Schnitzer and BMW. The two words are pretty well synonymous. Under the shrewd direction of Karl ‘Charly’ Lamm, Schnitzer-prepared BMWs have been winning top-level international touring car races for years, be they World Championship or European Championship.
Since the dissolution of those two multi-national contests, Schnitzer has concentrated its efforts on home soil, although its highly effective participation in the German Touring Car Championship has been supported by successful involvement in the Italian equivalent.
But the face of German motor racing is changing. The touring car series, as recently as last year the national pride and joy, with six-figure crowds and huge investment from the major national manufacturers – BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Audi – is teetering on the brink of collapse. Audi, unhappy at a technical decision in the opposition’s favour, withdrew in mid-season, and has subsequently declined to return. BMW has pulled out, citing the unrealistic expense of preparing a car to a set of regulations which will be in force for just one season. Deprived of two prestige opponents against whom it hoped to prove its wares, Opel has now stepped down.
The field has been left to Mercedes-Benz, newcomer Alfa Romeo and a few privateers. Some of these will use BMWs, albeit obsolete M3s. Karsten Engel, manager of BMW Motorsport’s racing division, is not unduly concerned about the potential harm that could be done to the marque’s image. “They’ll be so far behind they’ll almost be in a different race,” he smiles. “The M3 has been out of production for two years, and the racing public understands the situation. It will be a long way off the pace, but people will know why. We don’t mind drivers taking part, though. There’s still good prize money in Germany, and a privateer with an old car should be able to cover the costs of his sport, even if he’s not got any real chance of outright success.”
BMW’s abstinence, in an official capacity, from the crumbling GTCC turned out to be positive news for the British Touring Car Championship, which is flourishing almost as quickly as its German counterpart is disintegrating.
Schnitzer is coming to the UK, to run a brace of 318i saloons for Steve Soper and Joachim Winkelhock. The former, generally acknowledged as Britain’s fastest touring car exponent, needs no introduction.
After cruising to the German F3 title in 1988, the latter tried to follow in his late brother Manfred’s footsteps as a Grand Prix driver, but after spending the next half-season trying in vain to pre-qualify an AGS, he stepped down to earn a living as one of the more entertaining members of the GTCC cast.
Official BMW participation in the British series was not, originally, anticipated, even though Tim Harvey won the 1992 title in a 318is coupe. Cynics reckoned that it was all to do with the scandal factor. After all, the team running Harvey’s car had to be reconstituted in a hurry, with just a couple of races to go, when the original principal was arrested in connection with alleged drug trafficking offences.
BMW GB insists that its decision to withdraw was based on sound economics, rather than adverse publicity. “Every time the pound drops just one pfennig against the deutschmark,” explains BMW’s Scott Brownlee, “it effectively wipes the cost of a full two-car BTCC programme from our budget.”
As a result, the 1993 BMW effort will have a more cosmopolitan feel, although Schnitzer will set up a base camp within the cosy confines of a technical centre at BMW’s Bracknell HQ. Engineers will commute, as and when required.
With Germany in the doldrums, Karsten Engel hardly needed much convincing to add the British programme to factory-supported efforts in several other countries, including France, Italy and South Africa. “I’ve watched the BTCC on and off over the past four or five years. I have no doubt at all that it will be the best saloon car championship in the world in 1993. To have almost 10 major manufacturers competing is a dream for any governing body. The series needs to be careful, though. At the end of the 1980s, the German Championship was the best in the world. Then costs started getting out of hand. Some of the hospitality centres were the size of a house. . .”
Nowadays, the BTCC is positively awash with professionalism on a scale that could barely have been envisaged only a few years ago. Remember when the majority of competitors brought their cars along in converted 1960s coaches. . or trailered them to and fro behind oily Ford Transits?
Is Schnitzer’s British programme a long-term thing? “We’ll review the position for 1994,” says Engel. “We might continue in the UK, we might do Germany, we could do both. The situation is quite fluid. Germany will also have the same class two (ie two-litre) regulations as Britain for 1994. I think it’s fantastic that FISA has managed to get all the different countries to agree to the same rules at long last!”
Initial expectations? Engel is hopeful, but pragmatic with it. “We hope the 318i will be competitive, but we’re not expecting to dominate the championship from the word go. The Schnitzer team is very experienced, but it hasn’t raced regularly in Britain before, so we have to find out all about the tracks and the weather, though Steve knows a bit about those, and the car. It is a completely new programme, and we have much to learn. We probably won’t get a chance to test until the first, or even second, week in March.”
And the season starts on the 28th of that month, at Silverstone.
BMW’s confirmed opposition includes Ford, Renault, Mazda, Peugeot, Vauxhall, Toyota and Nissan. It is looking forward to the expected arrival of Mercedes-Benz, which current speculation suggests will happen in mid-season. Not that the Germans are supercilious about their existing opposition, far from it. BMW Motorsport understands only too well the challenge of an egalitarian formula such as this, and is well aware of the strength of the competition. Some of the marketing boffins, however, have yet to work out how it is that the regulations allow a BMW to be given a thorough gubbing by a Vauxhall.
Apparently, men in grey suits don’t mind the occasional pasting from perceived showroom adversaries such as Audi and Mercedes-Benz, so when it comes to justifying the budget for exercises such as the BTCC, a PhD in diplomacy comes in handy…
BMW’s unexpected participation in Britain will also have a knock-on effect at your local off-licence. The programme is being sponsored by Fina and Warsteiner beer, both of whom signed up originally with the GTCC in mind. Up until now, Warsteiner wasn’t widely available in Britain, but the marketing department was so tickled by the sudden change of direction that it is introducing the brand to the UK on the back of the BTCC…