Fight or Flight

Also from Issue 106

  • 205-hp hot-rod 1600
  • Comparison: F30 335i vs. 328i
  • Not for U.S.: F10 528i Touring
  • Market update: E39 M5—The first supersedan
  • E1: An electric BMW from 1991
  • Sonic MS street-and-track-ready E92 M3
  • Dinan twin-turbo: E32 750iL & E31 850Ci
  • 1960s BMW 1800 TiSA sports racers
  • Tips to improve your driving
  • Dorkfest V.2: E36/8 gathering in NorCal
  • Ice racing in a BMW
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Only slightly less alarming is the M3 GT4 sitting next to it. Though this race car is only slightly modified from the E92 M3s I’ve driven on the street, it’s almost 550 lbs. lighter…and it’s also more powerful.

“At this stage, it has around 455 horsepower,” says Stefan Wendl, team chief of Schubert Racing, which races the car for BMW Motorsport. “Other than that, it’s really pretty much a production car.”

It even uses the same six-speed manual transmission as the road car, though it does get a mechanical limited slip differential with additional cooling, adjustable shocks and significantly upgraded brakes. Instead of the 360mm front/350mm rear rotors and single-piston calipers of the M3 road car, the GT4 gets 378mm front brakes with six-piston calipers and the 355mm rear brakes with four-piston calipers. It also has race-specified ABS and—lo and behold—DSC.

“There is also air conditioning,” smiles Dirk Adorf, the BMW Motorsport driver assigned to show me The Way around Valencia, “because the GT4 rules say you can’t exceed 90°F inside the car during the race.”

The weather is mild enough that we don’t need the AC for my introduction to the arena-style Ricardo Tormo track, which I’ll experience first as a passenger in the M3 GT4.

“The M3 is basically what one could call a gentlemen’s racer,” Adorf says. “I think in the U.S. you would call it a track day car.”

Indeed it is, albeit one that costs almost $160,000.

Compared to a lot of the Grand Prix tracks that have been built over the last two decades, the Circuito de Valencia has a more fluid, natural feel, a much better rhythm than the other new tracks I’ve experienced in Europe and the Middle East.

Because it was planned mainly as a spectator-friendly arena for motorbike racing, most of the turns are named after famous bike racers. For whatever reason, however, almost all of those corners seem to tighten up dramatically toward the apex, which might make things interesting for spectators but renders Valencia anything but easy to actually drive.

M3 GT4: The gentleman’s racer

As I learn from the passenger seat of the M3, the short straight between Turn 1 and Turn 2—Curva Aspar and Curva Doohan, to give them their proper names—is taken as a full acceleration into third gear. After the turn-in point, Adorf shifts into second and—because 2 is about the only turn that opens up—gets full up into third, takes Turn 3 as a straight and is in fourth gear just before Turn 4, a rather tight left followed by a very fast right that gets us uphill into Turn 6, the Curva Nieto.

We’re hitting the curbs hard as we get onto the back straight, where Dirk has the M3 in fifth before braking hard into tricky left-hand Turn 8. Almost a hairpin, Turn 8 tightens up quickly before you can accelerate into 9 and then 10, where you need to brake extremely hard while turning into 11, a second gear-right hairpin where a lot of rubber has been laid on the track.

The M3 seems a little overtaxed by all this hard braking, and when Dirk shifts into second it wiggles just a bit but handles the tight cornering beautifully, going into a graceful oversteer while speeding down the very short straight into Turn 12, the Curva Champi Herreros. Adorf takes this quick right without leaving third gear, then accelerates through Turn 13, an extremely fast uphill left that seems never to end even after you get over the hump. You’re almost falling down into Curva Adrian Campos, a sharp left-hander that gets really tight at the end. Adding to the difficulty, the Curva Campos is off-camber, and there’s no brake marker whatsoever to let you know when to go from fifth gear into second.

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