Working With The Car


Chris drives the M3 on the same tarmac that Prodrive shakedown their GT and rally cars, and learns more than he expects from the best of BMW.

In a former life I used to write about mountain bikes, specifically bikes designed for a subset of mountain biking called 'trials', where riders use balance, strength and precision to make their way over and across obstacles. These bikes were used by the likes of Hans Rey, Martyn Ashton and more recently a Scots lad you may have heard of by the name of Danny MacAskill. Some of them were super-specific machines designed purely for competition, others were simply small mountain bikes fitted with tough wheels and strong brakes and sold as ‘Trial’ models.

I’d come from converted mountain bikes as specialised parts were hard to come by, and full bikes were quite expensive. I was also never a hugely talented rider, but that never stopped me trying, learning and having fun. One day a box arrived from an American company I’d heard about, and I pulled out a bike to review. It was the Brisa B26, and I was amazed by how it changed my riding. Even as an amateur rider, a top level bike helped me, and gave me better feedback to help me improve more.

This was partly what influenced me when I moved up 200bhp from my old Focus to the M3. It’s not power, it’s about the feedback the car gives you, even if you’re accelerating more gingerly, turning slower and braking early.  Immediately I had a car with which I could explore my limits well before approaching those of the car. I did a few track days, braked later, accelerated harder, and had a lot of fun. The idea of the car moving under me was terrifying, though, and I rather did everything wrong. I was happy at low speeds on the Oulton Park drift circuit, but the most minor shake of the hips at Bedford had me panicked, my whole upper body going tense and – as Martin Brundle rather magnificiently puts it – taking a bite out the seat.

Thanks to BMW’s supply chain, my car has a number of parts that were also on the CSL and CS, and hence my car has the M-Track 'bit of slip' mode available on the DSC. A mild winter, summer tyres and the reassuring electronic hand have all helped getting a sense of that first bit of slip. Then I got an invitation to join Mission Motorsport on a driver training day at Prodrive’s test track.

First order of the day was high speed lapping of the same circuit they use to shakedown their GT cars. It’s a fun mix of high speed corners, and a tight noodly bit with enough track width and compound corners to make finding the right line a good challenge. The bottom complex involves a fourth gear right hander, then down to third for a left which becomes the braking zone for a second gear hairpin right. I started to notice when I’d got the first turn in spot on; the front axle feeling planted instead of ever so slightly light and hesitant if I was too early or carrying too much speed. I then tried trail braking in and I just got the slightest sense of the back going light. Was it real? Was it me feeling what I thought I should feel rather than something that was actually there? I don’t know.

Down into the hairpin, turning and braking and down shifting all at once – if somewhat clumsily – and turned in with half of a turn of lock. The front felt good, the chassis loaded up, and I gave it some gas. The back came round, I steered into it, didn’t lift, gathered it up and off I went.

It felt, well, easy. Not lucky, not a fumble of arms and a tankslapper, just easy. Next lap I did it again. The lap after that I got a bit too carried away, and did have a rather ungainly fishtail. I kicked myself at this point that I’d decided against having a GoPro in the car, but still I was surprised.

The last sequence of corners was an inviting second or third gear chicane with an open entry, a surprisingly tight change of direction before a sweeping, opening right hander leading onto a straight. With a helping hand to really let the car run on the exit, I was going through in third with the acceleration on the exit letting the engine come on song at the corner exit without any drama. Once I found this, I started chasing the throttle earlier and harder knowing that being lower in the rev range would keep things in control and catapult me forward once the steering was mostly wound off.

I could feel the load coming off the chassis, and then the engine coming on song. On the last lap though I maybe got on the throttle earlier, or held a slightly different line, and felt the rear wheels just start to spin up a little. The car didn’t go sideways or any other such drama, it didn’t need a steering correction, but I knew it happened, and that was eye opening.

With the slightly wider Michelin Pilot Super Sport tyres it now wears, the M3 can be rather blunt at normal road speeds but with a track or open road and speed I feel like I’m starting to get a glimpse of both what the car can do, and what it’s like to really drive it. To have that sense of the state of the car, the loadings, the engine response, and being able to anticipate what effect my inputs will have on the car. It’s a series of little glimpses, each its own little revelation. I’m still rather hamfisted behind the wheel, and the M3 shows its bulk when you try and hustle it through the slow stuff, but given a chance it’s not just fast, but a friendly, helpful car to help me become a better driver.

The afternoon was super slippy skid pan driving, both on a wetted loop and on a low grip straight. Having spent the morning in new territory it was actually quite relaxing to go back to slow speed driving I've written about previously and is a great reminder of what effects a little throttle and a lot of mass have when there is no grip. One day I will go back and conquer the loop, but all I could think of on the way home were those fleeting moments where I could feel, and manipulate, what the car was doing. As quick as they came, they went, and I now think I'll be chasing those moments for a long time to come.