Rolling the window down lets both a refreshing waft of cool Spring air and an equally unsettling smell of acrid smoke pour into the cabin. Usually, that smell means you’ve knocked a few thousand miles off of a clutch or inflicted massive wear on a set of brakes – both instances follow either a feeling of pure joy or pure terror.
Seated in a well-bolstered Black Novillo leather driver’s seat of an E92 M3 at the BMW Performance Center’s track – I quickly realized that I was about to learn the meaning of both behind the wheel of the finest of BMW’s M products. Surely I couldn’t be anywhere else in North America other than the Two Day M Driving School in scenic Spartanburg, South Carolina. That smell emanating from the car? Signs that its going to be a successful day in the classroom.
For the uninitiated, for over a decade now, BMW of North America has given enthusiasts the opportunity to push up to and beyond the limits of its coveted M cars in a safe, controlled environment at a track snuggled into the hills of South Carolina at the BMW Performance Center, hidden amongst the many manufacturing facilities for the X Series vehicles. While the idea of taking the best and brightest of BMW’s line-up and kicking around a track may sound like a lot of fun – you’d be wrong. It’s both fun AND very educational.
BMWBLOG writer Misha Nikolich and I were lucky enough to pick up spots at the Two Day M School where a handful of instructors would teach us not only about basic car dynamics but how to gain speed and rhythm in our driving.
Our first day started with a introduction to the instructors, our fellow classmates and some of the basic concepts of driving such as over- and understeer, braking zones and a quick walk(pun intended) of heel-toeing. However, knowing that all 15 of us were itching to try out the latest M offerings, the classroom lessons were succinct and to the point before breaking out the class into three groups of 5 students, each designated to work on specific exercises such as braking, identifying turn-in points, and heel-toeing on manual gearboxes. The weapons of choice? E90/2 M3’s, E60 M5’s, and the rarified 1M Coupe. It was much joy and surprise to find a handful of the latest low production M car in bulk.
Our first exercise consisted of taking the M3’s to a smaller segment of the course emulating a small version of the famous Laguna Seca corkscrew followed by wider sweeping turns with an emphasis on turn-in points, tracking the cars out and the most important lesson of all: always keep your eyes up and pointed toward where you want the car to be. To help us, cones were stragetically placed throughout the course as a target for track out and turn in points along with radios in all cars for the instructors to provide both constructive criticism to each driver but also praise as we, as a group, began to refine our technique. This was one of the most critical skills to learn of all that they taught us. The body has a natural tendency to guide the car in the direction you’re looking. So, in a spin, if you’re looking at where you might crash – odds are, you’ll end up exactly where you don’t want to be. To counteract this, keeping your eyes in the direction away from the spin will help to steer out of the spin – something that sounds almost mindlessly easy in theory but proves far more difficult to master as it goes against the average driver’s tendency to look only a few feet beyond the nose of the car.
After concluding the M3 session, our group moved into the 1M Coupes – something I’d been waiting for since having to inadvertently give up my spot on the 1M Coupe launch due to prior obligations.
The heel-toe exercise in the 1M’s threw us many of us through a loop as it compounded the experience with the M3’s and braking with the the difficulty of executing a perfectly blipped throttle and downshift. Honestly(and ironically), this is one of the slower exercises of the day yet seemed to give most everyone trouble as it required heavy, ABS-inducing braking followed with a firm jab of the throttle – something taught in a day but certainly not mastered in the same time frame. It also gave our group time to get used to punishing the BMW’s as Jim, our instructor, goaded us on to “let me hear that downshift! Punch that throttle!” as each driver poured down thru a sharp right-hander.
Following our stint in the 1M Coupes, we grouped up and headed in for a 10 minute break prior to a stint in the E60 M5’s at the dreaded skid pad. The skid pad is not only a test of car controls skills but also of one’s intestinal fortitude. The goal of the exercise was to show the power of Dynamic Stability Control(DSC) as a means of reigning in a car even a powerful as the 507HP E60 M5 when perhaps the driver’s right foot gets a little too aggressive for road conditions. Sure enough, after a few laps with instructor Allison Bormann around the massive concrete circle with DSC on and my foot to the floor – there was no slip at the rear wheels until she thumbed the traction control button off on the dash and it was time to hang out the rear of the M5. While circling the skid pad, slowly increasing speed to 40MPH to 45MPH, just at the limit of traction I jabbed the throttle and then steered into the turn to control the car – using the driver’s window to track where I needed the car to go. Sounds easy – but to control a car in a skid is much harder than it seems. In this exercise it was critical to keep your eyes up, focused on where you need the car to go versus the direction it might be heading and having quick hands and feel to quickly adjust steering angle and “maintenance throttle” to keep the slide going. Alas, despite Allison’s expert tutelage, I couldn’t quite hold the drift around the full circuit but my breakfast did stay down on the G-heavy exercise.
Lunch at Performance Center’s cafe and a debrief from other groups on the morning’s events provided a quick reprieve before it was back to the classroom to be fitted for the complimentary helmets – but more on that later! The afternoon lesson focused around the contact patch on tires and what forces play on the tires and result in the changes in grip. The afternoon sessions would continue our rotations through the 1M Coupe, M5 and M3 – each session focusing more and more on learning the limits of adhesion and learning proper braking techniques. Our group engaged in a bit of head-to-head racing called the Rat Race on a wet skid, testing each drivers’ ability to brake and steer in less than ideal conditions while correcting for both throttle inputs and hydroplaning. We then swapped for the M5’s to work on our braking exercises on a small autocross course followed by timed sessions in the M3’s combining all of the skills learned throughout the day requiring each driver man-handle the 414HP M3 through a quick slalom, long right-hander, up-hill thru a small chicane and down into the “brake box” where if you violated the walls of the invisible box – you lose more time! Incredibly – Misha and I managed identical times for first place; that is until on the last lap one of our classmates swooped in and stole our lead! Oh well, tied for second isn’t such a bad thing!
For the final exercise of the day, we were all given a shot at setting lap times to compete for fastest of the day on half of the available circuit in the M3’s. Sure enough, Misha managed to crack the 49 second mark by just a hair and edge out the rest of the class by combining the braking, turning, eye tracking and confidence built up throughout the day. To top off an excellent day, we were all issued brand new, fitted BMW M School helmets in the lovely M tri-color design. Class was followed up by a delicious dinner and cocktail hour at the Performance Center. This gave the class a chance to decompress, talk about the day and lessons learned through hard knocks and talk with the incredible team of instructors.
Not surprisingly, the instructors make the course what it is. Allison, Jim, Steve, Adam, and Clint showed infinite patience with our class of varying experience with performance driving. From novices to experts, nobody was free from both honest criticisms and deserved praise on well-executed technique. Throughout the two day class, their focus was primarily on safety while helping educate our class and aid in the improvement of the necessary skills to be better driver. It also helped that they all had a great sense of humor and were always careful to allow the class to move at their own pace and never attempt an exercise they might not be comfortable with. A week after leaving Spartanburg I was trackside with Allison, Jim and Mike at Laguna Seca to try out the F30 3 Series and I immediately felt at home with their inputs and instruction to successfully navigate the undulating California track.
Our second day again started with a classroom session talking about the safety items for the day. After all, Day Two focuses more on open lapping sessions allowing participants to gather more speed and string together more turns as more of the course is “unlocked.” The intent being that Day One is spent learning individual corners and techniques for braking so that by Day Two, the lessons are strung together to form efficient, complete laps of much larger sections of the circuit.
One such corner we had yet to learn was the intimidating “Man’s Corner” – a 180 degree turn with entry speeds of approximately 70MPH where you had to turn in, track far out to the edge of the track, get the car turned towards the exit, nail the apex on the second half of the turn and begin to the acceleration and track out thru the exit of the turn. Essentially, if done correctly, the you will diamond the corner – using throttle going in, thru to the first track out point, and then waiting before re-applying throttle. Patience in this corner rewards with much higher exit speeds from the final half of the corner. As Allison was our instructor for the “Man’s Corner” exercise along with Clint, it was decided that the rather sexist name didn’t fit – especially as a woman had sufficiently schooled all of the men on how to navigate the turn formerly known as “Man’s Corner.”
The rest of our exercises throughout the day consisted of lapping the M3′s around the lower half of the track to regain confidence with the M3′s before moving up to the 1M’s on the Rat Race course. Our final exercise with the 1M’s would build on the car control skills of the previous day by controlling a the little coupe in wet conditions to achieve the fastest five figure eights possible and if you spin – you’re disqualified! Our group members definitely left everything they had out on the track for that exercise – letting the 1M’s get completely out of whack, gliding sideways from gate to gate before whipping the car around to slide back across the circuit and knock off another lap.
Completing the 1M session was enjoyable and a great way to relax prior to loading up in the M3′s and to click off open lapping for the final session of the day. The objective was to pull together a bit of every exercise done over the last two days in just a handful of laps. The session felt like a blur of outright competitiveness, fun and nervousness. The desire to click off the fastest lap time was making it tough to focus on smooth inputs. After a handful of laps each – our day was winding down and Misha had to catch a flight so we peeled off the from the group and hopped into my car before having a chance to find out who won the Figure Eights course and most importantly, the fastest lap time on the open lapping session. Rumor has it that Misha may have won – but I guess we may never know!
Two Day M School ended up being one of the most satisfying driving events I’ve been privy to in recent memory. It was a mix of both fun and challenging exercises that focused on and reinforced basic but critical skills for both safe and performance driving. Beyond that, from a purely selfish standpoint it was an exercise in getting to the core of what M cars are about and just what their capabilities are. Though not surprising, an M car feels as at home on the open road as it does the racetrack.
For those of you on the fence about the cost of M School or making it work with you schedule – stop waiting and do it, you’ll not regret it. World class instructors and cars as a multi-million dollar facility for two days can’t be beat. The arrangements and instruction available at M School(and have been for more than a decade) are just now beginning to be emulated by other performance car manufacturers. For those hadn’t previously considered going – do it now – in fact, do it yesterday. You won’t regret it and with M School receiving its allotment of F10 M5′s late this summer, that’s just icing on the cake.