When the call came from Munich asking if I would be interested in driving a race-ready Z4 GT3 in Spain, on Valencia’s Ricardo Tormo race track, to be precise, I suppressed the impulse to ask what they wanted in return. My right arm, perhaps? Firstborn son?
Instead, I replied coolly that I’d need to check my schedule.
There would also be a M3 GT4 for me to drive on the track—for comparison purposes, so to speak—added the man from Munich.
Um, yes, I said, I think I can make it.
Jolly, he replied, hanging up the phone.
That was the moment I fainted. Well, not really, but I did fist-pump so hard that I nearly dislocated my shoulder.
Driving a Z4 GT3 at Valencia? And an M3 GT4? Talk about a bucket list item!
GT3 vs. GT4
If you haven’t been following European sports car racing over the last few years, you might want a bit of explanation about the cars in question. Both are designed for production racing, which means they’re based on BMW’s M3 and Z4 road cars. How closely they correspond to those cars, however, depends on the class they’re designed to run in.
Intended for amateur racers, the GT4 class permits the fewest modifications. GT4 cars get a roll cage, of course, and they’re stripped of all the superfluous luxuries that make street cars more comfortable and/or practical but which have no purpose on a race car, like rear seats and carpeting. They also get a few modifications, like better brakes, that improve their suitability for racing. In the GT4 European Cup, the M3 GT4 races against Ford Mustangs, Chevy Camaros, C6 Corvettes and Nissan Z-cars, and it’s done fairly well: Ekris BMW won the team title last year, and its drivers Ricardo van der Ende and Duncan Huisman finished 1-2 in the driver’s chase.
GT3 cars also begin as series production vehicles, albeit of a higher specification than the GT4s. They’re faster and more powerful, more like purpose-built race cars than the lower-spec GT4s. The Z4 sheds its usual six-cylinder engine for the M3’s V8, allowing it to compete against cars like the Audi R8 LMS, Ferrari 458 GT3 and Porsche 911 GT3 R, to name a few. Despite such stiff competition, the Z4 GT3 has been one of BMW’s most reliably successful racers over the last two years—at least in Europe. Customers who wanted to race one in the U.S. haven’t been so lucky, though BMW Motorsport Director Jens Marquardt says the car is slated to arrive here in 2013, once Motorsport can develop a version that meets the regulations for a series like the ALMS or Grand-Am.
It’ll be worth the wait, believe me.
Valencia: Built for motorcycles, challenging for cars
I’m standing in the pit lane of Valencia’s Ricardo Tormo racetrack—the one used for MotoGP racing and Formula One testing but not racing, which takes place instead on a street course along Valencia’s harbor—looking at the Z4 GT3, a magnificent racing machine that won the 24-hour races in Dubai and Barcelona and finished second at Spa-Francorchamps in 2011.
Even sitting still, the Z4 is sending my adrenal glands into overdrive, and I’m having a kind of “fight or flight” attack in response. I settle on fight, keeping the flight option open in case I put the car into a guardrail.
Video by BMW
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.
“That’s a tricky one,” Dirk yells as he accelerates into sixth gear down the start/finish straightaway before braking hard again into Turn 1.
With our sighting laps complete, Adorf returns into the pits and hands me the car.
“It’s easy,” he smiles. “Just do what I just did.”
Strapped into the four-point-harness and given the instruction to favor the clutch a bit, I promptly stall the M3. Three times.
But after I finally get the car running, it turns out to be pure joy. Having driven quite a few race cars over the course of my life, I was prepared for a hard-core, tooth-shattering ride, a beast that would require careful handling. But the M3 behaves with surprising civility on the Spanish circuit. It is indeed a gentle giant, or pretty close to it.
Of course, when you drop 550 lbs. from a car with a powerful 4-liter V8 engine, the term “gentlemen racer” ceases to apply. First, it only takes 3.4 seconds to go from zero to 62 mph. That’s more than a second quicker than the M3 road car. Second, this thing eats corners for breakfast, making your neck muscles cry for mercy pretty fast. Even though I take it easy for the first two laps, the more I get in tune with the track and the car the more grateful I am for the seat’s gigantic “ears,” which keep my head from flying sideways in every turn.
The M3 is set up so you get a bit of understeer going into a corner, but when you hit the turn-in point on the nose and get on the gas just a tad before the apex, you can bring the rear over quite nicely, thank you.
For a competition car, the M3 is indeed an easy ride. It handles predictably enough, although hitting the brakes hard while turning the car is a considerable challenge. And I do need to brake hard—really hard—in the middle of some corners. After three laps, I work up the nerve to take Turn 2 full in second gear, just like Dirk did, accelerating through Turn 3 and setting up an almost perfect flow into the two hard rights, 4 and 5. I’m really working it now, getting to full throttle as quickly as possible out of every turn.
Which reveals another unique aspect of the Valencia track: The fact that spectators can see the entire circuit also means that the whole Schubert Racing team can watch me lose traction in Turn 11 and spin the M3 after getting just a little too early and a little too hard on the gas before the M3 has fully settled. Okay, way too hard on the gas.
Embarrassing as it is, I’m so not coming in. I just need a faster car.
Which brings us to the Z4 GT3.
Z4 GT3: A harder, faster ride
Extremely low slung, rolling on enormous 18-inch slicks and wearing an impressive array of aerodynamic aids…just standing in front of this GT3 racer raises your heart rate. So does trying to get into it, thanks to a roll cage that would challenge Houdini.
Don’t be such a baby, Schubert Racing’s Stefan Wendl smiles as he straps me into the Z4’s bucket and explains its specification.
“This car has basically the engine from the M3 GTS,” Wendl says. “It’s a 4.4-liter naturally aspirated powerplant that delivers a bit more than 500 horses.”
In other words, it’s not the turbocharged six-cylinder N54 or N55 of the Z4 road car but a high-spec version of the aluminum-block S65 V8 engine used in the M3. It’s got engine management by an ECU408 processor in conjunction with a POWER400 electronic control unit, and stopping power via the same 378mm front/355mm rear brake rotors as on the M3 GT4, but with different pads and detail changes.
Its steel body is built at BMW’s Regensburg plant, then sent to BMW Motorsport to be fitted with a carbon fiber composite hood, roof, trunk lid and fenders that help reduce the Z4 GT3’s weight to just over 2,600 lbs., nearly 1,000 lbs. less than the roadgoing Z4 despite the larger engine. So that’s what deleting a folding hardtop will accomplish!
Wendl next attempts to explain the steering wheel’s buttons and dials, whose functions I forget immediately. After all, it’s quite an intimidating experience, sitting in the same office used by drivers like Claudia Hürtgen, Augusto Farfus, Tommy Milner and Edward Sandström.
“It really drives much like the M3, “except harder,” shouts Adorf over the infernal racket of the engine as he tightens my harness. So much for the “flight” option now. I’m strapped in.
The Z4 has a sequential six-speed gearbox, and Adorf tells me I only need the clutch to get into first and when I stop the car. “Everything else, you just use the paddles,” he yells.
“And whatever you do,” he shouts, banging on my helmet, “don’t touch the DSC!”
Turns out the Z4 GT3 is equipped with adjustable traction control, which is now set at 3. I wiggle the dial and it goes first to 4 and then to 1 before I let it slide back to 3—wouldn’t want to screw around with the DSC settings in a car worth almost half a million bucks, after all.
This time, I only stall the car once on my way out of pit lane, and I head onto the track happy and ready to drive. Then, just as I get to the turn-in point at the first corner, all hell breaks loose. This is the hard-core ride I’ve been expecting…and quite a bit more. The Z4’s 500-plus totally unmuffled horses scream like banshees, and the noise from the sequential gearbox is loud enough to scare a fighter pilot. Every shift is accompanied by clacks so brutal they almost hurt, and the acceleration hurls your head back into the seat.
This is great!
Wendl had told me I could run the engine to 8,500 rpm, when two red LEDs on the steering wheel would flicker. I’ve promised myself to do just that, and I am. The power curve never stops until about 8,000 rpm, when those pesky lights begin to flicker slightly and the inside of the Z4 sounds like Valhalla with the gods gone berserk.
Like a rocket, the Z4 propels me up the short straight to Turn 2.
Brake hard, he’d said, real hard.
And that’s what I do, straining hard against the harness. That’s when I turn into 3 and give it the gas, full throttle in third gear. And I mean _full_—my vertebrae will be sore for weeks from pressing into the seat.
In the M3 GT4, I’d felt just a bit unsure if the car would take Turn 3 as a straight, but there’s no question about it in the Z4. The car clings to the track like it’s painted on, and it seems to challenge you to take it to its limits. I’m trying in Turn 4. Full throttle in third gear feels like defying the laws of physics. No car can do that and stay on the track!
It’s only my first mile or so in the Z4, and already I’m soaked in sweat. Thank heavens for fireproof gloves—no steering wheel could absorb that much moisture.
A firm hand and steady nerves
The Z4 requires a much firmer hand than the M3. On the other hand, its handling is way above anything even the M3 GT4 could deliver. It’s also much harder, just as Dirk said, with super-stiff suspension that transmits every pebble on the road straight into my dental work.
While the M3 allowed me to steer almost gently through the turns on power, the short-wheelbase Z4 transmits its tremendous power much more abruptly…and loudly. The brakes need to getting used to, too. To get into full stopping power, you have to use a very hard foot. Through so many of these corners, I brake hard right into the apex, something that supposedly can’t be done. The tricky combination of Turns 9, 10 and 11 is no match for the Z4. I come out of 8 screaming, and in Turn 9 the car gets on the curbs and still feels like it’s on rails. I stay away from the curbs on 10 to get full on the brakes…while turning.
The Z4 gets a little light in the back, but it’s nothing compared to the M3. Accelerating out of 11, right at the apex, the car is absolutely neutral, and its Dunlops grab the track solidly without so much as a tug. Turn 13 is long, very long, a sweeping left-hander that never quite straightens out before it becomes Turn 14, and I’m clanging up through the gears as I accelerate.
Third gear. Longer still.
Fourth. Still going left. Downhill now.
Desperately hoping I’ve found the braking point, I ratchet the gearbox down to second, turning even harder as Turn 14 becomes the infamous hairpin, camber shifting to the right as I’m trying to go left, the Z4 fighting centrifugal forces with every ounce of mechanical grip and aerodynamic downforce it can muster.
Despite the 3 setting on the DSC dial, the rear sweeps out pretty distinctly under full acceleration. Even under such extremely challenging conditions, the Z4 GT3 signals its intentions so clearly that non-pros like me can still manage it. The rear sits down on the gigantic Dunlops, just a smart flick with the steering wheel, and we’re pedal to the metal down the start/finish straightaway. I can breathe again.
Fourth. Red. Fifth. Red. Sixth, just briefly.
Now brake…_hard,_ and take Turn One in third. Hit the apex, then back to full throttle.
Take that, Dirk Adorf!
Two racers for two skill levels
I now believe what Stefan Wendl had told me, namely that both the M3 GT4 and the Z4 GT3 are competitive vehicles that you can buy off the shelf and race on the track—successfully, too, provided that you have access to enough cash.
“An entire season in the Z4 GT3 might cost you around a million euros per year, give or take a few,” he had said. “The M3 you can run for a season for about a quarter of a million.”
That’s a fiscal outlay I personally would be hard pressed to come up with, but for a serious race team, these sums are do-able, especially for a car that can win more than a club race. The M3 GT4 could even be made street legal (or so I’ve been told), but such a thing would be utter nonsense. It is, however, a race car that non-pros could use on track days—one lucky driver in the U.S. bought one for just that purpose, I hear—or race in a national series where an appropriate venue exists.
The Z4 GT3, on the other hand, is a full-fledged racing machine, even if one Japanese customer ordered his with a 600-watt stereo and neon illumination for the rocker panels. Such strange requests notwithstanding, the car is a tool, an instrument you can use for serious racing. As such, it is rather good value for money, costing about the same to purchase as a competitive Ferrari or Porsche but quite a bit less to maintain. Plus, even guys like me can drive a Z4 GT3 rather successfully. Or so I think.
Seven laps later, my first stint is over and I head for the pits.
“That is sooo awesome!” I scream as Wendl opens the door.
Then, handing me his laptop, he points to the telemetry data on the screen: Dirk was seven seconds faster.
Wendl explains that the Z4 got a new and improved aero package at the beginning of 2011, one that requires a totally different driving style.
“It’s different from old-style racing. Before, when you were losing grip you knew you were going at the limit or too fast,” he says. “Now when you’re losing grip, you’re actually too slow. The higher speed increases the downforce on the car and you have better grip.”
For my second stint, I tell myself I’ll try it Stefan’s way. But then I don’t. Even after ten more laps in the Z4 GT3, I still don’t dare to try what pro driver Dirk Adorf can do with ease. This is a $400,000 car, and I don’t want to stuff it into a wall, or even the gravel.
Fight turns to flight after all.