Winning from the start

After a two-year wait, the M235i Racing has finally found a North American home in Pirelli World Challenge, and it’s already winning races with Classic BMW and Toby Grahovec.

Photo: Winning from the start 1
September 1, 2016

Two years after the M235i Racing was introduced to the U.S. media—and two years after it started competing in its own class within Germany’s VLN endurance series—the car is finally being sold by BMW Motorsport in North America. It’s an exciting development: For the first time ever, racing teams can purchase a Motorsport-built customer race car by simply walking into one of ten BMW Motorsport dealerships in the U.S. and placing an order for one of 50 M235i Racing cars available in this market.

A pair of BMW Motorsport-built M235i Racings are competing in the Pirelli World Challenge this year, entered by Classic BMW of Plano, Texas, and they’re already winning races. As the lengthy interval between the car’s introduction and its U.S. racing debut suggests, finding a series in which it could race competitively wasn’t easy.

“There’s been a lot of back and forth about bringing the M235iR here because we’ve never done it before,” says Victor Leleu, BMW of North America’s motorsport manager. ”It was a complex process, and we had to learn a lot along the way. We didn’t want to do a spec series for a variety of reasons and didn’t know where the landing point may be. For a while, we thought about it as a track day car and club racer, but then the opportunity came up with PWC and it was too good to miss.”

So was the opportunity to go racing with Classic BMW. After opening for business back in 1971, the Plano, Texas BMW dealership started racing in 1972, campaigning the 2002 in SCCA competition. More recently, Classic BMW has been racing Z4s in everything from SCCA to the Continental Challenge series; not surprisingly, it’s also one of the ten BMW Motorsport dealers in North America. (The others are BMW of Murietta, CA; Global Imports of Atlanta, GA; Laurel BMW of Westmont, IL; Isringhausen BMW of Springfield, IL; BMW of Stratham, NH; BMW of Cleveland in Solon, OH; Bobby Rahal BMW of Canonsburg, PA; and Rick Hendrick Imports of Charleston, SC.)

Classic BMW’s motorsport activities are managed by Toby Grahovec, who started driving for the team in 2005 and races the #26 M235iR alongside Gino Carini in the #27.

Photo: Winning from the start 2

“We’ve been asking BMW to bring the M235iR to the U.S. since it was announced,” says Grahovec. “Once we knew they were bringing it here, we decided that the PWC Touring Car class would be the best place to race it, so we started working on PWC to get them to accept the car.”

Making it work in PWC

The M235iR is based very closely on the M235i road car, and it uses the 3.0-liter N55 six-cylinder engine unchanged but for a more robust wet sump oiling system. It also uses the stock 8HP45 automatic transmission, with software modified to facilitate faster shifts. Suspension is by KW, and brakes are comprised of Performance Friction calipers and pads up front and stock M235i brake components at the rear.

To race the M235iR in the PWC’s Touring Car (TC) class, Motorsport had to reduce the engine’s output by around 30 hp from the stock 320 hp at 5,800-6,000 rpm to put it on par with the competition; a boost sensor is used to check engine data and power output. The PWC also requires the use of the Motorsport-built rear wing, a Motec data acquisition system, a caution light system, a triangle window net and a battery cover—all relatively minor changes.

The car made its official PWC debut in February at the pre-season Balance of Performance test at Circuit of the Americas (COTA) in Austin, Texas. BMW Team RLL driver Kuno Wittmer performed the driving duties, using an M235iR owned by BMW NA. (Classic BMW’s two cars wouldn’t arrive until about ten days before the first PWC race at COTA in March.)

Photo: Winning from the start 3

The results of that test led PWC to detune the N55’s power output to give it parity with other Touring Class cars like the Honda Accord V6 Coupe, Mazda MX-5, Lotus Exige and Nissan 370Z. At a minimum weight of 3,375 lbs. (with driver), the M235iR is the heaviest car in the class, weighing 325 lbs. more than the Honda, 750 lbs. more than the Mazda and 975 lbs. more than the Lotus.

Once the specs were sorted, it was time to go racing in earnest, and the M235iR made a sterling debut in Pirelli World Challenge. The PWC format includes two races over the course of a weekend, each under an hour in length and with no driver changes or pit stops required.

At COTA, Grahovec qualified second on the grid and finished the first race as runner-up, then won the second of two sprint races that weekend.

“I knew the car would be competitive and was hoping we’d be in the top five at COTA, but to be on the top step on the first race weekend was pretty exciting!” Grahovec says.

The TC cars didn’t race with the PWC at St. Petersburg, Long Beach or Barber, so Grahovec and Classic BMW had two months to wait before the next event at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park in Ontario. Despite the layoff, Grahovec picked up right where he left off, qualifying third and finishing second in the first race before winning the second to give his M235iR four podiums and two wins in the first four races.

Photo: Winning from the start 4

Impressive from the driver’s seat

Needless to say, Grahovec is impressed with his M235i Racing.

“The M235iR is very good in high-speed corners and it’s really good under braking,” he says. “I’ve also been especially impressed with the automatic transmission. Usually when you’re driving a street car with an automatic the downshifts in particular are delayed, but they’re really quick in the M235iR. I was also surprised at how quickly the car was able to adapt to the Pirelli tires. We started with the baseline setup and tweaked it to make it work with the rear wing and we were able to get it where we wanted it pretty quickly.”

With rear-wheel drive and an automatic transmission, the M235iR also has an advantage in standing starts over the predominantly front-drive, manual-gearbox competition in the TC class.

Gino Carini has also been impressed with the M235iR, though he’s still coming to grips with the tracks and the car in his second PWC season following years of club racing.

Photo: Winning from the start 5

“The car is phenomenal. It’s so well balanced,” he says. “I’ve raced a lot of other cars over the years, and the M235iR gives me the most confidence I’ve ever had in a car. CTMP is a very difficult track to learn, but I picked up ten seconds from my first session here to my last session before the race. In turns 8-9-10 at CTMP coming off the back straight, it’s all about braking late and settling the car, and you can tell instantly with this car if you do it right because it just flows right through there.”

The third race weekend of the PWC season was held at Connecticut’s Lime Rock Park, which favored the lighter cars in the TC class. Grahovec qualified fifth and finished fourth in both races; filling in for Carini, John Roberts finished eighth and sixth.

At Road America in late June, Grahovec finished second in both races, while Carini had his best finish of the season with a tenth place. They were joined by a third M235iR, the #05 raced by Max Fedler for Summit of Everest Motorsports (with support from Classic BMW) to ninth in the first race and seventh in the second.

On the strength of six podiums and two wins in the first eight races, Grahovec topped the TC class driver points standings after Road America, while Classic BMW led the team championship and BMW was ahead of Honda in the manufacturer’s chase.

Race ’em if you got ’em!

Photo: Winning from the start 6

At press time, the TC cars have just three race weekends left at Utah, Sonoma and Laguna Seca. (Only the GT class will race at Mid-Ohio.) The championship looks set to be a hard-fought battle, though the M235iR should be well suited to the remaining tracks. Classic BMW has more cars on order for another team, and they should join the grid in time for the Laguna Seca finale, if not earlier.

Next year, those cars will likely be joined by an M235iR in the familiar yellow-and-blue livery of Turner Motorsport, which is considering running as many as three cars next year. TMS has won Pirelli World Challenge titles with its E36 and E46 racers, and the team would love to add another with the M235iR.

That’s exactly what BMW has in mind. While BMW NA is willing to sell some of the 50 cars to buyers who plan nothing more than track days, motorsport manager Leleu would prefer to see them raced competitively.

“Working with factory-built customer race cars, we want to make sure we can help our teams but also get exposure and visibility to continue to develop our program,” says Leleu. “PWC is the only series in the world where this car is actually racing against other cars and not just itself, and that’s very exciting to me.”

To facilitate that, BMW NA has a support engineer on hand at PWC races, and it’s building up a spare parts supply at its distribution centers. BMW NA is also offering a contingency program in PWC similar to that offered in the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge—which itself might see a few M235iR entries in the future. BimmerWorld and several other teams already compete in the Continental Challenge’s Street Tuner class with the F30 328i and 2 Series, but right now the M235i Racing doesn’t quite fit the rules in this IMSA-sanctioned endurance series.

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“We’ve been a long-time partner of IMSA and I’d like nothing more than to see the M235iR eligible in the Continental series,” says Leleu. “In the current format, it’s kind of stuck between the two classes, but as IMSA is thinking about how things may evolve, I certainly hope a product like this has a place.”

The future of production-class racing?

For 2017, IMSA is evaluating a new production-based TCR platform like that used in Europe this year, and which might see customer race cars like the M235iR being joined by those built by other manufacturers.

“I think we’re going to see more factory-built race cars,” Leleu says, “because modern cars are getting so complex that it’s very difficult to turn a street car into a race car.”

BMW Motorsport certainly did so successfully with the M235i Racing. The day before the PWC race at Lime Rock, I rode alongside Grahovec in the #26 Classic BMW entry, and the car is highly entertaining from the passenger seat. It feels like it has high level of lateral grip and predictable handling, while the automatic transmission seems to shift just as quickly as the M-Double Clutch Transmission in the M3/M4.

Grahovec was setting one-minute laps while I rode in the passenger seat, just a couple of seconds off his race pace. He was making only small adjustments with the steering wheel and throttle to correct the car when needed, which seemed to be very little considering his cornering speeds.

Getting a ride with Grahovec really made me want to try an M235iR for myself. It’s a fantastic car, and we can’t wait to see more of them on North American tracks soon.

Drivers and teams interested in racing an M235iR can order one from any of North America’s ten BMW Motorsport dealers. A race-ready car retails for $89,800; those who want to compete in PWC will also need to purchase the kit needed to make the car legal in that series.

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