Let’s start this review with a different approach and tell you from the start my conclusion after a full day spent behind the wheel of some of the most powerful BMWs out there at the M Performance Driving School: amazing, exciting and educational.
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I have been hearing for years about the BMW’s Performance Center Driving Schools and many of my friends or acquaintances have been bragging about it and since I write about BMWs daily, it became obvious that I have to try this experience myself. Before we go further into this article, I would like to disclaim the fact that BMW has offered this one day M course at no-charge for myself and Andrew, but I assure you that this article is objective as it can get.
The BMW Performance Delivery Center in Spartanburg offers quite a few exciting driving courses, from the Driver’s Program to M Performance ones and the BMW Motorcycle Rider training. BMW’s facility in Spartanburg caterers to a variety of drivers, from the less experiences ones to the advanced highly skilled drivers and even a Teen School which focuses on safety and caution.
Since I liked to think of myself as an experienced, fairly skilled driver(or at least I thought I was), my mind was set on the One-Day M School, a $1,295 course that revolves around Motorsport models available out there from BMW. The course emphasis on developing elementary high-performance driving capabilities, quick reflexes and eye coordination through a range of six exercises on the BMW slalom course, autocross and wet skid pad. Part of this package, BMW also gives you a free night at a Marriott hotel nearby and dinner.
Starting at 8:30am, the M School begins with an hour of introduction into the program and what we are trying to achieve that day. The highly skilled and very pleasant BMW instructors walked us through a few different driving scenarios and taught us one of the most important things in that day and something that it has been repeated to me over and over again: “Keep your eyes up” , “Look where you want to go”.
After the short theoretical session, everyone in the class was ready for the most exciting part: driving the BMW M3, M5 and M6 on the track and…..as hard as we can. Yes, you heard that right, pushing the Ms to the max is part of the deal. So if you own an M car and always been afraid to drive it as hard as you can, well, the M Performance School gives you that option.
All the M cars are equipped with the automatic transmission and the shifting paddles, making this experience even more fun. Our group, which included Andrew as well, started off with the M3s and the first exercise:
Proper turn-in and braking points.
After a short, but breathtaking demo from the BMW instructors, the moment has arrived: taking the E90 M3 with DCT for the first time on a race track.
Was I nervous? Absolutely, especially since I have never experienced anything similar to this, so the first few laps were “shy” in terms of speed and dynamics, but with constant real time guidance over the radio from the BMW instructors, I became more comfortable behind the wheel of this powerful M3 and started to push the car more and more and….more.
Have I made a lot of mistakes? No doubt, but the point of this school is to actually learn something and the instructors were very patient in correcting any mistakes I or the other drivers have made. This first exercise pretty much proved what I said earlier: I wasn’t as good of a driver as I thought I was, sure, I do well in a congested city traffic or on our Chicago highways, but not near a true skilled BMW driver. So once again, I was even more happier that I accepted this challenge and drove over 15 hours to attend this school.
M5 driving on a wet skid pad
With the first exercise out of the way, we moved onto the even more powerful BMW M5 vehicles and…..onto the wet skid pad, the famous skid pad I have heard from many other people that attended the school. And boy, was that a challenge…..
The idea here is to go as fast as you can on this circle shaped wet skid pad and without losing control of your car. Same as before, the instructors took us on a quick demo where they clearly showed us their own skills and also the power of these M5 models. So after a quick five minutes ride with them during which I stopped breathing, it was my turn to show off my skills, the very few that I had prior to this school. We turned off the DSC(Dynamic Stability Control) and started the exercise. We induced some oversteering and understeering by either quickly pushing the gas pedal or slowly modulating the throttle. And WOW, that DSC really makes a different since I literally spun out at least five times when it was turned off.
But surprising, I started to get better and better and by the time the exercise was over, I managed to get the hang of this and drifted nicely around the circle without any spinning. At the end, we went ahead and turn the DSC back on and as you would expect, the M5 handles far better when the electronic assistance comes in play.
Overall, a fun, useful driving exercise that could save your life in many situations.
Braking exercise with the powerful M6
The third exercise of the day involved the beautiful, sporty M6. By now I built some confidence in myself and I was ready to take on the next challenge: braking exercise. As the instructors taught us in the classroom, sometimes going faster implies braking more and harder and this new test was going to prove us that. Now we all know how powerful the M6 is, 500 horsepower coming from a V10 engine, so the challenge here is to correctly approximate the stopping distance at different speeds while turning into a curve.
Not as easy as one would believe since the M6 can really reach high speeds in a matter of seconds, so to full disclose again, I kinda screwed up a few times since I was either going too fast or braking too slow. But by the end of this new challenge, I learned that using the brakes at the right moment can really get you through a sharp corner and most important, still remaining fast.
By the time this exercise was over, I was semi-exhausted, pumped, thrilled and anxious to learn more, but lunch time was here and courtesy of BMW, all the M School participants get to enjoy the warm food prepared by a chef right there and then. From the traditional American burgers to the famous German pork schnitzel, everyone had something to choose from. Oh….add the deserts and lots of beverages, and you’re having a mini fiesta there. Don’t be shy to eat as much as you want, you will need that energy for the second session of the day.
Shortly after lunch, we jumped into another classroom session where we learned more about responsible and efficient driving, stability control and a few other items. But the most exciting part of this section was the moment where BMW staff handed out some numbered USB keys to all of us. By this time, we were all intrigued and anxious to find out more.
Basically, each M car available to the participants comes equipped with in-car video cameras, positioned either on the side or behind you overlooking the road. So what’s the purpose of these USB keys then? Well, very simple and typical BMW efficient: when you enter these USB keys into the in-car reader, the record function of these cameras activates and it uploads the footage onto BMW’s servers. So each time you would like to record yourself driving, either poorly or professional style, you simply just need to plug in the USB key. The number associate with the key gets attached to your car and name and four to six weeks after the course, BMW will mail you a professional DVD which will show footage from your driving experience. I won’t spoil all the details, but the setup is quite cool and as soon as I will receive mine, I will share it with everyone…..
Moving into the second driving session of the day, it was time for the first competition of the day:
Skid pad contest in the M6.
We all love challenges, right? So BMW decided to make this M School even more exciting for all the participants. Going over to a smaller skid pad, two M6s were placed on opposite sides of it and after six laps, whoever crosses their start line first, wins. And the winner takes all, meaning he gets to stay on the pad and wait for the next opponent. Being a smaller skid pad, braking and quickly accelerating here is key and a small sliding mistake can make you lose the race. I did well here, got closer to Andrew who beat me by less than a car distance, but once again, I realized that the more I advance in the course, the better I get….still not near a pro level, but much better than I was 5 hours before.
M5 racetrack session
With some experience under our belts now, BMW instructors moved us onto a larger race track where driving as fast as you can was key. The track also involved some braking zones and the larger skid pad where obviously we had to be more cautious. But the fun in this new exercise lay in the long straight line where the M5 could achieve up to 100 mph in third gear only….YES, that SMG really rocks here! Now imagine at the end of this straight line that there is a 90 degrees corner, so prior to that slamming the brakes as hard as you can it’s imperative. I was a bit reluctant to really do that in the beginning, but again under the guidance of our BMW instructor sitting in a control tower, I started to really slam them and position myself properly for that corner. Since you’re running behind other cars here and someone might slow you down or you might slow down others, the instructors will guide you to a safe zone where you can start a new fast lap.
This exercise incorporates more of the things we learned earlier, from the wet skid pad to the braking exercise and proper turn-ins.
M3 Timed Laps
The last and one of the most exciting sessions of the day involved timed laps in the gorgeous M3 sedans. The laps are far shorter than the ones we did prior to this in the M5, but the point of this exercise was to test speed, acceleration and competitive spirit. There were a few ground rules here: don’t hit any cones or step outside the stopping zone, otherwise a 2 seconds penalty will be imposed on you.
So, I started off slowly, trying to learn the corners and the potential obstacles. First lap: 28 and some seconds, still far from the 22.1 seconds record on that track. Since we had six laps, I knew I could do better and this was a chance to prove our buddy instructor Matt, that we actually learned something today: Eyes up, look ahead and go fast!
Second lap came somewhere around 25 seconds, not bad, but still slower than my colleagues. By this time, Andrew was already in his 24 seconds range. Third one, 24.00 seconds, but ….stepped out of the stop zone bounds so got penalized 2 seconds. Forth and fifth one, a bit higher than 24 seconds. But on the sixth lap, managed to get that 24 seconds I was aiming for and by this time, I was hoping I will be the second in our group. Unfortunately for myself, my buddy Andrew pulled his “A” game and scored a 23.3 seconds and took the lead in our group.
Definitely a fun exercise and very competitive, an usual thing in any race that involves cars. As an out of topic mention, one of the girls in a different group managed to overcome all the alpha BMW males, so she received a huge round of applause at the end.
Now, we’re nearly the completion of our exciting, thrilling day, but not quite over yet. For those of us looking for the ultimate thrill and heart pumping, BMW instructors took us around the full race track onboard the M5s. And WOW……trying to shoot video and staying in my car seat was quite challenging, these guys were really pros and drove these M5s in a way I have never seen before: drifting, perfect cornering, braking, accelerating, you name it….They really showed us how capable these M cars really are and that it’s all about the driver. The BMW instructors come from racing backgrounds, some of them even played stunt roles in different movies, but most important, they are genuinely nice guys and true BMW enthusiasts. For them, this school is more than just a job, it’s a passion and that reflects in the way they communicate with all the participants.
Since we enjoyed this One Day M School so much, we might be going back again, this time for the 2 Day M School which is held at the Virginia International Raceway, a class that will continue building the skills acquired during the first session.
At the end, I hope that my introductory statement makes more sense now and I hope that you feel and understand in a way the exciting that this M Driving Experience has given me. It truly is an unique experience and from a BMW fan point of view, I’m glad that we have this option of connection the driver to the car in a way that you can never imagine. And looking at the availability chart, it is clear that many BMW drivers share the same point of view since the One Day M School is booked many months in advance.
Special thanks to the entire BMW Communication team, Matt, Tom, Sean and also Matt Mullins, the great and funniest BMW instructor ever.