By Jackie Jouret, with additional reporting by Emma Buchko
When you build a house, you start by laying the foundation. If it’s done correctly, the building itself stands a good chance of being stable, level and plumb, providing reliable shelter for a good long time.
When you learn to drive, the foundation is equally important, yet most of us start out with minimal instruction that’s often flawed, misinforming us about things as basic as where to put our hands on the steering wheel, and the problems cascade from there.
Fortunately, there’s a corrective: BMW Driver Training. From its beginnings in Germany in 1976, BMW Driver Training has been helping drivers become safer and more competent behind the wheel.
BMW Driver Training has evolved into a series of programs that increase in speed and difficulty as the student progresses through the curriculum. As the first course in that progression, the Car Control Clinic lays the foundation for all that follows, right up to the Advanced M School. Each course builds upon the last, increasing in complexity as well as speed until the driver is capable of tackling a complex course like the Nürburgring Nordschleife. If that’s your goal, it pays to start at the beginning: learning the basics at a Car Control Clinic held at either of the two BMW Performance Centers (Spartanburg, SC or Thermal, CA).
Triple-digit tarmac in Thermal
So what’s a Car Control Clinic? To find out, we braved triple-digit desert temperatures to attend a two-day, $1,550 Clinic at the BMW Performance Center West at Thermal, California. As it turns out, it’s a series of exercises that resemble sections of autocross, plus skid pad work and some really fun short-course lapping. It’s even got a bit of racing, too, though students compete against the clock rather than head-to-head.
Like all Performance Center schools, it starts with a short classroom session that covers the basics of getting through a corner by identifying its turn-in point, apex and track-out point. There’s a bit of discussion about weight transfer and traction, but not as much as you’ll find in an M School, where the higher speeds of a full-length racetrack will make that information invaluable.
Before we set off, we’re instructed on how to set the seat and steering wheel for optimal control, with the seat base close enough to the pedals to allow for a good bend in the knee, the seat back upright and the steering wheel positioned to allow the driver to put his or her hands at 9 and 3 o’clock and turn it 180 degrees in either direction without straining.
Yes, that’s pretty basic, but starting with the fundamentals is essential to proper car control, and it’s something the Performance Center instructors say a lot of students have never learned.
“A lot of times the wrong hand positions have been taught,” says Chris Hill, our instructor. “Those basic, fundamental things are unfortunately lacking in a lot of driver education these days. It’s something that we do see missing when we start out.”
The first exercise, a cone slalom, reinforces the need for proper hand position if we’re to change direction quickly and accurately without hitting any cones. It also demonstrates the need to keep our eyes up and looking ahead, one of the basic principles of safe driving.
“Vision is one of the biggest things that we teach in this school,” Hill says. “The first time people go through the slalom, we tend to see that the vision is too close, not really focused at the right spots.”
We also learn an interesting fact about speed and braking distance: Doubling the speed doesn’t double the braking distance. It nearly quadruples it. That’s basic physics, and we experience it ourselves on the course.
As with hand position in the slalom, the braking exercise reinforces the need to be seated correctly behind the wheel.
“If students didn’t have their seat positioned quite right and they try to do something like the braking exercise, and they can’t reach the brake well enough to brake at maximum, they find out very quickly why that doesn’t work,” Hill says. “Likewise, if their hands are not quite in the right spot and they hit a cone, they usually realize, ‘Oh, if I put my hands in the right spot, it makes a difference.’”
When to brake hard…and when not to
After maximum braking, we move on to an exercise in which we don’t brake at all: a lane change maneuver that we have to execute at ever-increasing speeds.
“Most drivers will respond to an emergency with sudden braking, but there are times when it may be the last thing a driver would want to do,” says Daniel Gubitosa, manager of the BMW Performance Centers. “Sometimes immediate, aggressive steering, without braking, is required, but people are reluctant to do this, afraid they’ll lose control or roll over.”
The space we have to execute the lane change is pretty small, and since it doesn’t get bigger as speeds increase our inputs need to get sharper and quicker. Even if you’re used to a BMW’s quick responses, it’s still pretty cool to learn how well they change direction, not to mention how quickly we as drivers can react in an emergency.
“Looking where you want to go is paramount,” Gubitosa explains, “but understanding what causes loss of traction and which tires are affected—front? back? all four?—is necessary so the appropriate response is implemented and car control is maintained. While ‘steering into a skid’ is an accurate cliché, it’s just the tip of the iceberg and frequently misunderstood.”
After slipping and sliding and spinning our way around the skid pad, we head to the Performance Center’s racetrack to bring it all together, applying what we’ve learned to get around the course as quickly as possible. That means we’ll be racing against the clock to improve our times over many laps, and of course to see who’s fastest.
“We want students to bring all their skills together and to do it under some real-world scrutiny and pressure—safely,” Gubitosa says. “Adrenaline can change everything, and it’s something virtually all students enjoy. They’re not necessarily racing each other but challenging the course and the clock to measure and test their own improvement and further practice car control.”
Adding challenge and complexity
On Day Two, we’ll go through a similar set of exercises, but this time they’ll become more complex. Instead of just braking to the max in a straight line, now we’re doing so in a corner, and from ever-higher speeds. The slalom is a now a two-way challenge that requires us to turn around inside a really tight, decreasing radius circle; it’s a great way to learn how to enter a corner slow in order to exit fast. We also have to stop inside a box at the end—while turning—and to make it even more challenging we’re racing against the clock.
The lane-change maneuver now forces us to change lanes not once but twice, left and right, still within a coned-off box that’s not much larger than the M235i itself. As well as encouraging rapid, precise steering inputs, it’s a great tool for learning to keep our eyes up and moving to avoid target fixation.
We’ll be running the skid pad in the opposite direction, going clockwise instead of counterclockwise, and using it to explore corrective inputs for both understeer and oversteer. We’re also trying to drift around the pad for a full lap or more, which turns out to be far more difficult in this direction than when going counterclockwise.
“Repetition under skilled instruction is necessary when learning any new skill, especially under intimidating circumstances,” Gubitosa says. “Very often, breaking old habits is harder than learning new skills, and the more practice the better.”
Repetition with added complexity isn’t restricted to the cone course. We’re also going to repeat yesterday’s race against the clock on the racetrack, but this time we’re going to run it backwards, requiring us to find new braking points as well as a new line through every corner. It’s good fun, but driving hard for two solid days is exhausting.
We’re not done yet, however. As a bonus, we get to swap our M235i coupes for a fleet of M cars: an X5 M, M6, M4 and—hooray!—an M2. This “BMW buffet” is really cool. I’ve driven all these cars before, but never back to back on the same piece of racetrack, and it’s interesting to see how well each car handles the course. As always, the X5 M proves surprisingly agile, and the M6 with Competition Package is seriously fast if a bit heavy. I love its carbon-ceramic brakes, and they’re also present on the M4 though not the M2. The smallest M car is fun to drive, but the M4 feels a lot more exotic, and it’s also quite a bit faster.
Building safer drivers
The cars themselves, however, are really secondary to the skills we’re learning behind the wheel. I wish I’d had the benefit of this instruction before I attended one of the Performance Center’s M schools. For editorial reasons—we’d already run a story by another author on the basic M School—I started with the Advanced M School at Charlotte followed by another at VIR. Now, after completing the Car Control Clinic, I know I’d have had more fun in both of those if I’d laid the proper foundation.
Performance Center instructor Mike Renner agrees. “We do typically find that participants who’ve done the Car Control schools have better results in the M schools than those who’ve not had prior training.
“In fact, it’s very common to notice a significant increase in ability on the second day of the two-day Car Control Clinic. One of the biggest areas of improvement we see is through increased confidence in maneuvering the car and realizing the car has greater potential to brake, stop, turn and go than most people previously expected. Proper vision is one of the most important elements of driving a car well, and we see that training carried over to the M schools, too. It’s one of the most difficult things to train people to do, and it’s something that the majority of drivers struggle with.”
And safety on public roads, after all, is the goal of these schools, more so than training students to be fast on the racetrack.
“Honestly, if a student leaves here a safer, better driver, that’s what I’m trying to achieve when all is said and done,” says instructor Chris Hill. “If I see somebody who started with habits that would have led to some problems, maybe even some accidents, by the end those habits are either gone or moving in that direction, I feel like I’ve impacted someone’s life, which is rewarding. I wish everybody could come through these programs.”
The Ultimate Test Drive, for just $299!
Want to drive an M car, or any new BMW? Unless you have a friend who’ll let you drive theirs, that’s hard to do without buying one. Test drives are pretty much a thing of the past, and you won’t know what that car is really like until it’s already yours.
Unless, that is, you sign up for the Performance Center Drive, which puts you behind the wheel of five or six different BMWs, including several M cars, then lets you spend all morning driving them on the track, as fast as you can, for just $299. How cool is that?
Very, as we found out when we joined about 20 other enthusiasts for a PCD at Thermal this summer.
“The idea was to provide a ‘teaser’ drive and couple that with a factory tour for those guests who were in Spartanburg for a short trip or spur of the moment activity,” says Performance Centers Manager Daniel Gubitosa.
“We choose as many BMW models as possible to expose people to the wide range of offerings: price as well as performance,” Gubitosa says.
Our group spent the morning driving the M3, M4, X5 M, M5, M6 Gran Coupe with Competition Package and the M235i, which gave us an interesting perspective on the various M cars as well as the difference between the true M cars and the mid-level M235i from M Performance. As good as the M235i may be, you can really feel the extra sharpness of the M cars’ responses when you drive them back-to-back—especially if you forget to switch the M235i’s suspension into Sport mode before setting off.
At Thermal, the cars are driven on a short section of track, and a complete lap takes about 30 seconds. It’s got a straight section that allows you to max out acceleration in second gear, maybe shifting into third, and which concludes in a 90-degree right hander that gives the brakes a good workout. (It also demonstrates the superior performance of the carbon-ceramic stoppers fitted to some of the cars, if anyone is on the fence about spending the extra dollars for that option.)
After the straight, the track is twisty but flowing, allowing drivers to get a great sense of the cars’ steering precision as well as their ability to change direction and carry cornering speed. You won’t get out of second or third gear, but you can still go pretty fast, and you can test the car to the limit of your ability without being held back by the instructors.
“You can push the vehicle a bit more than on the street,” Gubitosa says. “We want to show off all of BMW’s attributes, which of course is its superior performance.”
“Our highly experienced instructors ensure that the track is kept safe and monitor driver performance,” Gubitosa says. “Keep in mind that although the track does not have a speed limit, a vehicle can only go so fast on the twists and turns on the track. We also emphasize performance over speed.”
Well, at least until the end, when participants are put into identical M3s and given a chance to race against the clock. The prize is only a small trophy, but it’s good fun, and who doesn’t want to win whenever bragging rights are at stake?
“Everyone loves a little competition,” Gubitosa says. “They will always remember their time and talk about it for many years to come. That’s the same for every program we do.”
True, but we suspect that few would forget their morning at the Performance Center even without the competition. Getting behind the wheel of a BMW can turn idle curiosity into passion, and Gubitosa say the program does result in sales—of cars as well as more classes at the Performance Center.
We’re not surprised. Once you’ve had a taste, you wind up wanting a lot more! —Jackie Jouret