I’M FLYING down the hill from Redgate corner at Donington Park circuit in a BMW M4, rain lashing the windscreen and making the asphalt beneath me treacherously slippery. “Keep right until the last minute before the left-hander,” my passenger – an experienced racing driver – tells me, “then turn in late – avoid the apex, keep wide, and trust the car will find grip.”
It’s a breathless moment as I follow the instructions, the road falling away from me through Cramer Curves, with the car feeling light and dancing on the edge of adhesion at 90mph. Sure enough, though, the tyres do find grip on the outside of the corner – enough for another dab of throttle before the Old Hairpin. “That’s it – power, power! And brake!”
I stand on the brakes and the M4’s dash lights up with warnings momentarily, while the ABS and stability control system work to keep the car pointing straight, before easing off and aiming the nose into the right-hander. The car glides through majestically, sliding to the outside and giving me a little twitch from the back end as I get back on the gas, the car feeling newly-weighted as the track rises up from the dip.
That sequence of corners, in that car, will remain with me for all time, I suspect. It’s a rollercoaster, except you’re in control.
BMW M track experience: what to expect
I’m at Donington ahead of the final round of the 2020 British Touring Car Championship to see if I have what it takes to impress Colin Turkington (main picture), the four-times champion looking to make it title number five this weekend with Team BMW.
The MSV BMW Masters of Performance driving experience involves a full morning of instruction in a variety of BMW M cars – an M2 Competition, M4 and M5 Competition – with plenty of track time on one of MSV’s UK circuits, plus skills-based exercises, including slalom and drifting. A highlight is a passenger ride beside a pro driver in a BMW M240i racing car.
My M4 instructor, Steve, was one of the most enthusiastic men on the planet. He’d cut his teeth in karting before moving to South Africa for a season in Formula Ford, then ended up staying out there for 17 years as a professional racing driver. His passion and zeal were infectious, and his confidence in me allowed me to push myself – and the car – to the limits around Donington.
Steve is just one of a team of pros at the BMW experience, with as many staff and instructors as there are customers; a symptom of the current coronavirus pandemic – normally there would be 30 guests per group but numbers have been cut in half, for health and safety reasons.
There were to be two sessions that day – ours in the morning followed another group of 15 after lunch – and our band of brothers (and a few sisters) was split into three groups, with each taking on an activity then rotating to the next.
What’s it like to drive a BMW M car on track?
After a briefing I’m put in Black Group and we’re led to a pit garage, then issued with gloves and a helmet and shown around a BMW M5, an eight-cylinder, 616bhp monster saloon.
“Try it with all the driver aids on first,” we’re told, “then when I say so over the radio, try pressing the M1 button on the steering wheel – that’ll give you the full beans.”
Then it’s straight to our cars and out on track – driving solo, following the instructor. They say it takes a Formula One driver one lap to learn a circuit, then a few more to master it. For mere mortals like myself, it would take a lot longer, but this was a good start. Like a chick getting its first flying lesson by being shoved out of the nest.
Fortunately the M5 with all the driver aids engaged is amazingly easy to drive fast, even in the wet. Even with such a powerful motor under its bonnet, thanks to four-wheel-drive, an electronic differential and one of the best stability control packages I’ve ever experienced, it’s hard to over-drive the M5 and get it out of shape, or end up facing the wrong way. At the same time it’s never dull, with rear-biased power making it possible to get a touch of controlled oversteer around most corners, especially in such inclement conditions.
Then we get the instruction to press M1, if we feel comfortable, which sharpens the handling and throttle response, switches to a firmer damping setting and allows much more wheelspin. The difference is big – you need have have your wits about you – but the confidence in the car is still there.
“When I say so over the radio, press the M1 button – that’ll give you the full beans”
You get a good spell in the M5 but after six or so laps, it was time to come back into the pits and switch to an M2 Competition, the Munich car maker’s most affordable way into the M car range. It’s fitted with silky-smooth but potent 404bhp 3.0-litre straight six-cylinder engine, with power going to the rear wheels.
The difference in the character of the cars was stark – the shorter, lighter M2 much twitchier than the M5, and in wet conditions it’s easy to get things wrong.
Most of my group preferred the M2’s more visceral nature – it’s lithe in a true sports car sense – though I found wringing the neck of the M5 much more enjoyable than the eyes-on-stalks experience in the M2.
The instructors don’t hang around, and just keeping the thing pointing in the right direction while holding onto the back of the lead car resulting in more than one twitchy-bum moment.
But the experience set me up beautifully for some time in the M4. Again, the M4 is rear-wheel-drive, and it has even more power than the M2, with its twin-turbocharged 3-litre powerplant producing 503bhp. But its longer wheelbase, chassis set-up and adaptive suspension add a huge amount to the stability at speed. It’s still a challenging car to drive on the limit but there’s much more finesse to the handling, and the balance of the car is pitch-perfect.
This session was also easily the highlight of the day thanks to the fact that you have your own instructor sitting next to you. Steve was a fantastic mentor: patient, encouraging, confidence-inspiring. He seemed to have more faith in my ability than I did, and spent most of the session just telling me to “Go for it!”
As it was wet, he said we’d be learning the best lines together, searching the track for the best grip – when it’s wet, the racing line is not always fastest due to the fact that it’s covered in rubber. You have to hunt around; try it here and there, and sniff out the areas where you get the best traction. All the time, Steve was guiding me – “Try it out wide”, then, on the next lap, “OK, this time cut the corner as much as you can.” We were a team, searching for the ideal lap.
After seven tours we came into the pits, but rather than try something else, Steve took me to a laptop where we analysed the data from the car. I could see where I’d been accelerating, where I’d been braking and which sectors of the lap were fastest. A video feed showed my line through a particular sector, meaning I could piece together an ideal lap in my head. Then we went out again for another seven laps.
My fastest of the session can be seen below – the unconventional lines showing just how treacherous it was out there. It was my penultimate lap, with almost all my lap times getting quicker across the two sessions – testament to the quality of instruction. Steve even told me he was proud of me, which made me feel all warm and tingly.
How to drift a BMW M car
Between the sessions on track we were treated to a spot of drifting around some cones, with scores awarded for ability to keep the car sliding around some cones without spinning or hitting the markers.
Early attempts resulted in both oversteer and understeer, but when you get the car hooked up just right, balancing the throttle and steering to hold a drift, it’s a great feeling. Normally this sort of loutish behaving in car parks will attract the attention of the law – on a BMW Experience it’s encouraged.
The slalom was also fun, with guests encouraged to try out the various levels of driver assistance systems. Of course, it’s best to turn most of them off, which allows you to spin the car back round at the far end of the course for a quick return through the cones and over the finish line. It’s timed, though we weren’t told how fast we’d gone – prizes would be awarded later. (I didn’t win.)
A final skills run involved an “elk test” – a sharp left-right or right-left, as if an elk had run across the road in front of you and you have to dodge it. Elk aren’t common in Derby, though, so we were asked to drive at a certain speed towards cones then told over the radio, at the very last second, whether we’d have to dodge right or left. Hit the cones and it’s a dent to your pride but not the car, and there were no marks awarded for this one – it’s merely BMW demonstrating how clever its stability systems are these days. They’re good, I can confirm.
Is a BMW M track experience worth it?
Without a doubt, yes. The Masters of Performance package costs £650 but includes all of the above plus coffee in the garages, plus lunch in the excellent MSV experience centre at Donington Park (MSV has done wonders to improve facilities at its UK race tracks).
What’s more, you get the chance to meet a real racing hero – we were given hot laps by Alexander Sims, a Formula E racer and GT driver with multiple championship wins (who delighted in getting the M240i Racing all kinds of out of shape, to make sure we had value for money), but also on hand during the day was Colin Turkington, the four-time British Touring Car Champion who is looking to retain his title in the final races of the 2020 season this weekend, driving the 330i M Sports at Brands Hatch. We were mixing with racing royalty.
“Driving on the road is increasingly dull. On a race track, you can let loose”
And it wasn’t just for the press — the media contingent comprised a small group of three, everyone else was a VIP or paying guest. Turkington told me this is one of the things he’ll be doing in the off-season: “We give a good return on investment to the sponsors, spending time with them and visiting the businesses or factories or whatever. I see that as an important part of my job. When a company invests in you, part of that is delivering on track and for the spectators, but there’s a lot of other sides to it.”
By the end of the of day I still wasn’t happy I’d fully pieced together the perfect lap, but I’d got very close (the laptop data proved it) and the skills you can learn on track are essential for anyone driving a performance car on the road – you don’t need to buy a BMW to get something out of it.
More importantly, it was incredibly good fun. Driving on the road is increasingly dull, due to congestion, traffic calming measures and – well, everyone else on the road, really. On a race track, you can let loose – scratch that performance car itch. It’s a day you’ll never forget, leaving you with car control skills that will serve you well for the rest of your life.
BMW M track experiences: booking details
Cars: M2 Competition, M4, M5 Competition, MSV Race prepared M4s & M240iR (race car)
Usual locations: Donington Park, Brands Hatch, Oulton Park, Bedford Autodrome & Knockhill
More info: https://bmw.msv.com/
Book other BMW experiences here: https://discover.bmw.co.uk/bmw-experiences
Notes before booking: Due to the coronvairus pandemic, plans for 2021 are still to be confirmed — keep an eye on the website for more information