The sound of Munich

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There have been faster racing saloon cars than the BMW M3 – notably the Nissan Skyline GT-R and Ford Sierra RS500 Cosworth – but there has never been a more consistently successful and durable championship winner. From its debut season as a European and World Championship winner to the 1991 version which propelled Will Hoy, Roberto Ravaglia and Tony Longhurst to the British, Italian and Australian championships, the simple but efficient M3 has garnered over 30 titles worldwide.

The naturally aspirated, 16-valve, dohc, frontengined, rear-drive design has even won a World Rally Championship qualifying event in the age of 4×4 turbo cars. Similarly the M3 brought BMW unexpected rallying titles in Belgium, France, Spain and Yugoslavia, most of these due to the activities or component knowledge of Prodrive in Brackley.

The M3 has also been a commercial success, selling over 17,000 units (they needed only 5000 to qualify for Group A in 1986).

The opportunity to drive a representative example of the German Championship M3 racing breed (they won that title in 1987 and 1989) was not to be missed, especially when Briton Steve Soper would be on hand with fellow factory racer Altfrid Heger to explain and demonstrate the niceties of their 2.5-litre steeds. When a racing school proprietor (!) crashed the six-speed. ABS-equipped, 340 bhp racer it looked as though our reporter was headed for an early Italian bath. Yet BMW Motorsport racing co-ordinator, and former Grand Prix driver, Marc Surer had us back on track within 10 minutes in an older T-car, the amiable Heger’s spare M3 being readied for afternoon action, its scuffed suedette steering wheel, lack of ABS and a dash full of aged dials betraying its muletta status.

Soper immediately proved that it could still lap within a second of the 51.996s lap record pace. . . with a passenger aboard! That record represents an average of just 70 mph, reflecting the presence of five second-gear corners and a first gear hairpin. The overgrown kart track at Magione, one-mile long and a couple of autostrada hours up country from Rome, sunnily demonstrated the virtues of the M3 at speeds of up to 120 of the 180 available long circuit mph. The test car was fitted with one of 330 competition kits that BMW Motorsport has provided to over 40 countries. They will have paid the equivalent of £90,000 without a motor, or £140,000 complete with a BMW Motorsport power train.

The racing M3 is a car of enormous character, its four booming cylinders balanced to perfection by capacious brakes, simple suspension, and aerodynamic features. BMW Motorsport Racing Team Manager Karsten Engel admits: “We could make it better in some areas like the underfloor aerodynamics, but we are not allowed to do these things under German regulations, so the car will make its sixth racing season in 1992 largely unchanged.” The big 3-series competition changes will come in 1993, when the company will field an M3 based on the current (E36) body shape, powered by a 2.5-litre, 24-valve version of the current 192 bhp 325i motor. Expected to give 250 bhp in road trim, it is now being readied for autumn 1992 production. A right-hand drive model will be sold in 1993.

For a preview, albeit without the extra aerodynamic appendages, watch the 1992 British Touring Car Championship, where Steve Soper will debut the new shape for his new British team, Vic Lee Motorsport. Prodrive is also scheduled to have one of the new bodies, complete with basic roll cage and body preparation from German fabrication maestro Matter.

We asked Steve to give us an insight into the differences between driving 2.5 M3s in Germany and 2.0-litre variants at home. He contrasted five key areas: weight, power. brakes, aerodynamics . . . and driving standards.

“At first,” opines the now Monaco-domiciled Soper, “the British M3 actually feels quite slow. It’s not just that it has 265 or so horsepower in place of 340 in Germany. You have to remember the weight. The less powerful UK car actually carries more weight. Of course it depends a bit how successful you are as a driver in Germany as to the actual weight you will carry, but the basic weights are 980 kg versus 1050 kg for the UK.

“Then there’s the brakes. In Germany for 1991 we had ABS. In Britain, believe it or not, it was actually banned (it is now permitted – JW). You will also notice our German or Italian specification Evolution M3s have the front and rear adjustable spoilers. Not so in Britain. That makes an aerodynamic difference to the cornering ability I can call on, especially at the faster tracks.”

During the 1990/91 winter a unique BMW Alfred Teves racing ABS braking system was conscientiously developed. Soper comments: “I tried the system back-to-back at Salzburgring and found three seconds in the wet, and it was better in the dry, too. It was a good thing BMW went for the system, because Mercedes had it for 1991 as well. I don’t think their Bosch system is as good as ours in several important respects.”

As to the opposition, Soper underlines the talent of men like ex-Grand Prix racers Jacques Laffite, Johnny Cecotto and Hans-Joachim Stuck in German fields full of rapid conductors. There were up to 15 drivers capable of winning in the German series, whereas the nascent UK equivalent naturally had a few less top runners recruited. Soper has kind words for the ‘neversay-die’ speed of John Cleland in the Vauxhall and Andy Rouse in his Toyota. However, since we spoke, the quality of the UK series has been augmented. Marque interest comes from BMW, Vauxhall, Toyota, Mazda, Peugeot and Nissan, at the very least. . . Meanwhile, the Germans are looking at a leaner year than of late, with 30-car grids from only three manufacturers. The absence of Ford and Opel threatens to turn their year into another Audi rout with BMW and Mercedes squabbling over the Championship pieces.

A conventional Getrag five-speed gearbox has synchromesh operation, but a number of pure racing six-speed alternatives are used by BMW competitors, including products from Hollinger in Australia, Getrag and Prodrive. I have experience of the Prodrive unit, and liked it very much, but I am told the Hollinger is lighter and faster to deploy.

We were seated by Recaro and restrained by six-point Sabelts. The dashboard looks simple at first glance, a 10,000 rpm Stack tachometer placed adjacent to a transparent pane. “That rev counter tells them all that you have done and this small readout (behind the innocuous blank pane – JW) can tell of five or six things, including water and oil temperature, oil pressure, all things like this. We keep it on the water temperature for a race, because its needs to be kept in 85 to 90 degC for the best power,” explains Heger.

The catalytic converter is compulsory for this formula and it makes a big difference to drivers. On a hot summer day it can reach between 50 and 70 degC in the cockpit, because the converter is under the bare steel floor. Heger continued with an A-Z tour of the myriad warning lights. “The red one means you will have to stop, there is no oil pressure. The yellow ones are for the petrol tank, or the generator,” he explains, although there are also lights to monitor ABS in the current frontline cars and a supplementary petrol pump. Within the white steel walls and Matter roll-cage protection lurks an old-fashioned racing car.

By the transmission tunnel, twin levers and cables lead fore and aft. “These are to operate the front and rear roll bar loads,” smiles Heger. “Normally we would run with 70 per cent for the front bar, 30 per cent at the rear.” Further cockpit sophistications include the usual brake bias hand wheel, an array of popout electrical fuses, a diagnostic plug forthe ECU and the selector for that dashboard display of vital motor functions.

At some 136 bhp per litre, the M3 remains well mannered. From the start I used 9000 of the usual 9500 rpm, but during the learning curve I took advantage of its good nature and broad torque spread to pull from 5000 rpm in the lower gears. Haul it back into first for the tightest corner and the natural rev band seems to lie between 6000-9000 rpm, but this first gear section is followed by a second-gear right onto the main straight. Even the stars back off here, so most regularly exploit the sub 5000 rpm torque.

The sound levels are modest by racing standards, but exciting nonetheless. It’s fun to feel the large four smooth out above 5000 revs point, yet sheer speed is not overwhelming. You might touch 115-120 mph. Until the end of the main straight, that is, when fifth is held briefly before the demands of a tight righthander. This was the most vulnerable point of a lap for a stranger. Even the works drivers occasionally dived at the apex, still changing gears furiously. At first the choppy ride and handling was composed, then the old M3’s rear wheels start to kick out of line in a manner akin to the racing RS500 with which I was more familiar.

As I started to use more opposite lock, the “in” board came out from the pit wall. Had I exceeded their hospitality? No, the tyres really are shot. Now I get a ferocious driving display from Soper, which produces a time despite visibly worsening grip. Ridged kerbs reverberate beneath the slewing BMW as Soper-the-Chauffeur urges more speed from flayed rubber. Rumble strips advance and retreat beneath hard worked Pirellis: tyre squeal emerges as the healthy motor and brakes are pressed to their limits. All give us an insight to what being a factory BMW driver really is all about.

Hard, but exhilarating, graft.

Soper sets a 54.77 sec best, two-up, where my best had been 57.56 sec on a solo run. The 2.79 sec gap is primarily accounted for by my plump cowardice, especially under braking at the end of the fastest straight. I am grateful to BMW Motorsport and Steve Soper for the time they allowed us to gain a unique insight into the professional saloon car driver’s working environment for the ’90s. I would still swap its centrally heated charms for this confounded wordprocessor. . .