peugeot agreed to effectively let him do as he wished, and that they would fit the team around him. But the car was not competitive all season. In the final race at Brands he was pushed off by Phil Bennett into a nasty accident. Sustaining a neck injury, it was now time to call it a day on driving after 30 years. “I’ve had a privileged career.”
Whilst still having a good relationship with BMW GB, they would not take Steve seriously as a business man. It was his desire to buy a BMW dealership for when he stopped racing, but he could not get on the shortlist to be offered anything. After 2 or 3 years of this he approached his boss at BMW Germany.
“He basically said look he wants to buy a dealership, he’s a good guy I fully guarantee he’s capable of running one, you need to take him serious.” The call from Munich seemed to help and within the next 2 months the dealership in Lincoln became available. Business wise everything was right, but the location wasn’t. Knowing he may not be offered another one, he took it on and hasn’t looked back since. The dealership has been moved and redeveloped from its original facility in the centre of town to a stunning new showroom on the outskirts at South Hykeham.
No interview with Steve Soper would be complete without mentioning the now infamous incident at Silverstone in 1992 with John Cleland. “At the time he was very wound up and bitter and twisted, but it actually went to an RAC tribunal.” The tribunal took place about 6 or 7 months after the incident, during which time blame was exchanged from both sides, and it all became a bit heated with lawyers appointed on both sides to defend. In the end neither man wanted to be made an example of, so neither pushed the issue when it came to the hearing.
“He rang me one day and said listen, I still think it was your fault, and I still think you should be punished, however I’ve been told they want to make an example out of one of us. If they cant make an example out of you I’m not prepared for them to be making an example out of me!” Both men walked into the tribunal and sited it as a motor racing incident, and after both of them didn’t attack each other, the whole thing was thrown out. Had a ban been put in place for either driver after such an incident, would the sport as we know it be completely different today? Also as Steve’s only source of income, legally they would not have been able to ban him, thus preventing him earning a living.
“My job was to make sure BMW won the championship, but not by pushing people off into the barrier.”
Having been taken out at the start of the race by David Leslie, Steve recovered to 4th or 5th without touching a single car in the process. As Cleland had lost his door mirror, it was highly possible that he has not seen Soper on the inside. “I’m convinced that because his door mirror had gone, he thought I’d gone with it.” The pair of them though remained friends afterwards, and still do to this day.
Regarding the new regulations, Steve feels that the sport was so good in its heyday of the 90’s because of the involvement of the manufacturers and their investment in putting in the best drivers they could get hold of. In his opinion, this raised the level of the championship, but accepts that the way the sport is going now is down to the financial times we live in.
“The preparation of the cars and the teams and the competitiveness is one step down.The old BTCC supertouring were hugely expensive.” Comparing to DTM, he feels the manufacturer investment is so huge there that the standard of driving talent is very high and that the BTCC seems to have lost a bit of that. “The lucky thing for me is that I did a couple of years when it was at its best.”
“I don’t like the present cars, they’re underpowered and too heavy.” As a driver, this doesn’t appeal to Steve, “as a driver I’d want 1000 horsepower!”
He does however think that the current TV package provided by ITV is excellent, and provides a good exciting coverage of the racing.
Looking to the future, Steve has no plans to carry on the legacy by starting his own team, “it’s a temptation that luckily I have resisted!” In 2004 he ran some Formula BMW teams, and had quite a good year with Phil Glew driving for him nearly winning the championship. 2005 was not as good. “With a team owner its never over and I don’t think I have the mentality and the drive to do it.”
I would like to personally thank Steve for his time from all here at BTCC Crazy. All in all we spent about 40 minutes chatting, and this article is but a sample of all the things he had to say.
Article originally written on Friday, 17 December 2010. Read more articles from the BTCC Crazy Archive.