BTCC 1992: The most controversial championship decider ever

Alex Gassman

by Alex Gassman

The man's an animal - John Cleland BTCC 1992

In 1992 the BTCC was in its second year of the incredibly popular Super Touring era. The championship was to be decided at the final race of the year at Silverstone. It was a showdown between three men; Will Hoy, Tim Harvey and John Cleland. What followed was the most dramatic, scandalous and downright dirty touring car decider we have ever seen.

In this article we’ll take a full corner-by-corner look at what happened, and what made this the most notorious championship decider ever.

Contents

the BTCC in 1992

In 1992 the BTCC was in its second year of the Super Touring regulations. Standardised engine capacities, power outputs and chassis components were creating a much more level playing field, and the cars were setting faster and faster lap times. Manufacturer entries started to increase. For the ’92 season there were 2 Vauxhall teams, 2 BMW teams, 2 Peugeot teams, 1 Toyota team, a Nissan Team and a Mazda Team. 

As the Super Touring era of the BTCC grew in popularity, so did its costs. By the end of the 1990s some of the top teams were reporting close to £15m to run their cars for the season. Ford in 2000 said their BTCC program cost them £17m for the season.

The budgets in 1992 weren’t quite that big, they weren’t far off. The manufacturers realised the marketing potential of their BTCC cars which pretty closely resembled their road-going counterparts. The motto ‘win on Sunday, sell on Monday’ was born.

The drivers were starting to get some serious pay checks and it was attracting some of the biggest driving talents in the world. The pressure on drivers to perform for their manufactuers was at an all time high, with more than ever at stake.

the 1992 championship contenders

Coming in to the final round of the 1992 BTCC championship at Silverstone, there were 3 drivers in with a chance of winning the championship, separated by only 4 points.

BTCC 1992 championship points before the final race

John Cleland – 145 pts

John Cleland

Tim Harvey – 142 pts

TIm Harvey 1992 BTCC

Will Hoy – 141 pts

Will Hoy 1992 BTCC

This is where a 4th protagonist enters the fray. Steve Soper, Tim Harvey’s teammate, who was also racing for BMW in the DTM in 1992. Clashing commitments and priorities aligned with BMW’s home turf meant he missed a few of the BTCC rounds so wasn’t in contention for the championship. His pace was unquestionable, however, and he knew he would need to do whatever he could to help his teammate take the title for BMW. And that’s exactly what he would do…

Steve Soper – not in the championship, Harvey’s wingman

Steve Soper 1992 BTCC

the points system

BTCC 1992 points system

With this points system in mind, there were a few possible scenarios for deciding the championship. Most obviously, if Cleland finished ahead of the other two, regardless of where in the finishing order, he would win.

If either Harvey or Hoy finished 1st or 2nd, they would win, regardless of where the others came.

If Harvey finished 3rd or lower, Cleland would only have to finish directly behind him to win. Take note of this one, we’ll come back to it later.

the 1992 BTCC showdown - what happened

Unlike nowadays, most of the BTCC rounds in 1992 were a single race. Silverstone, the scene for the title decider, was no different. Qualifying for the race was quite heavily affected by rain and the top 3 in the championship didn’t qualify that well. Cleland, Hoy and Harvey started 7th, 9th and 12th respectively. Steve Soper qualified in 4th.

After the lights go out, the championship contenders start trying to make some progress up the field Steve Soper lunges up the inside of David Leslie in to the tight left hander of Vale. It’s a robust move but he gets past, but Leslie isn’t done. He keeps his foot in it and spins Soper around. As his BMW is pirouetting he gets collected by a Peugeot 405 which smashes up the back of the E36, making it look like more of a compact. Soper ends up back in 21st place; last.

Steve Soper David Leslie crash Silverstone 1992 btcc
Steve Soper BMW spin Silverstone 1992 btcc

Positions: At the end of the first lap Hoy is up to 4th, Cleland is 5th and Harvey is 8th.

Championship as it stands: Cleland wins the championship by 2 points over Hoy

In to lap 2 and Harvey pit manoeuvres the Toyota of Julian Bailey, Will Hoy’s teammate, as they come in to Maggots and Becketts. This puts Harvey up to 7th and takes out one of Hoy’s rear gunners.

Tim Harvey and Julian Bailey crash at the 1992 BTCC

As the race settles down Harvey gets in to 6th and then catches up to the back of Cleland in 5th. Hoy is a little further up the road in 4th, and the leading trio of Andy Rouse, David Leslie and Jeff Allam are further up the road again.

Harvey has a couple of attempts to get past Cleland. He manages it initially, but Cleland comes right back at him. A lap later he tries again, but Cleland’s defence is too strong. On the next lap Harvey pulls of an incredible lunge on the brakes in to Copse Corner, coming from a long way back, but gets up the inside of Cleland and makes it stick.

Tim Harvey passes John Cleland Silverstone 1992
Tim Harvey' E36 BMW 318is ahead of John Cleland in the BTCC

Positions: Hoy 4th, Harvey 5th, Cleland 6th

Championship as it stands: Hoy and Cleland tie on points for the win.

As this has all been unfolding, Steve Soper has been performing the drive of his life. Unbelievably he’s fought back from 21st on the grid, with a battered car, and is now in 7th place and rapidly closing on Cleland.

The three leaders have been squabbling and slowed each other down. The top 7 cars now emerge as one down the National straight and Harvey dives up the inside of Hoy in to Copse, his favourite move. As they exit the corner they’re alongside each other but their wheels interlock, slowing them both down and putting Hoy on the grass. Cleland and Soper get passed them both.

Harvey overtakes Will Hoy in the BTCC
Tim Harvey and Will Hoy crash at Silverstone
Tim Harvey and Will Hoy crash at Silverstone

Positions: Cleland 4th, Soper 5th, Harvey 6th, Hoy 7th

Championship as it stands: Cleland wins the title by 7 points over Harvey

But Steve Soper, who after the first lap everyone thought would play no further part in assisting his teammate Harvey, wasn’t done yet in his rocketship of an E36. As they run in to Vale he lunges up the inside of Cleland, forces the Vauxhall to give up track position at the apex and squeezes through.

Steve Soper overtakes John Cleland

Cleland is not best pleased with Soper’s move. In one of the most infamous pieces of motorsport TV and commentary, Cleland shows his disgust with his middle finger. “I’m going for first says John Cleland”, Murray Walker’s immediate and perfect response which is now etched in motorsport history.

I'm Going for First - John Cleland swears at Steve Soper

Soper still has work to do as Cleland is in a championship winning position. Through the next fast left of Abbey, Soper puts his car right in front of Cleland and backs off the pace slightly. This slows up Cleland and allows Harvey to dive down his inside on the way in to the right hander of Bridge.

Soper’s car positioning means Cleland can do nothing about it and Soper lets Harvey through.

Harvey, Soper and Cleland in the BTCC finale of 1992
Harvey, Soper and Cleland in the BTCC finale of 1992

Positions: Harvey 4th, Soper 5th, Cleland 6th, Hoy 7th

Championship as it stands: Harvey wins the championship by 1 point over Cleland

Cleland is no longer winning the championship, but he knows if he can finish directly behind Harvey then he’ll take the title. So he sets about getting back past Soper.

Cleland until this point has been almost entirely clean in his overtaking. But this is when the gloves come off. Two corners later he dives up Soper’s inside at the left hander of Brooklands. Hitting the large kerb on the apex he’s up on two wheels, fully leant against the side of Soper’s BMW.

John Cleland on two wheels overtaking Steve Soper
John Cleland on two wheels overtaking Steve Soper

The two-wheeling Vauxhall forces the BMW off to the edge of the track, and Soper has to back out of it. Cleland is back in a championship winning spot. For a couple of seconds at least.

John Cleland forces Steve Soper off the track

At this point Soper is a couple of car lengths behind Cleland, before the next right hander of Luffield. This is where Soper makes one of the most controversial moves in BTCC, touring car and even motorsport history. This is his chance, maybe his last with the race in its dying laps, to help BMW and Harvey to the title.

He hugs the right hand side of the track at the entry to Luffield and doesn’t slow down anywhere near as much as he would normally. Notice his brake lights aren’t on in the image below, yet both Cleland and Will Hoy are already braking.

Steve Soper overtakes John Cleland at Silverstone 1992

Soper cuts across the grass on the infield and blatantly aims straight for the Vauxhall. Cleland is right there and he gets T-boned by Soper’s missile of a BMW. The hit is so hard it spins them both out in to the gravel, and out of the race.

Steve Soper and John Cleland crash at the BTCC 1992 final
Steve Soper and John Cleland crash at Silverstone
Steve Soper and John Cleland crash in the BTCC

Positions: Harvey 4th, Hoy 5th, Cleland DNF

Championship as it stands: Harvey wins the championship by 3 points over Hoy

Cleland immediately jumps out of his car and for a second stands motionless, fists clenched by his sides, staring at the track. That infamous pose of the enraged Scot, shocked at what has just happened, after being savagely removed from the title race. ‘His’ title race, after he led the championship for the whole year.

Cleland was wearing foam rib padding under his race suit that weekend after a back injury at the previous round. His resulting rotund, American-Footballer figure painting an even more perfect image to burn in to our memories.

John Cleland rage after crashing out of the BTCC 1992 final

And with only a couple of laps left, that is exactly how the race ended. Hoy doesn’t manage to get back past Harvey and Cleland scores nil points in the gravel. Harvey wins his first and only BTCC title.

BTCC 1992 final championship standings

Soper got the blame, his incredible drive from the back of the grid completely overshadowed by his take-out of Cleland. In an interview after the race, Cleland, still absolutely seething, sums it up perfectly when being asked about Soper: “The man’s an animal.”

John Cleland rages The Man's an Animal

Watch this incredible race unfold for yourself below:

fall-out after the race

After the dust had settled, the championship results stood. Harvey kept his title. The fans loved every second of it. The BTCC had never been more popular. But both Cleland and Soper were up for tribunal in front of the RAC and TOCA. They were threatening to remove Soper’s race license for good.

Cleland knew that whatever happened, he wouldn’t get his championship title back. In an incredibly magnanimous act, Cleland met with Soper before their court hearing and told Soper they should both just agree it was a racing incident. And that’s what they did. No fines or bans were handed out, and in 1993 their on-track antics continued where they left off.

Cleland went on to win his second BTCC title in 1995. Soper never won the British Touring Car Championship, perhaps the most talented driver ever to be denied a championship. And maybe forever marred as the villain in the 1992 BTCC showdown.

Even to this day the three of them are still a little bitter about what happened…

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Alex Gassman

I‘m Alex. I write F1 and motorsport travel guides based on my experience as racing driver and full-time motorsport nerd. I’ve traveled the world watching F1 and other racing series.

I started oversteer48 with the aim of helping other motorsport fans who are planning on watching some racing themselves.

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