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Steve Soper's Touring Car terrors

Twenty years after the infamous BTCC finale, Steve Soper discusses  that incident with John Cleland

 

For the ’92 season I was employed by BMW Motorsports, Germany, and my main program was in the DTM with a M3. My secondary program was in BTCC, in a car that wasn’t a M3, but one which was built to the BTCC regulations. The season had quite a few ups and downs really; trying to do both and trying to practice, testing and development on both cars meant I was quite busy.

The DTM, I’ve no idea where I finished that season, Tim Harvey won the BTCC that season, with quite a bit of my help, and of course there were quite a few controversial moments along the way. One of those being the last race of the season at Silverstone, where John Cleland and I clashed, resulting in Tim Harvey being awarded the championship.

Basically, we had a very good car; we should have been on pole at Silverstone. I felt I had been very quick in testing, but then it rained just before qualifying. In which the circuit was wet and dry, and I didn’t quite get it together so I think I started something like 4th or 5th on the grid.

I think it was David Leslie who I came up behind, within the first half of the lap, and maybe and I was a little bit hard on him going through Club corner, but I leant on him. I certainly didn’t push him, but I was about to lean and he wasn’t having any of it. I put my nose there and he let me through, and I thought ‘Oh, that was easy’. It was a fairly aggressive move, but then I was turned around by him coming out of the corner, he clipped the back of me, turned me around and I was facing half the wrong way. Then Rob Gravett came round the corner and crashed into the back of my car – which did an awful lot of damage. I eventually got it going, but by this time I was at the back of the grid and so started the charge back up to the front.

I got up to John with about three or four laps to go, Tim was behind John, I got past him and he was probably thinking ‘what the hell is he doing? I can win the championship, but he can’t!’ I passed Tim and then proceeded to catch and pass John. And then, in one of my best moments of driving, which seemed to go unnoticed post event, I managed to pass John and manipulate my car and his to allow Tim to pass both of us coming through Bridge. I sort of passed John, got in his way on purpose and blocked him very nicely allowing Tim to go past both of us.

As far as I was concerned, it was job done. Tim is now in a championship winning position. John’s now behind me, I’ll ride shotgun for Tim, BMW will win, and we can all go home. Now, unfortunately, John seemed to get rather upset by firstly me passing him, and wanting to spoil his championship hopes and secondly by me allowing Tim to past both of us. Going into Brooklands, he leant on me fairly heavily, his car went right up on two wheels – so if I hadn’t been there, his car could have probably rolled over. He leant on me and just kept on pushing, and pushing, and pushing me and eventually he pushed me off the circuit – all four wheels were off the track.

During this process, he lost his driver's side mirror. So going into Luffield he actually believed I wasn’t there, as he thought he’d eliminated me. And I slightly…I wouldn’t say lost it, but I was fairly aggressive in my return. John just turned into the next corner with no compromise believing I was down there on the grass, having my own incident. And I hit him fairly hard in the door and we both we off – eliminating us both from the race on the spot. And, as a result, Tim Harvey went on to win the championship.

As far as we were concerned, it was a racing incident. But the media, the press, the RAC, everyone got busy. We were put on the front page of Autosport, of Motoring News and it continued to build momentum. So it’s one of those situations were you know the truth, you know what happened, and John was upset. Lot of the press said beforehand that BMW had employed me to win the championship, I was the spoiler, I was there to win it for BMW at all costs and do what was necessary to do so. All of that is complete bull. BMW don’t think like that, I don’t think like that and I was not a spoiler. If I wanted to take John off, I could have done it on the next lap; just tipped him on the rear corner, spun him off and finished properly on the podium, and not eliminated myself. So there was no planned bad driving or whatever.

But it ended up in a controversial move that everyone got busy with. It also ended up with a RAC tribunal about six months later. Both John and I were legally represented and I had been told, in advance, that they wanted to take someone’s license, as this wasn’t the racing that they wanted, and they were gunning for me. I had witnesses; I’d spent a lot of time preparing and had all the in-car footage from John’s car, and mine. And John was, before the incident, when I first passed him, he had been wired up for the commentary and he was f’in and blinding, ‘Soper you f’in this, and you f’ing that!’ And you know, in my mind, he’d already lost it.

John and I have a huge respect for one another, he’s a great driver and has been a great ambassador for, but…he was wound up, and hoping to win the championship. In his mind, he didn’t need me there. As we approached the tribunal, all of a sudden, all video evidence was banned from the hearing. So I thought, ‘Oh, ok. That’s not going to do me any good!’ We had all the camera angles covered, we had one that made me look completely guilty, and then three other angles that showed the situation in a truer picture. We approached the court, for this tribunal, and I had a load of people, a load of recognized driver and people who had stood there watching who were my witnesses and I’m sure John had the same. And I started thinking ‘Bloody hell, this is gonna be tricky!’ Back in ’92, up until that point, my legal costs had been around £4,000 and that was quite a bit of money back in ’92 and that wasn’t a cost incurred by BMW. When I explained what had happened to them, they just said, ‘Well. You were driving it!’ And they walked away from it.

Anyway, the night before the tribunal, my phone rang at home and it was John. We hadn’t spoken since the incident. And he said, ‘I think you’re an ********, but I think we better have a chat. I’ve been told they want to make an example out of you. But,’ he says. ‘If they can’t get you…they’re going to make an example out of me, and I don’t think any of us need that.’

‘Whatever went on,’ he continued, ‘I do think it was not deliberate. I have questioned your thinking, but let's not get into that, let's just have a chat.’ So the following morning, that of the tribunal, we met in a pub and we both had our solicitors with us, and he just said, ‘If we both go in and say ‘Hey, it’s a racing accident, neither of us have an issue with it’, they can’t do you and they can’t do me. If we go in fighting, they’re gonna come to a conclusion that one of us is guilty and they’ll not let up ‘til they have one of us.’ To which I looked at him and said ‘Fair enough, but what if I go in there, say that, then you turn round and go against it?!’ John, turned round and said ‘Well, I’ll say it first then’. So we went in, and they were so upset that they couldn’t make an example out of one of us. That was the end of it. Their faces dropped, we were fine. We’ve been friends ever since, and still are. It was just one of those instances. It looks like a deliberate fail from my part, it wasn’t. It certainly wasn’t one of the greatest moves I’ve made in my career, but it wasn’t a fail. And that’s what I remember from the ’92 season.

A had some great runs up from the back of the grid, a couple of times I couldn’t qualify the car because of my DTM commitments so I had to start from the back of the grid and work my way up. It was quite an enjoyable season but Silverstone left a sour taste for six months afterwards until it was all rectified. A lot of people said it helped put touring cars on the map – despite it being controversial at the time – it got so many viewers at the time, and the incident itself is still up on Youtube some twenty years later, still being watched by umpteen thousand people. There is another bit of in-car from that race and in the drive from the back, before I caught up with Tim and John, there’s a lovely piece where I’m drafting someone down the straight. And the car is going so quick; in those days you had a rev-limiter of around 8,500rpm, and going down the back straight in sixth gear and the lights started flickering amber then red, so I went for another gear and I was already in top gear at that point and so I stuffed it into fifth and I was only half way down the straight! I had such a draft on everyone in front of me, and this lovely little unburstable BMW was screaming away already, then as I went into fifth it screamed even higher! There were little errors all the way through the weekend.

In summary it was controversial, good memories, bad memories. You know, we were on every press. They talked about it and most the blame seemed to be aimed at me. But you know, John wasn’t probably wasn’t feeling that comfortable either – otherwise he wouldn’t have rung me! I respect him for picking up the phone and calling. But it was a good call actually, as he certainly thought of something I didn’t, I hadn’t thought about ringing him. So we went in to that courtroom as mates, and have been ever since.
 

Steve Soper spoke to John O'Brien at the Goodwood Festival of Speed, 2012

[Images courtesy of btcc.net]

 

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