When your car completes a delicate pirouette as it leaves the track, crosses the grass and aims fairly and squarely at the Armco, you may well find yourself starting to pray. Or, if you’re not a God-fearing type, you might ask yourself quite why you thought doing a track day in your pride and joy was such a good idea?
Luckily, an incident of this type is the exception rather than the rule, but just the thought of an unfortunate scenario of this ilk happening is one of the main things that makes people uncertain, and puts many of them off the idea of taking their own car out on track.
It’s by no means the only one though. Your car might not be suitable, for starters – an E65 Seven would certainly make a gainful attempt at hauling its two-tonne bulk around a track but, let’s face it, it’s probably not going to be the most enjoyable experience.
Your car might be on some type of a lease deal, or be a company car where such activities tend to be frowned upon, or you might just be worried that a track day isn’t for you. But don’t despair, as there are plenty of options available nowadays, to ease the worries of even the most reticent of participants.
Dipping your toe in the water, just to see if a life on track is for you, has never been easier. It may even be that you simply want to sample BMW’s latest range of M cars under the sort of conditions in which they were designed to operate. Well, now you can, thanks to the safe and controlled environment provided at BMW’s new M Driving Experience.
BMW has always had some sort of driver experience/training in the UK, but it’s by no means as popular as the German-based equivalents that the company has been running on the Continent since 1977. But BMW UK is hoping that its new range of UK-based days can change all that, and we reckon the most popular of its courses will be the BMW M Driving Experience, that I recently sampled at Oulton Park, in Cheshire.
One of the advantages this experience has over other manufacturer days, is that it takes place at a variety of locations – mainly at MSV-owned circuits – so, hopefully, you won’t have to travel too far to get on track. But what should you expect on the day?
You can book either a morning or afternoon session, which will include breakfast and lunch or lunch and afternoon tea, depending on your preference. Once you’ve completed the signing-on process, participants are split into three groups for the three activities you’ll be taking part in.
These include sampling the M2, M4 and M6 on track, engaging in some wet handling activities in the paddock, plus some serious lapping in one of MSV’s track-prepped M4s. Oh, and some flying laps in the passenger seat of an M235i racing car, with a professional at the helm.
On the day that I attended, the first driving activity was in the MSV-prepped M4s. Each participant is assigned a professional driver to sit in and act as a track guide, offering advice on the best lines to take, where to brake and where you should be turning in to correctly hit any given corner’s apex.
We were using the Fosters circuit configuration – the shortest of the three possible layouts at Oulton – but it’s still 1.6-miles long, so there was plenty to get our teeth into. Where the M4 experience differs somewhat from your normal fare, is that each car is equipped with a VBox video and data-logger, which records video of you driving, plus the car’s telemetry showing speed and G forces etc.
Once you’ve done five or six hot laps (how many will depend on your pace and your driving), it’s time to return to the pits where the data from the VBox (that’s handily been recorded on to a memory stick for you to take away) can be examined.
To provide a representative point of reference BMW allowed one of the instructors loose in an M4, to record the perfect lap. The video and data from this was then used as the benchmark against which our efforts could be compared and judged. It’s the perfect way to compare your car’s positioning with that of the professional.
My instructor must have been pretty good, as my positioning on the circuit seemed to be quite good most of the time although, at perhaps the two most crucial parts of the circuit, it was clear that I was turning in too early, leading to a slower than optimal speed along the following straight.
Once we’d carried out a side-by-side video analysis, attention turned to the data from the VBox, and it quickly became clear that I was slower just about everywhere on the track, bar the very tight right-hander at Fosters. What’s interesting to note from the data is how the professional driver brakes so hard for the corners – straight off the throttle and hard on the brakes. This was graphically illustrated by his very pointy, Matterhorn-style peaks on the track graph. By comparison, mine was a much gentler affair, more akin to the rolling hills of the South Downs! So, brake harder, turn-in later and I’ll be rivalling the professional’s times, right? Um, almost.
As I attacked the track for the second time, I concentrated most on getting the quick right-hander at the top of the hill at Druids correct, as mucking this up leads to a significantly lower speed along the following straight. It’s a tricky one with a late apex, and the first couple of times I still turned-in too early. But at the third attempt I nailed it (mainly due to my instructor’s assistance), and that really allowed me to achieve a much better exit, unwinding lock sooner and being able to let the M4 drift out to the edge of the circuit while you get the power back on.
It was a similar story for the final corner of the lap – Lodge, which leads onto the start/ finish straight – and again, when I started to get that one right, it was noticeable that the car started to feel so much more hooked-up and controllable.
The M4 itself is a delight – it’s virtually standard, apart from the addition of a half-cage and some uprated front brake pads – and the M DCT transmission makes swapping cogs a doddle. The traction control stays on during your time in the car, but you find that the tidier your lines are, the less intrusive it becomes. You’ll see the tell-tale light flashing on the dash but, for most of the time it doesn’t feel like it’s intervening much.
As always, the M4 sounds sublime, especially as you get close to the red line and, while I know there’s been plenty of discussion about the synthesised sound, I’m not too bothered, as I like it.
After another six, hot laps, I returned to the pits to start analysing my lap times. In the first session, my best time was a 1:22 and, in second I managed to trim that back to a 1:15. What’s more, once I’d nailed Druids and Lodge, I recorded three laps all within a couple of tenths of each other, which I was quite pleased with. Less pleasing, though, was the realisation that I’d need to trim another four seconds off the lap to match the pro driver…
Once the MSV-prepped M4s had been driven, it was time to move on to the next activity, this time sampling the road cars on track – an M2 followed by an M4 Competition and then the big brute that is the M6 Coupé. Once again, there is an instructor sitting in with you, and I completed three or four laps in each car.
While the times achieved didn’t match those in the MSV M4, it was very interesting to make comparisons between the three cars. The M2 feels playful but, ultimately, it’s not as composed or as fast as the M4 Competition. The circuit really was too tight for the M6, nevertheless, I thought that the way it hustled its bulk around the track was pretty impressive, as was the sheer grunt from its twin-turbo V8.
In between stints in the M cars, there was the opportunity to sample one of the highlights of the day – some hot laps in the M235i Racing! BMW had two of these wee beasties in attendance on the day, which were being driven – very rapidly – by ex- BTCC stars Paul O’Neill and Nick Foster. I went out with Nick Foster and that ride provided a stunning demonstration of how to best tackle that tricky Oulton corner.
The fizzy, turbocharged ‘six sounded great in this machine, which had been stripped of its sound-deadening. I found the way that it stopped and steered was simply remarkable. Nick Foster told me that he was only driving at about 80% (one obvioulsy needs to have a margin of safety when ferrying paying passengers around), but it felt absolutely phenomenal to me and, of course, was all over far too quickly for me.
The final activity was the wet-handling session and, while it might have looked a little tame, trying to wrestle an M3 around a series of cones on a damp paddock was magnificent. Once again, every driver had an instructor on board, who bravely tried to give pointers on the finer points of oversteer technique, to get you around the course as quickly as possible.
For some of those taking part, the opportunity to burn rubber proved too great, and there were some very lurid power slides on show. Ultimately, of course, the name of the game was to drive as neatly as possible, if you were going to stand any chance of securing the best time of the day. I missed out by about a second. But if I could have had just one last try…
All-in-all it was a cracking morning spent hooning around in some magnificent BMWs, all in a safely controlled environment. It’s not cheap though, at £595 but, if you don’t own one of these machines, it’s a great way to experience them. You could, of course, take your own car on a track day for less, and get far more wheel time, too. But, to be honest, the amount of time we all had in the cars during this M Driving Experience felt just about right to me. The big plus point, of course, is that you won’t end up damaging your own car or its tyres.
Now, if I could just go back and have another go in that MSV M4, I’m sure I could whittle away a couple more seconds from my lap time!
Each car is equipped with a VBox video and data-logger, which records video… plus the car’s telemetry.
One of the advantages this experience has over other manufacturer days, is that it takes place at a variety of locations.
Gentlemen, start your engines! It’s wonderful to be able to drive the M4 flat-out in a safe and controlled environment.
The video footage provided by the VBOX system adds a whole new dimension to the experience.
The grin says it all! I was mightily impressed by my laps with Nick Foster, in the M235i Racing.
Although the circuit was too tight for the M6, I was impressed by the way it hustled its bulk along, and by the sheer grunt from its twin-turbo V8.
The wet handling exercises were a great experience.
BMW UK’s new M Driving Experience offers keen drivers the chance to hone their handling skills in a tasty selection of M-powered machinery.
There’s plenty of opportunity to gather your thoughts, compare notes and pick up tips between sessions on the track. The whole event was very well-structured.
The driving information captured by the data logger is really beneficial. To be able to analyse precisely where improvements can be made is a fantastic help.
The MSV-prepped M4 was a delight to drive on the track.