Follow by Email

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Driving BMW's championship M4 DTM race car, a missile with a mission


Driving the 2014 championship-winning BMW M4 DTM race car
“You won’t need the DRS today,” says a German mechanic fastening my six-point harness belts. “Nor the brake cooling system,” he continues, tugging on my crotch straps rather uncomfortably.

 “We’ll fire her up, then you go when we give you the word." I look at the spaceship-like steering wheel trying to remember the sequence: Clutch in, hold down the yellow neutral button, then select first gear by clicking the carbon fiber paddle. Got it.

“BRAAAAPPPPP,” goes the V-8. The
BMW M4 DTM race car bursts into life with the ferocity of a startled bear, and as I was imminently about to discover, it behaves unlike anything I’ve ever driven.

Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters, also known as the German Touring Car championship, has long been considered one of the most enthralling sports car series in the world, although it’s fair to say that in recent years the racing hasn’t been as good as it once was.

 That may have something to do with the heavy technology involved, ensuring overtaking is more difficult; while BMW’s racer may be an M4 by name, it’s as close to stock as a peregrine falcon is to a pigeon.

For German manufacturers
BMW, Audi and Mercedes, DTM is big business. Budgets are huge; their teams run with the diligence of a military operation. The carbon-fiber safety cells are identical for every DTM car, as mandated by the series.

 From that base, each manufacturer builds a bespoke race car designed for one thing: Beating the other Germans. You could compare it to NASCAR — if NASCAR actually let General Motors and Ford engineers build modern race cars instead of hobbling them with ancient technology for competition's sake.

And this year, BMW's car, driven by Marco Wittmann, was the fastest of them all.

I took a peek beneath the bodywork the night before my test drive, and what I discovered was a machine that looked more like a Formula One car than your typical Touring Car. As Top Gear’s photographer found out, BMW was incredibly guarded as to what resided under the skin, forcing him to delete roughly 500 pictures.
When I asked what components made it over from the production M4 into the race car, the engineer looked at me bemused: “Errr,” he pondered. “It looks a bit like it, I suppose,” he said after a while.
It doesn’t even have the same twin turbo inline-six engine. The naturally aspirated 4.0-liter V-8, code name P66, is restricted to 480 hp, consists of 4,000 parts and hits 62 mph in around 3 seconds. For a 2,447 lb. race car, that’s not all that quick, but then it’s not the power of a DTM car that shocks you – it’s the cornering ability.

Even the mirrors are perched upon what look like tiny rear wings. From every angle you notice downforce producing flaps and lips; it’s rumored that a DTM car at full speed creates enough downforce — north of 2,000 lbs. — to drive on the ceiling.

And what that means is it does things a roofed car has no business doing. In fact, it grips more like a purpose-built prototype — which is basically what it is, except with a familiar shell.

A small handful of journalists from around the world were allowed to sample the DTM, but only those with extensive race experience.
We were to have three timed laps followed by a further four timed laps; given I didn’t know the Monteblanco racetrack in the south of Spain at all, and that we weren’t offered a chance to drive another car on it before venturing out in the DTM, that wasn’t a lot of time.
 After our runs, we'd compare our data with Marco Wittmann. Pushing hard, then, was a given — but not hard enough to risk wadding up a million-dollar piece of BMW machinery.

Having driven an Audi R8 GT3 race car just days before, the power and torque was a bit underwhelming (DTM teams are only allowed two engines a year, per car, so reliability is the focus). But then you hit the carbon brakes and the world you know changes.

They need a lap to warm up, during which you have no brakes at all. Once heated, around 60 lbs. of brake pressure is required to utilize them properly. If you comply, the rate at which it sheds speed is spectacular; turn 1 is a second gear, 40 mph hairpin, and you enter around 155 mph in sixth gear.
 First you see the 300-feet board, which you completely ignore. Then you see the 200, and you start merely contemplating the upcoming bend. At 100 feet? Nope, keep going, to around 90 feet, where in a brief second your insides try to burst out of your throat. (Just look at my head in the video, you can see the incredible force under braking — something like 3g’s worth.)
Then you have the cornering load, which is simply spectacular. On tight turns, the car has too much understeer, which is something the team has been plagued with all season long (the product of a front-engined, rear-wheel-drive layout perhaps?)
On power down, traction can get a bit squirmy, especially on some of the bumpier, slower sections. In fact, the whole Monteblanco circuit is lined with bumps, accentuating the DTM's rock-hard platform.
Curbs aren’t very usable. Bouncing around in the cockpit feels somewhat frantic, but the car is approachable and easy to drive, helping me get comfortable.
After a mere three laps, I’m in the pits looking at data hung from an F1-like computer screen within the car, and chatting to the champ Wittmann, about what I’m feeling. The time difference between the two of us is clear, and expected. Brake later, and trust the immense downforce in the high-speed sections.

Back out I go feeling like at least I now know which way the track goes. Four laps go by quickly as I start to push and feel good. I carry more speed than I dare into the fast turn 8, a 90-degree right bend that you’d swear requires a brake and a downshift.
 In most other race cars, it would, but in the DTM you simply release the throttle fractionally in fourth gear, well north of 100 mph, turn in, squeeze the throttle back down and hang on. The car sucks to the tarmac as if it's the world's most powerful Dyson. It sticks, and you sail off into the following turn with barely a second to catch your breath. Repeat. And then repeat again.

The only cars I’ve driven to behave like this are open wheel formula cars; the grip level is reminiscent of a modern IndyCar, which when you think about it, is utterly unreal.
 Had I have been racing in DTM, I could depress the DRS button on the wheel to crank the rear wing back a further 15-degrees for more top speed, or deploy cooling fluids onto the brakes if they begin to overheat. IndyCars don’t even have power steering.

So the M4 DTM is something very special, and despite years of racing open wheel cars, testing a Formula One car and racing sports cars, nothing has amazed me quite like this; it looks like a variant on a production vehicle, and yet it drives like a less powerful F1 car with a roof.

I pull into the pits, climb out and try to conceal the ginormous grin on my face as I head over to the data table. I’m a professional, don’t you know, but my nonchalant approach doesn’t work, as I can’t help but smile like a teenage boy watching Baywatch for the first time.
 Looking at the array of laptops on display, my second run has improved dramatically. I’m braking late and carrying tons of entry speed. I’m carrying too much down to apex, in fact, and giving up time on the exit.
 And I'm still not using all the downforce available in the high speed corners. All in all, on older tires, I'm told I got within 1.3 seconds of Wittman’s best time on new rubber. My secret aim was to sneak within 1.5 seconds, so I'm quite pleased with that.
I want more time in the car, to chisel that deficit down further. But alas, the next man in line awaits. I wasn’t even allowed to take home a print-out of my data for further evaluation — such is the secrecy that BMW guards their technology. I guess that’s why they’re the champs.