This past weekend I participated in the BMW M Performance Driving School at the BMW Performance Center in Greer, South Carolina. Fifteen participants (drivers) made their way to Greer on Friday March 11 to be in place for the Saturday morning class time.
We gathered in a classroom at the Performance Center and listened as our five instructors for the weekend introduced themselves. Then Donny gave us some pointers in correct seating position, oversteer and understeer, braking, and correctly navigating a turn. The classroom instruction was fairly brief, but detailed and to the point as we all wanted to slide behind the wheel of one of the M cars.
We were divided into three groups of five (blue, green and red). The color and number you were assigned was yours for the weekend, and you always headed for your car number when called to muster. We got to drive M3s, M4s and M5s, and we swapped between them all day long. Each driver had their own car, with an instructor or two for each group in their own cars. The instructors had radios to communicate with us (critique and encourage), and each car had a radio so we could listen (or not) to the pointers. Prior to each new track run, the group would follow the instructor single file through the course at a very slow pace, stopping at each turn to identify the braking point, turning point, apex, and exit point, and tips on which gears to use. After the stop-and-go runs through the course, we would again follow the instructor at about 30 or 40 mph through the same course. Then we were turned loose, instructors positioned along the track with radios in hand, and a cheat sheet to show who was in each car. Depending upon the track, at times all 5 cars in the group were out at the same time.
Our group, the Blue Group, started the first morning at the skid pad. Two cars at a time were allowed onto the track, which was constantly watered down with sprinklers. Here we learned how to identify and correct for understeer. We observed as the instructors demonstrated drifting around the circle. Proficiency in this maneuver clearly gained through practice.
We transitioned to the M4s to practice on a short track at the far end, specifically working on turns and braking. All hard braking should be done in a straight line before you reach the turning point (TP). They had set out braking cones prior to the TP in sets of three, then two, then one. The faster you’re moving, the sooner and harder you have to brake. The cones are a reference.
After some practice in the M4s, we got to drive the M5s on another track, which included a slalom and chicane. The M5 has nearly 600 horse power and massive amounts of torque (500 lb-ft). You can easily let this car get away from you, as evidenced by the shiny new guard rail along one turn. The M5s came equipped with air-conditioned seats, a really nice feature when you are working as hard as we were.
We broke for lunch, joining other drivers in the lunch room, including the cyclists from the motorcycle course in progress the same weekend. Lunch was followed by another classroom briefing, and then right back out to the cars.
Blue Group’s afternoon started in the M4s running the Rat Race. It is a wet oval course, two cars opposite each other trying to catch one another. It was 5 or 6 circuits. This was one of our timed competitions for the first day, and it was difficult. I ended up doing a 360 on the wet pavement, and as much fun as it was, it does hurt your times. Although not officially in the course syllabus, we were allowed to practice a J-Turn with an instructor in the car. I found that quite exhilarating, and will keep it in the back of my mind next time I need to do an evasive 180 degree turn from reverse, possibly under fire.
We had a total of three timed competitions on Saturday; the Rat Race, an M5 short track, and M3s on the Big Track. For the Big Track run, we all parked our cars and took turns waiting in the pits while a few cars at a time were on the track.
After the Saturday competitions, we retreated to the BMW Performance Center common area to enjoy refreshments and appetizers, closely followed by dinner and the entertaining awards ceremony.
Out of our Blue Group, Josh took first place in the M5 Short Track, and placed 4th in the Big Track timed lap. I was mid-pack on the M5 short track, but woefully disappointed in my bottom third showing on the Big Track lap. After dinner and honoring the winners for the day, we retired to the Marriott, looking forward to another full day of training and races on Sunday.
It was raining as we exited the Marriott and climbed into the van taking us to the Performance Center Sunday morning. We all wondered how this would affect our performance. Again we started the second day with some classroom instruction, and we watched the BMW M4 GTS run a Fast Lap at the Nuerburgring Nordschleife. (Link below)
Blue Group started Sunday with driving the M5s on the Big Track, which included Man Corner.
After burning up tires and petrol in the M5 on the Big Track, we jumped into the M4s on the shorter track, but this one had a corkscrew in it. That was difficult. More practice in turning and braking correctly. Following the M4 on the corkscrew track, we again found ourselves in the M3 practicing a Figure 8 manuever on wet pavement. This exercise was all about control. Too much throttle too soon, and you found yourself sideways. If your tires are straight, you should be accelerating. A carefully executed drift in the correct place in the Figure 8 could help align the car sooner in a straight line, hence you could accelerate sooner. It was very touchy, and you had to be very smooth. It was quite easy to execute an unintentional 360 and get turned around on the wet pavement.
After Figure 8 training in the M3s, we headed into lunch. As the skies started to clear, the rain became more sporatic and we even saw a little blue sky. After lunch we again were in the M3s practicing on the Big Track. Every time we went out to the track, it had changed slightly. This time it was longer, and included a straight stretch and the carousel turn on the skid pad. There were no timed competitions, but every time you’re on the track it feels like a competition, and we all tested ourselves and saw a lot of red lines on the RPM gauge. From the M3 we swapped into the M5 on the Big Track. This time the track included all the parts we had previously driven, linking the far side and the Man Corner. It is hard to describe how intense this can be. You end up breathing heavily and exhausted at the end, both mentally and physically. During the entire weekend we were encouraged to take breaks if needed, and there was always a pit lane to pull into if needed. I didn’t, because I wanted to practice as much as possible in the time I was there. It is rare for me to get track time with such a professional crew and in someone else’s car. The instructors told us that each car goes through a set of tires in two or three days. I believe it.
The last maneuver for the Blue Group on Sunday was the only timed competition for Sunday. We did two sets of 8 Figure 8’s on the clock in the M4 (a total of 16 Figure 8s). We took the best time of the two. No instruction on these 8s, just the instructor with the stop watch.
The timed Figure 8s was the last event of the weekend for the Blue Group. All the cars came back to the center and we got the results of our efforts. I was much happier with my performance today, as I came in third in the Figure 8. First place went to Josh with a time of 1:48:65, Gary came in second with 1:51:66 and I was third with a time of 1:51:69. (Yes, I was just 3/100 behind second place, but Josh’s 3 second lead was impressive.) For one last thrill, we were offered the opportunity to sit as passengers on a fast lap with an instructor driving. I took that opportunity, and as fast as I thought I was going, Donny was twice that. It was fun, and a nice way to end the weekend.
Before departing, we received diplomas and a gift bag. All in all, it was a fantastic weekend, well worth the cost. I’d do it again in a heartbeat. It was completely engrossing and it felt good to concentrate 100% on the moment. The instructors were professional, thorough, kind, and funny. There was a lot of support staff and I felt like the entire weekend was professionally run and well executed. We are all eligible now for the Advanced M School, which I am considering.