New Kid on the Block. We hitch a drive in the awesome new BMW M235i Racing series F22 at its competitive debut in the pre-qualifying race for the Nürburgring 24 Hours. Come and race an M235i Racing,’ they said. ‘It’ll be fun,’ they said. ‘You know the Nurburgring, right?’ Well, I thought I did. But after a day of practice and acclimatisation to BMW’s new customer race car, I’m not so sure. In fact, despite being shattered, I can’t sleep and I’m cursing myself. Cursing those moments when my right foot wavered, cursing the last centimetres of track I failed to run out to on the exit of each corner and for braking too early here and there. Tomorrow I’ll go quicker. The problem is that I need to find a lot of time. And this mighty track isn’t the sort of place to forgive mistakes…
Of course I should be enjoying myself. This is proper once-in-a-lifetime stuff. Somehow I’ve been adopted into a BMW factory racing effort. I have lovely BMW racing overalls and jackets and T-shirts. There are a team of highly skilled engineers and mechanics working on a car that I get to drive. I have a magic necklace that lets me into a posh hospitality suite full of hot food and cold drinks. My hotel room is lovely and has a huge comfy bed. if only I could sleep.
How did I get here? Well, BMW’s new M235i Racing has just been rolled out to customers, primarily for the VLN series (Veranstaltergemeinschaft Langstreckenpokal Nurburgring, in case you were wondering) held exclusively on that most iconic of tracks. The M235i Racing machines have their own class, the Cup series, and the factory are running a car to help them understand the car’s strengths and weaknesses, how it could be improved and gain a bit of publicity, too. I’m in the media car for the 24-hour race held here in June, but first I have to qualify for it at this six-hour event. The race itself is run on the Sunday but there’s practice on Saturday and a night qualifying session, so N24 newcomers get a taste of this place in the dead of night.
The car itself is – like the road version – something of a bargain in race car terms. Unlike the road version it also looks achingly cool (is it just me that thinks that M235i looks a bit skinny and geeky from some angles?), thanks to sharp- edged wheel arch extensions, a Tarmac-skimming ride height, carbon fibre wing mirrors, front splitter and rear lip spoiler and an unmistakable sense of purpose. Underneath the pumped-up exterior is a finely developed racer but with its roots very much in the road car. This isn’t money-no-object silhouette machine. The basics remain virtually unchanged, which means a 3.0-litre turbocharged straight- six, rear-wheel drive and an very good eight-speed ZF 8HP automatic gearbox. Yes, really. Its shift programming is more aggressive but otherwise it’s as per the road car.
The engine too, remains largely untouched. A reprogrammed ECU delivers 333hp, up from 326hp and performance isn’t dissimilar to the road car, either. Of course there are some weight savings but these are almost negated with the fitment of larger four-piston fixed calliper Performance Friction brakes, a full FIA- approved roll-cage and a mechanical limited-slip differential. It’s similar to the one offered in the M Performance parts range for the road car but with a more aggressive locking ratio. The M235i Racing also takes its cool steering wheel with shift lights and a multi-function display from the M Performance catalogue. Suspension is fully adjustable with KW dampers, H&R springs and anti-roll bars. BMW Motorsport has also developed specific ABS and DSC programs, which make the most of the grip provided by 265/660 R18 slick tyres.
Jethro on the left with team mates Alexander Mies and ex-Moto GP rider Alexander Hofmann
I love that I have to give fuel readings over the intercom. I almost feel like a proper racing driver
The first time I inelegantly plonk myself over the roll-cage and into the carbon fibre OMP Racing seat, the M235i Racing just reeks of quality and attention to detail. If you’ve ever had a project track day car or a home-made racer, you’ll know the rough around the edges ‘charm’ that soon starts to eat away at you: The wires that you can’t hide, the shoddy door trims that don’t quite fit, the scruffy remains of stubborn sound proofing that wouldn’t shift even with 10 litres of Cillit Bang and a heatgun… Well, the M235i Racing is perfect. There’s shiny carbon weave everywhere, wrinkle-free Alcantara and not a wire or switch out of place.
Once you’ve seen those ‘arches and then settled behind that steering wheel you just know this is going to be some car. At €59,500 plus local taxes it really does offer value in this rarefied world.
Even so it still feels like a big responsibility when I roll out of the pits for the first time on Saturday morning. The surface is damp and mercifully only the wide, safe, sanitized GP circuit is open for this first practice session. The team would like me to use the ‘Wet setting for the stability control system while I get used to the car, which is fine by me. The carbon fibre seat is mounted so low that I’m pulling up against the shoulder straps to get a better view. I haven’t driven on the GP circuit here since 2008 and there are Z4 GT3s and 911 RSRs bearing down on me. I’ve raced a good few times before so it’s not entirely terrifying, but the team’s professionalism, the telemetry traces that they have access to and the need to complete at least 16 laps in the race tomorrow in order to qualify for the N24 certainly all pile on the pressure. A crash now would be a very bad thing.
Fortunately the M235i Racing is a breeze to drive on the smooth GP circuit. There’s a bit of understeer through the slower corners but it’s so slippery that it’s inevitable. So it’s just a matter of shedding enough speed for the turn-in phase, then gently getting back on the power to avoid triggering the stability control.
That’s not easy because in ‘Wet’ mode it’s too intrusive but later when they allow me to switch to ‘Slicks’ mode, even in the wet, it’s a nice reassurance and well judged. The system allows a small amount of mid-corner oversteer but gradually bleeds that away on exit. I reckon I’d be quicker with it switched off but at this stage I’m not too upset to have something to lean on while I learn the car’s limits.
The gearbox is superb – thumping home shifts very quickly and accepting downshift commands where the road car wouldn’t permit it. That means you can use maximum engine braking to help out the superb Performance Friction brakes and it further builds the sense that the M235i racing will do exactly what you want, when you want it. Of course the engine is superb. Even with the muffling effect of earplugs and an Arai helmet the straight-six has a real edge to it and it rips along the straights at a pace that eats up E46 M3s and is so n-e-a-r-l-y a match for a couple of new 911 Carrera S-based race cars. On the one hand this makes me very happy, on the other it makes me wonder if I can keep up with the demands of the M235i Racing on the big, bad, scary, wonderful Nordschleife.
It turns out that I can’t. My team-mates, BMW Scholarship hot shoe Alexander Mies and ex-Moto GP rider, German celeb and veteran of four N24s in some pretty tasty machinery, Alexander Hofmann, are quicker than me by some margin.
My quickest lap of the full N24 configuration, which takes in most of the modern GP track plus the iconic Nordschleife and measures some 15.5-miles, is set in that night’s qualifying session with nothing more than road car headlights and stands at 10 minutes and 2 seconds. It felt borderline heroic, but Hofmann is in the 9:48s and Mies must be taking a shortcut as he’s run a 9:36. Holy mother, hence I find myself lying awake, staring at the ceiling and wondering if this dream ‘works’ drive is set to turn into a nightmare.
Sunday dawns with a cloudless sky and my furrowed brow slowly unknits as I walk back into the Paddock. What a place the ‘Ring is. In setting and scale there’s just nowhere else like it and I love the sense of community among local enthusiasts and racers here. Everyone wants to win or be the fastest but there’s a real shared bond, too. I think part of it that is from the risk involved in driving at 10/10ths and it’s sobering that most people sign out of conversations before the race with ‘be safe’ rather than ‘good luck’. It’s a timely reminder that I shouldn’t push for time that might not be within my grasp. Even so, I tell myself to just drive better, not faster. To get on the power fractionally earlier, to stay flat where I know it should be and not to overdrive chasing time where there’s none to be had.
Mies starts the race and I’ll be driving the second, fourth and the sixth and final stint. It’s going to be a demanding day as each is six laps or around one hour. So I’ll be doing half of the six-hour race and I’m not sure my fitness or concentration is up to it. At least I can work myself up to pushing for the entire lap and hopefully learn more and more abut the car and the circuit.
The M235i Racing is a physical experience on the old track. These are early days in the car’s development and it feels very stiff and unyielding on the undulating, time-ravaged circuit. It hops and skips over bumps, leaps if you dare go near a raised kerb and thumps over the ridges that run along much of the huge Dottinger Hohe straight. Thankfully conditions are good and as this qualifying race doesn’t count in the VLN series the entry list is just 50 cars (the N24 will have 200!). There’s just enough traffic to get used to running in a group and where best to dodge the fastest GT3 boys, but not so much that every stint requires you to be fixated on your mirrors. I feel like I’m doing an okay job and after the first stint my times are down in the 9:53s. Better.
The second stint is terrific and I run behind another M235i Racing for a while before nipping past in the slipstream on the long straight. Following another identical car is fascinating because I get to see from the outside exactly what I’m feeling through the seat. The car ahead lifts an inside front wheel into corners, the rear axle leaps off the ground over crests and generally it looks a right handful. It’s absorbing, distracting and slightly unsettling to be honest, so I’m relieved to get past and start to try to chip away at my technique again. Clearly it works as I’m into the 9.48s.
By this time we’re well placed, running deep into the top half of the field and the second-placed M235i Racing. It’s about now that all the stress of the weekend subsides and I can appreciate what’s going on around me. I love that the team manager usually works in DTM, that many of the other guys have been involved with the WTCC effort or even F1. I love that I have to give fuel readings over the intercom and report on the state of the tyres and track. I almost, almost, feel like a proper racing driver.
Just relaxing seems to have done the trick. The car feels better and I feel confident to do all the crazy things that you have to do at the ‘Ring to get a good lap time. Like leap flat in sixth over a huge crest before the fifth gear left-hander called Schewedenkreuz, or plunge down the Foxhole and turn left through the compression without lifting the throttle at over 140mph. It all feels deeply scary but also almost impossibly exciting. In the dry the M235i Racing really is something else. Okay, so it needs some setup work and the GT3 cars, of course, just monster it, but for a customer racer at this price level it’s so fast, so grippy and so reassuring. When the race ends our car, number 235, is 16th overall and the leading M235i Racing. And my last stint consists of plenty of 9:43s – a full 20 seconds faster than I’d been in qualifying. I think that’s what they call a result in motorsport circles. Bring on the N24.