JJ was widely regarded as being the best in this field: “More than all the F1 drivers I’ve had as team-mates – Piquet, Brundle, Nannini, Boutsen – he was incredible over a single lap: perfectly smooth, no excessive steering wheel movement,” says Soper. “At first I was driving it too much like a touring car, upsetting it with the throttle, but JJ taught me a lot.”
Soper soon gave up trying to match the speed of his co-driver, 14 years his junior, and instead adopted a senior pro' role. His contribution to their success was considerable, setting the car up and registering impressive stints on worn rubber to save time at pit stops. But although they inherited a fourth win, at Mugello, thanks to a rival’s freak accident, they were unable to stave off a late title charge by Mercedes-Benz. It must be said, however, that the latter’s CLK-GTR was a bespoke racer that went against the spirit of the regulations if not the letter, which had been rewritten at the 11th hour to accommodate it.
Soper, 47, had been with BMW since 1989, but the arrival in October 1998 of Gerhard Berger as its new Motorsport Director signalled the beginning of the end for this relationship.
“I’d let my guard down,” Soper admits. “Tom Kristensen and I had been similar in speed in testing [the LM] and had a verbal agreement that we would both have a shot at qualifying at Le Mans. But the team changed all that and I never got my chance. In the past, I would have fought back, but this time I decided to let it go.