These iconic saloon cars went to tin-top war in the late 1980s. But which is better: Sierra RS500 or BMW M3? Ian Flux decides…
The old Abbey on the old Silverstone had always been easy flat. Until now. Approaching at more than 150mph, perched in a repmobile teetering on skinny tyres, this left kink suddenly required all my concentration. And a lift. And a dab. Nobody had told me that touring cars would be like this: scary, and stupendously hot. A sort of automotive hell: not ideal, but more exciting than the other place.
My first race in a Group A saloon should have come at Donington Park earlier that year. After the birth of my daughter at 6.45am on May 14, I dashed north for Saturday qualifying; the next day, however, the turbo let go before my stint. And so my saloon racing debut occurred at what turned out to be the high-water mark of this form of racing: the 1988 Tourist Trophy, August’s penultimate counter for the European Touring Car Championship. With 500-plus horsepower courtesy of (at least) 2-bar boost, and only one nadgery chicane, Ford’s Sierra Cosworth RS500 at Silverstone was an exciting proposition. I had heard a rumour that Andy Rouse’s version had passed an F3000 single-seater down the Hangar Straight in testing. Now I believed it. And even Andy was upstaged in qualifying for the TT by Dick Johnson, a racer in the best laconic Aussie mould: his pole came at a whisker under 112mph.
Er… we were 5sec and 21 places further back — despite having overtaken Tom Walkinshaw’s Holden Commodore going into Copse. I could have passed him on the previous lap but the boys would never have believed me if I had done it somewhere out of sight. I’d again been drafted by Asquith Motorsport to partner its regular BTCC pilot Karl Jones. The team was doing a sterling job with a limited budget but I couldn’t believe how hard I was having to work: my thin-soled leather boxing boots, fine for single-seaters and sportscars, were melting on the Cossie’s pedals, and my right leg was aching in its efforts to get the damn thing stopped. Karl had phenomenal car control… and he needed all of it.
It was at this point that I realised some Sierras were more equal than others. I wandered down to the works Eggenberger pit to blag some new pads from Steve Soper. I brandished our knackered items and he said, “Oh, you want some rears.” I pointed out that these were our fronts and he rolled his eyes to the sky. (Part of) our problem was thus explained.
Karl did the first stint. Then I jumped in. And it was even hotter. This particular car didn’t have a chequer-plate false floor and so my feet were resting directly on a floorpan that was cooking at gas mark six thanks to that truck-like Garrett turbo. I enjoyed the big challenge the car presented but I wasn’t devastated when it ground to a halt with an hour to go because of an electrical glitch. My feet were killing me.
My second, and third, experience of an RS500 was much more comfortable: I shared Sean Walker’s Rouse-prepared car in the 1990 BTCC two-driver races at Donington Park and Brands Hatch. It had more power than the Asquith car but its delivery was much smoother, albeit still wicked, and it actually stopped when you hit the middle pedal. We finished fourth at Donington and third at Brands.
More comfortable, yes, but that Sierra still focused the mind. I remember it generating wheelspin as I selected fifth going past the pits at Brands, and despite having driven Can-Ams and Tuscans at that track, no car has approached Paddock Hill faster than the Ford. And that was just the bends everyone hears about; the Sierra introduced me to corners I didn’t know existed.
Between these two RS500 stints I got my first experience of its big rival: BMW’s M3. My 1982 Formula Atlantic Ehrlich team-mate, Masanori Sekiya, landed me a couple of drives for Rays Racing in Japan in ’89, standing-in for Andrew Gilbert-Scott; I drove at Suzuka and Tsukuba. What was unusual about this situation was that the team, an offshoot of a wheel manufacturer, made its own tyres; a technician had jumped ship from Yokohama. Unfortunately, I think he only brought the special qualifying mix with him; we’d start right up at the sharp end of the grid, only to come in for new rubber after 20 minutes.
That car was a 2.3-litre M3; I had my first run in a 2-litre Class 2 (aka Super Touring) version in the last BTCC race of 1990, replacing John Llewellyn. The following year I contested the series in an M3 run by Roy Kennedy. To be honest, there wasn’t much difference between these two types; you were a bit down on torque with the 2-litre but by the middle of ’91 our lap times were faster than the 2.3s had ever managed.
There was, however, night and day between the RS500 and M3. You couldn’t get two cars more diametrically opposed — and yet they somehow met in the middle and had a damned good scrap. The Ford had the power and the speed; the BMW had the handling, the balance and the fuel economy. The Sierra was a road car with the unequal task of containing 500bhp; the M3 was a racer first, detuned road-rocket second. Popping and banging turbo versus rev-happy atmo. To get the best out of the Ford you had to treat it with respect; to get the best out of the BMW you had to abuse it.
Climbing aboard Mike Newman’s Graham Goode-run RS500 is a time-warp moment: it’s in exactly the spec it finished the 1990 BTCC finale at Silverstone, the Sierra’s — and Mike’s — last-ever race in the series. With its door trims intact, wind-up windows, uncomplicated roll-cage and high seating position, it feels very road car — an impression that lasts all the way up to 5000rpm. Below this mark, it’s a shopping car; above it, it’s hopping mad. On today’s mirror surface, as soon as the turbo starts to whistle, all grip is spat into a sideways snap. It’s impossible. Come to think of it, balancing an RS500 in the dry was a real Houdini act. Not since the days of the pre-war Silver Arrows had so much power been (force) fed through such narrow rubber: 9in, the same as the M3, albeit with 200bhp and 140kg (1100 compared to 960kg in 1988) more to cope with.
The trick to coaxing a lap out of it was to keep it smooth, smooth, smooth. The likes of Rouse and Soper made it look easy. It wasn’t. You would arrive at corners 20-30mph faster than the BMWs and brake harder as a result, pitching the car onto its nose. Through the corner you couldn’t balance it because of the lag. And then, on the exit, when the boost kicked in — it really came on the cam at 6500rpm — all that weight would rush to the tail. To get around this corner conundrum you ended up squaring-off all the turns: brake early and not too hard, turn-in very late, then feed the power in, all the while anticipating the lag. You’d use a lot of lock in the middle of a bend, but by shortening the corner you’d be off the power for less time. What else? Oh yes, keep off the kerbs. The Sierra’s suspension was quite soft: hitting a kerb would unsettle it and you’d have to back off. At somewhere like Brands Hatch’s downhill left at Graham Hill Bend you could feel it begin to fall over itself. And despite all that power and the increased high-speed downforce created by the RS500’s wing package (an extra 20kg front, 100kg rear, at 120mph), the car was a basic understeerer that was almost impossible to adjust mid-corner. Mastering it required a lot of confidence born of practice.
The M3 was the antithesis of this: after just a couple of laps you felt like a hero. There was no angle that you couldn’t get it back from, no kerb you couldn’t bash over. You simply got braver and braver.., but not today, on unscrubbed, stone-cold Yokohama inters!
Plonked back in one I am reminded of that surprisingly single-seater feel: you sit low, gear lever on your right, first gear back and towards you on dog-leg, as it should be. And then you fire up that urgent four-pot, dip and dump the light-switch clutch and bark out of the pits. The Group Aversions of 1987-88 were revving to 8300rpm, the shorter-stroke BTCC cars were artificially limited to 8500, but the later 2.5-litre DTM cars were breaking through the 10,000 barrier, kept on the boil by a Holinger six-speed sequential gearbox; Prodrive’s H-pattern six-speeder transformed the 2-litre cars. This particular version, however, has the early H-pattern Getrag five-speed, a dog box happily capable of snappy clutch-less changes; the Sierra has a Getrag, too, but its synchro makes it slower. The Ford would be transformed by the faster shift of a sequential unit — even the ‘delay’ of going across the gate unsettled its chassis. And then you could fit a flat-shift cut-out for full-power upchanges to keep the boost wound on. And then you could fit some modern three-way Ohlins shockers to tie it all down better…
But shouldn’t touring cars be wild, all over the place and difficult to tame? I think so. Today’s racing saloons are dull in comparison to the RS500. That’s Flux the Fan talking, of course; Flux the Racing Driver wants a car that never runs out of brakes, grips and turns-in, and then does everything my right foot commands it to, instantaneously. Which is why I would choose the M3 over the Ford: its Brembos never faded, its grip-to-grunt ratio was spot-on, its rack was perfectly weighted, and the resultant package was more physical and satisfying to drive than the terrifying Sierra.
The M3, however, signalled the beginnings of the Super Touring era: about 300bhp and brilliant handling. The R5500, sadly, helped kill off Group A: 550bhp and virtually unbeatable by the end. There was more to it than that, of course. Certain elements of the governing body didn’t want to create a championship, certainly not on a global or European level, that might rival F1 ‘s popularity. Which is why the World Touring Car Championship of 1987 received very little TV exposure, and all the teams got for their $60,000 per-car entry fee was a natty little sticker!
There were problems with Group A: its classes tended to become the preserve of a single model, while the nuances of homologation were interpreted differently depending which hemisphere you were racing in. Perhaps it was too early to venture a world series. But I can see no reason why the European championship was shut down at the end of 1988. I’m sure that the national series’ could have flourished in conjunction with their big brother. Instead you got big teams with huge budgets blowing small championships out of all proportion. Super Touring did provide a golden age of sorts — heaps of competing manufacturers and incredible lap times cajoled from an unpromising recipe of two-litre, front-wheel drive — but it ultimately folded in on itself. There were some good races during that time but do any of them stick in the mind like Rouse’s defeat of the works Sierras in that 1988 TT, or the RS500s’ battles with Nissan’s ‘Godzilla’ Skylines at Bathurst? ‘No’ is the simple answer.
Unfortunately, technology waits for no man — except in NASCAR — and the pressing need to sell the latest four-door buzzbox means that the tin-top racer always has to kowtow to marketing departments. However, for a brief moment in the RS500-versus-M3 era (nearly) everyone’s best interests lined up. It couldn’t last, but it was good — hot and scary— while it did.
Sierra — Track Record:
During his 11 seasons of BTCC racing not once did Blackburn shoe manufacturer Mike Newman test his cars. Such activities were for “nancy boys” with nowt else to worry about.
“My best result with the Sierra was my first race in it, and I hadn’t even sat in it before qualifying.” he recalls. “I only did three laps in practice before the head gasket blew, yet I ended up finishing second.”
The remainder of 1988 brought him a front row at Donington Park, two third places and third in the Class A standings. The following year (below) he was sixth, after two thirds at Thruxton and another front row at Donington Park. He kicked off 1990 with another second place, at Oulton — he’d claim pole there later in the season — and recorded a third at the Birmingham Superprix and a fourth in his last race in the car, at Silverstone.
“It was fantastic to drive. We had some problems to begin with — head gaskets and turbos (four at one meeting once!) — and that came as a shock after just one retirement in almost 50 races over three years with my BMW 635CSi.” It was with this ex-James Weaver BMW GB car that he secured his two outright BTCC wins following campaigns in Vauxhalls ( Vivas and Firenzas) and Capris.
“The problem with the Sierra was that the horsepower increases kept finding weaknesses elsewhere. But I wouldn’t have missed those races for the world. If you are racing for fun alone it’s important that your car grabs your attention, gives you a thrill. The Sierra never let me down in that respect. The prospect of having to swap it for a 2-litre front-wheel-drive did not appeal. It was this that persuaded me to retire.” You can see his point.
TechSpec — 1990 BTCC Ford Sierra Cosworth RS500
Type: Cosworth YBD turbocharged fuel-injected (8 injectors) in-line four, belt-driven dohc, four-valve alloy head, ‘Pinto’ iron block. Capacity 1993cc. Bore x stroke 90.82 x 76.95mm. Max power 545bhp @ 7500rpm. Max torque 460Ib ft @ 4800rpm. Compression 6.8-to-1. Management Zytek Turbocharger Garrett T31/T04 Max boost 2.5 bar
Gearbox Getrag, five-speed, synchro
Minimum weight 1100kg. Suspension (f) MacPherson strut, lower arms. Suspension (r) trailing arms. Dampers Bilstein
Brakes AP discs, vented and cross-drilled (f), vented (r). 4-pot calipers (f&r). Steering rack and pinion.
Max speed 170mph, 0-60mph 3sec, 0-100mph 7.5sec
M3: Track Record
Built by the Linder team in 1987, shell ‘7’ was given its debut by future Opel competitions boss Volker Strycek when he drove it in the opening races of the ’88 DTM at Zolder: he was eight laps down and unclassified in the first heat and didn’t start the second. The maiden DTM champion (’84) also drove it at the Nürburgring’s Eifelrennen and his sixth in the opening race of that meeting would be the car’s best-ever result: he finished 16th in the second race.
The car was then passed on to privateer Anton Goser, who was updating from a 635CSi. He painted his new acquisition a vile acid green/yellow (you can still see it in the engine bay and boot, if you feel the need) and contested DTM rounds at Brno, Mainz-Finthen and Norisring. His best result was a 12th in the second race at the latter venue. Karl Baron ran the car at the Hungaroring and lasted just a lap.
Castrol-backed Goser also mounted a partial DTM campaign in 1989, at Zolder, Norisring (above) and Hockenheim. The car’s best result that year, however, came when it was driven by Harald Grohs: he finished 18th and then 12th at the April Hockenheim meeting.
After 1989 the car was sold to an Italian BMW dealer, who hillclimbed it for a couple of seasons before putting it on display in his showroom. It was spotted there by Milan-based enthusiast James Abbott and he eventually persuaded the owner to part company with it three years ago.
It is currently for sale via Kings Lynn-based German Cars tel. 01485 544863/07788 620730.
TechSpec — 1988 Group A BMW M3
Type:BMW M10/512, fuel-injected in-line four, chain-driven dohc, four-valve alloy head, iron block. Capacity 2302cc. Bore x stroke 93.4 x 84mm. Max power 290bhp @ 8400rpm. Compression 12-to-1. Management system Bosch Motronic DME
Transmission:Gearbox Getrag five-speed
Wheelbase 2565mm, Length 4356mm, Width 1679mm, Minimum weight 960kg (in WTCC/ETCC). Suspension (f) MacPherson strut, Suspension (r) trailing arms. Dampers Bilstein
Brakes Brembo, vented cross-drilled discs, 348mm (f). 300mm (r), 6-pot calipers (f), 4-pot (r). Steering rack and pinion
Max speed 155mph, 0-60mph 5.5sec, 0-100mph 11sec