International Recognition. 1990-1999.
The DTM was a tough series, but a switch from Zakspeed to Bigazzi in 1990 helped against the likes of Cecotto, Stuck, Biela, Ludwig and Thiim. A 4th position champion finish in 1990 and 5th in 1991 proved that he was more than a match for the DTM regulars in these 350+ hp machines.
In 1991 Steve’s program was split between championship races in Germany and the British series, and at the end of the ’91 BTCC season he was 4th. This just reminded everybody how incredible a race driver Steve Soper was. A fact which was bought to the attention of the race fans in spectacular fashion in 1992. Steve’s racing duties were still split between Germany and England but instead of contesting each Championship in similar E30 M3′s, albeit totally different specifications, he raced the E30 on the continent and the new and unproven E36 318iS in the BTCC. British crowds were to witness a talented and determined Soper having to regularly produce spectactular drives from the back of the field to end up on the podium.
Soperman was back!!!
There was also the little matter of a 24hr race at Spa Francorchamps the same year. Steve was put into his Bigazzi entered car for the last stint and produced a drive that was outstanding by anyone’s standard. By catching and muscling past the lead Schnitzer car of Eric van de Poele at the bus stop chicane on the penultimate lap and keeping the lead to finish less than one second ahead after 24 hours of racing.
For 1993 he was drafted into the Schnitzer team and was entered in the BTCC for a full program with Jo Winkelhock. This proved to be another one that got away. That year Steve took 3 wins and Jo took 5 in this highly competitive championship. A broken steering arm at Oulton Park and an exploding tyre whilst chasing some fast Nissan’s at the Silverstone F1 GP event proved costly. Jo won the title by 13 points.
But returning to the British circuits, after racing at circuits such as Nogaro, Estoril, Zolder, Fugi and many more, wasn’t so captivating for Steve and in 1994 an opportunity arose to race in Japan. Seeing it as a challenge he entered in the Japanese Touring Car Championship, and should have won it at the first attempt but for some questionable decisions by race officials denied him of the title.
The lessons of 1994 were learnt, and in 1995 the JTCC title was his, along with another Spa 24 hr win with Jo Winkelhock and Peter Kox.
Back to Europe in 1996 and the Germans were now racing 2 litres in the form of the STW. Steve finished 2nd in that particular championship, but more interestingly that same season BMW had began to run McLaren F1 GTR’s.
Back in 1983 a younger Steve Soper won the first race he’d entered in the then high powered Rover Vitesse. Well this time, again at Silverstone, in the GTR partnered with Nelson Piquet, he qualified on pole position and would have won the race if not for a miscalculation of the fuel remaining in the McLaren’s tank. Forward to Le Mans 24hr, Soper qualified as fastest McLaren, beating J.J. Lehto in the process. The car he shared with Marc Duez and Jaques Laffite finished 11th, but J.J. was so impressed with Steve that they were to share a car in the 1997 FIA GT Championship.
This was another championship that slipped from his grasp even though they had 4 wins upto the last race of the season. The team decided to split the pairing to increase the chances of a BMW win. Steve was to drive with Roberto Ravaglia, and J.J. with Peter Kox. The switch changed their luck, as Roberto had an accident and lost laps, while the Lehto/Kox car encountered problems and did not finish. The drivers and team championships were snatched by Mercedes.
Some consolation though that year, after his fifth attempt, Steve Soper won the prestigious Macau Guia Touring Car Race in a BMW 320i, along with setting the lap record which still stands today.
Outings in a Riley & Scott chassis fitted with a BMW engine, and at Le Mans in the V12 LM showed promise but the LM’s original design was flawed. Then in 1999 Soper and Lehto were partners again, this time in the ALMS, driving the new BMW V12 LMR. They won at Sears Point, Laguna Seca and Las Vegas. Still competitive, still winning, in a high profile series, and approaching 50 years old, but it was implied that Steve was too old. In reality the late 90′s was the peak of Steve Soper’s truly outstanding career.