Doing business with BMW

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This month I want to tell you more about my work with BMW North America. My company – Rahal Letterman Racing, which I own along with television host David Letterman – has been working with BMW in the American Le Mans Series and this year we go into our second season with the GT2 M3 (above). It’s an interesting car and we did pretty well in our first year, which is always a challenge with a new car and the development that goes with that.

I guess everybody associates me with Indycar racing and Formula 1 with Jaguar, but my racing goes way back to when it was mainly with sports cars. For seven years before my rookie season in Indycars I was doing sports cars in America and Europe, trying to work my way towards F1. I was racing Porsche 935s and I won the Daytona 24 Hours with Brian Redman (great guy, great driver) in 1981, so there was a lot of history before we did a deal with BMW for the ALMS.

With Rahal Letterman Racing, it was important for us as a company to spread our interests. To be reliant on Indycar racing was risky in case we lost sponsorship – and of course that’s exactly what happened. We were prepared to withstand that loss because of the nature of the relationship we’d nurtured with BMW, which goes back to 2006, so there was a long gestation period before we ran the GT2 M3 in 2008. We’d been racing a Porsche RSR to get to know the ALMS and that gave us an insight into the way the championship works before we went out there with the BMW.

The M3 is a big car and it’s not a pure-bred GT2 racer like the Porsche 997 and Ferrari F430. So far it has only been allowed to run in America and Asia, not at the Le Mans 24 Hours itself. I did hear that BMW wants to take the car to Le Mans with the Schnitzer team, but they would have to get it homologated first. And that’s much more than just a bolt-on job, as we know from looking at it ourselves. We’d love to race there but it would obviously be much more economical for BMW to get the car approved in Europe and run it with a team like Schnitzer. We haven’t heard much about the plan but my assumption is that they do intend to homologate it. But I think the changes will be substantial, it would be very different from the ALMS specification, and all I know is that they’re working on it.

Interestingly, we race on Dunlop tyres in the ALMS while everyone else is on Michelins, which are the ‘gold standard’, if you like. So it’s been hard work to develop the tyres as well as improve the car. But Dunlop has done a great job and we’ve had better and better tyres from them – the great thing is we have tyres that are made specifically for the BMW and we have been able to work hand in hand with Dunlop to optimise the whole package.

I should say that I’m a BMW dealer too, here in Pennsylvania, and I’m not so surprised that they have pulled out of Formula 1 racing. North America is the biggest market for BMW but F1 just doesn’t resonate here like it does elsewhere in the world – and when a company is losing a lot of money in a year they have to look at the reality. A big company like that can lose money so rapidly, and it’s like turning round a supertanker, so when the financial guy looks at the outgoings and sees a racing programme that costs maybe $400 million a year, well, he doesn’t really have any choice…

It’s not a decision anybody wants to take, but for the sake of the company and its obligations to its shareholders it’s one that has to be made. And I’m sure that’s how Honda and Toyota felt, and I guess Renault is feeling that way too. You can always get back into racing, but racing has to contribute to the bottom line – it’s much more than just an image.

See you next month. It’s going to be a busy year…

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