Now More Than Ever

As BMW’s M cars get both faster and heavier, learning to drive them at the limit becomes more important than ever. For the best education available, we attend the Advanced M School at Virginia International Raceway.

Photo: Now More Than Ever 1
January 16, 2011

If one word could be said to define BMW’s current lineup, it would probably be “heavy.” It’s the biggest complaint the cars seem to generate these days, when even the latest M3—the company’s sportiest car—tips the scales at 3,704 lbs. despite a carbon fiber roof and countless other weight-saving features.

And while the cars have gotten heavier, their engines have become more powerful to compensate, which creates weight increases of its own. A more powerful engine is usually larger and heavier, and it demands a stouter chassis in return. In short, it’s an ever-increasing spiral that does more than take some of the fun out of driving: It also makes driving more dangerous, because errors can have greater consequences.

While some of that danger can be mitigated with electronic driving aids like Dynamic Stability Control—features that weren’t necessary back when an E30 M3 had 200 horsepower and weighed 2,800 lbs.—a better way to deal with it is to learn to control these fast, heavy cars at the limit, using the steering wheel, brakes and throttle. And the best place to do that, of course, isn’t the street but a closed course, under the guidance of professional instructors.

That’s the basic idea behind all of the programs put on by the BMW Performance Center in Spartanburg, South Carolina, which reach their zenith with the Advanced M Schools. These full-speed classes are held at Charlotte Motor Speedway and, more challenging still, Virginia International Raceway, where Bimmer joined a two-day school in September.

According to Performance Center instructors like Matt Mullins, who’s leading our two-day school, VIR is probably the closest thing we’ve got to the Nürburgring Nordschleife here in the U.S. Though it’s only 3.27 miles long and has just 17 numbered turns—a far cry from the Nordschleife’s 12.93 miles and 73+ turns—it taxes both car and driver like no other track in the country.

“It throws everything at the car—elevation, high speeds, really technical stuff, uphill, downhill,” says Matt Mullins, a lead instructor with the BMW Performance Center in Spartanburg, South Carolina. “That’s what makes it such a great track.”

Photo: Now More Than Ever 2

It’s also what makes VIR such a great place to master cars like the current M3s, M5s and M6s that the Performance Center crew has brought to the Advanced M School. I’ve driven these cars on many occasions at tracks both here in the U.S. and in Europe, though not on the Nürburgring, and nowhere did the experience compare with VIR. A natural road course that was laid out back in 1957, VIR’s unique combination of high speeds and technical challenge makes it both difficult to drive and insanely fun, especially during an Advanced M School.

Starting speed: Fast!

There are 11 other students in my class, all of whom have come up through the ladder of Performance Center driving programs. More than half have taken Advanced M Schools here at VIR already—one student is taking his fifth such course, another his seventh—and only a few of us are here for the first time.

As Mullins explains, the only real prerequisite to an Advanced M School at Charlotte or VIR is a one- or two-day M School at the Performance Center in Spartanburg, though not every student will be ready to proceed to the next level after that.

“If we felt that someone didn’t have the comfort level with driving at the Performance Center, or if they only did a one-day, we might say, ‘Hey, maybe you should come back and do a two-day M School first, because once we get to VIR, the speeds really increase,’” Mullins said. “At the Performance Center, you get up to about 100 mph. At VIR, we start at about 100 and it goes up from there.”

Indeed it does. We begin our two-day school by breaking the track into two sections, but even without running the full 3.27 miles all at once we’re still seeing speeds well in excess of 100 mph on our earliest runs down the long front straight. Speeds are slightly slower on the infield Patriot Course, and they’re lower still on the wet skid pad. Here, we’re practicing car control by driving with DSC fully off and prodding the car to go sideways with jabs of the throttle. The idea is to countersteer out of a slide before it turns into a spin, which could be catastrophic on the big course. VIR may be relatively safe for an older track, but it doesn’t meet FIA run-off standards by any stretch of the imagination.

Photo: Now More Than Ever 3

The skid pad is the only place in which we won’t be alone in the car but will have an instructor alongside; for all our laps of the main track, we’ll be running in groups of two or four behind one of six instructors. It’s a big change from BMW CCA and other driving schools that place an instructor in the passenger seat, and it’s both safer for the instructor and more fun for the student, at least in my opinion.

Having to follow an instructor around the track at ever-increasing speeds while he watches in his rear-view mirror and provides correction or encouragement over the radio ensures we get faster throughout the school. And having so many instructors—all of whom are professional racers as well as experienced, capable teachers—means that at least one is sure to provide the kind of communication each of us needs to make a big improvement.

What’s more, the “ladder” approach to Performance Center instruction guarantees that all 12 of us are carrying roughly the same speed, and even within our small groups we’re matched with students of comparable skill and experience to make sure no one gets bored or frustrated by the pace.

“In a club environment, you never know what you’re going to get, particularly with traffic on the track,” Mullins says. “You can get cars all over the place. Sometimes the quality of track time isn’t great on a club day and sometimes it’s awesome.”

The Performance Center programs, on the other hand, are designed to be consistently awesome, and not just because they have highly trained, well vetted instructors and superb organization. If any one thing can hold the key to a great track day, it would have to be the car itself, and here the Advanced M School has a big advantage: a full fleet of the latest M cars, provided by BMW for our thrashing pleasure.

We’ll be alternating between V8-powered M3s with Competition Package and V10-powered M5s and M6s, none of which has a clutch pedal—the M3s have M-DCT while the M5s and M6s have SMG—but all of which have fresh tires and brake pads. (Figure in the $1,200 cost of four ContiSport Contacts and the $200 you’d spend on a set of Original BMW brake pads, not to mention the cost of various post-school fluid changes, and the $4,500 tuition for an Advanced M School starts to look like a pretty good deal. Factor in what you don’t have to spend to own, insure and maintain your own M car and it becomes an absolute bargain.)

Photo: Now More Than Ever 4

While each of the cars has slightly different handling characteristics—the M3 is the twitchiest and requires the most precise inputs, the M5 is ultra-stable and the M6 is somewhere in the middle—all are quite powerful. The V8’s 414 hp or the V10’s 507 hp make it easy to reach impressive speeds, and VIR’s two straights put us well into fifth gear, touching around 150 mph. That wouldn’t have been possible in one of the older, less powerful M cars, but upping the speeds means upping the risk, as well.

“When the Performance Center opened in 1999, an M3 had 240 horsepower,” Mullins recalls. “Now we’re talking 555 in an X5 M or an X6 M, you’ve got some more M cars coming [the F10 M5—Ed.] that will be approaching 600. The driver can go faster and faster, so now when they have a problem they’re at a higher speed, and that makes it a bigger problem.”

As we already mentioned, so does additional weight, which increases a car’s velocity at any given speed and makes slowing down or changing direction more difficult. The Advanced M School emphasizes the need to control weight transfer front to rear under braking and acceleration and also from side to side during cornering, which is almost constant at VIR. Making its 17+ turns more challenging still, especially in such heavy cars, is the fact that few of those corners are taken in isolation. Instead, they’re usually part of a sequence, requiring the driver to connect one turn to the next in a fast, fluid motion that takes weight transfer into account with accuracy.

DSC: A double-edged sword

Most difficult in that regard is a section of track known as the “Fast Esses” that we enter at 120 mph in fifth gear, nailing the first turn-in precisely while lifting the throttle to shift weight onto the front wheels and help the car turn. Though DSC has been noticeably helpful in preventing wheelspin when exiting slow corners like Oak Tree, it won’t help us here if we make a big mistake. It’s both a blessing and a curse, a supremely useful technology that can also prevent us from really understanding the dynamics involved with driving at speed.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” says Mullins. “DSC can give people a false sense of security. If you’re not paying attention, you almost don’t feel the way the stability control can limit engine power just as you’re getting to the onset of wheelspin or just as the car starts to slide. You might think, ‘Man I just flew through that corner!’ maybe without having any idea how close to the limit you really are. And if you do feel traction control kick in, to some people that means you can throw it into a corner as hard as you want and these systems will fix everything. But if the speed’s high enough, you can throw anything off the road.”

Indeed, one student does throw an M5 off in the Fast Esses, coming to rest unharmed in the infield. I feel lucky it wasn’t me, having had a big “moment” there myself a few laps earlier. I’d neglected to lift for the first corner and went in way too hot, sending the car into a tail swap that fortunately came back before the car got totally out of control.

Photo: Now More Than Ever 5

Having 4,000 lbs. of Bavarian steel and aluminum suddenly moving in the wrong direction is attention-getting, to say the least, and it makes me glad for the high-speed driving instruction I’ve gotten here and at Charlotte, where I took an Advanced M School several years ago. Though I enjoyed the high banking a lot more than I thought I would, the track itself didn’t have as much to teach as VIR, which requires sustained concentration, careful car control and nerves of steel to keep pace with the Performance Center’s instructors…or my fellow students.

If their driving is any measure of the Performance Center method, I’d have to give it an A+, because these guys are really good drivers. When we finish with a race against the clock on the infield Patriot course, all but three are faster than I am, for which I credit not only their prior experience at VIR but also their repeated attendance at the Advanced M School. I’ve had a lot of instruction over the years, some of it alongside former F1 drivers, and this is without a doubt the best, most productive way to become a faster and safer driver.

“We’ve got the best track and arguably the best car, and if everybody’s doing everything right we run ‘em hard,” Mullins says. “The fun part for us is when you start getting dialed in, sometimes we’re driving hard, too. Sometimes we get guys driving so fast that we have to put the radio down, or you get hard on the brakes and it flies out of your hand. When you’re doing everything right, there’s nothing we have to say. Cool. Let’s keep going!”

And “going” at an advanced M School means going genuinely fast. By the end of day two, we’re cutting times around VIR that would serve us well in actual races, yet we’re doing it in stock M cars on street-legal tires.

“We’re fortunate to have cars that do what they’re supposed to do, but all the skills and all the stuff you learn here, this is not BMW-specific stuff,” Mullins explains. “This is fundamentals of car control that work in anything, because when you truly understand the limit of traction you can drive anything, whether it’s a UPS truck or a BMW. We’re teaching driving.”

For more on the Performance Center’s driving schools, including the Advanced M School, visit www.bmwusa.com and click on the “Experience” link, then “Performance Driving School.” Class descriptions and schedules can be found by clicking the “Schedule Yours” link in a box on the right side of the page, or by calling 888-345-4269.

Also from Issue 97

  • Sport sedan and daily driver: the 535i
  • First drive: the new X3
  • Totally trackable: the new M3 ZCP
  • This M3 is no stealth fighter!
  • Roy Wicklund's stunning 2002-S14
  • Left unbuilt: the 8 Series Convertible
  • Two of six IMSA CSLs in one place!
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