I recently had the pleasure of participating in BMW’s Two-Day M School at the Performance Center in Greenville South Carolina. I had been anxious to attend M School for a couple years after taking the basic car control course offered by BMW, and hearing from friends what a great experience it is. I have never had any formal track or autocross experience, so I was little nervous leading up to the big day.
The two-day M school is a great value considering it includes nearby lodging, breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Not to mention, a custom painted BMW racing helmet that we got to take home with us. What is BMW M School all about and why do you need to go? Great hospitality. A one of a kind facility and track designed and owned by BMW. A team of professional, enthusiastic instructors. A fleet of the latest M cars. An opportunity to challenge your driving skills. And lots and lots of fun with fellow driving enthusiasts! I was joined by my friend, and fellow BMWBLOG editor, Andrew Murphy.
At the airport, there was new 550i Gran Turismo (a perfect executive limousine car) waiting to drive me in comfort to the Greenville Marriott hotel. In the backseat I found a folder with a welcome letter and itinerary for both days, and a couple nice gifts from BMW: a white golf shirt, and a grey all-weather jacket with an embroidered BMW Performance Driving School logo. The driver and I had nice conversation about how important BMW is to the local economy. He even told me something I didn’t know – in 2011 BMW exported more vehicles from the U.S. than any other manufacturer. After settling into my room, I enjoyed a wonderful Mahi-Mahi fish dinner at Giatu located inside the hotel lobby. Then it was off to bed to get some rest for the next day’s activities.
Andrew and I started off the day with a great complimentary breakfast at the hotel, and then hopped on the shuttle bus around 8 A.M. We were greeted in the main entrance of the Performance Center by our pleasant instructors. From there we headed to a classroom for introductions, group assignments, and about one hour briefing on basic fundamentals: proper seating position, vision, weight transfer, braking, over-steer, and under-steer.
There is no prerequisite track experience required to be able to sign up for the one, or two-day M School. However, BMW requires participants to successfully pass M School before attending Advanced M School at Virginia International Raceway, or Carolina Motorsports Park. The most important things I learned from the instructors in class were: keep your eyes up far down the road, look where you want to go, drive the car as hard as you can (keeping it within your comfort limits), and the fastest professional drivers know how to use the brakes. Sounds counter intuitive, but it made sense once I got in the car, and started the exercises.
Our group was split into three teams of five people so we could rotate cars and start to learn each section of the track. I’ll never forget walking outside to the staging area and seeing the large group of M cars idling, just waiting for us to give them all we had. M cars seem to have a soul, and even standing still they look as though they beg to be driven hard. The BMW Performance Center is paradise for BMW enthusiasts in the U.S., and we couldn’t have asked for more perfect weather – warm, sunny, pleasant – I love the South Carolina climate!
First up for me was the cornering and braking exercise in the M3 (all M3s had the DCT). The objectives were: proper shifting, threshold braking (full ABS), keeping your eyes on the apex, and accelerating out of the corner. The M3 is all business, and strapping myself in was made me feel like one of the luckiest guys in the world at that moment. The M3 undoubtedly is my favorite BMW (note to self, start saving for the next F80 M3 Sedan).
I was little anxious as I waited for my turn in the M3. However, each car had a two-way so we could get feedback and coaching from the instructors, as well as safety reasons. Our instructors Allison, Jim, Steve, Adam, and Clint, all did a great job coaching and giving us constructive criticism during each exercise. The school used colored reference point cones to help us with brake zones, apexes, and track out points. Also, before each exercise, the instructors would do a warm-up and demonstration lap with us.
It didn’t take me too long to feel comfortable behind the wheel of the M3. The balanced chassis responds to the drivers inputs with precision, and gives great feedback through the seat, steering wheel, and pedals. It was also easy to modulate power from the M3’s dual-clutch gearbox, and responsive naturally aspirated S65 V8 – what a masterpiece this engine is as it sings toward the 8,400 rpm redline. We took off hard to about 70 mph in third gear, downshifted to second, went as hard as we could on the brakes, turned into tight left hand hairpin, let the car track out, and made our way back to the starting line. What a rush!
On the first go around I started my braking at the right time, but wasn’t nearly as hard on the pedal as I should have been (6/10). I also didn’t use my side window to look at the apex – this was holding me back from achieving the optimal line. At first I felt a little timid about being hard on the car. I never drive, or brake this hard on the road in my 135i Coupe. By the fifth lap I was gaining more confidence which allowed me to go deeper into the braking zone. I also figured out how to keep my eyes where they should be. This exercise proved to be the most helpful for me as we worked our way to the half and full track sessions at the end of each day.
For the next exercise we were able to get behind the wheel of the 1M for heel-toe shifting on a technical part of the track. This wasn’t about who could go the fastest, but rather getting the technique down. Even after the session, I could have used some more practice. I should really drive a manual transmission for my personal car. It makes you feel more connected to what the car is doing and requires you to do a lot more quick thinking on the track.
The final exercise of the morning was the skid pad circle in the E60 M5. This ended being the hardest exercise for me. The M5 was set up with full power, and traction control (DSC) off. The objective here was to induce under-steer and over-steer, feel for how the car behaves, and learn how quickly correct. The instructors referred to this as C.P.R. (correct, pause, recover), and they made it look too easy during the demonstration.
Growing up in the Midwest meant l had to learn how to drive in the snow. I thought I had the concept of braking and counter steering down pretty good – different story doing it around around wet polished concrete circle with a 500hp sedan. The best was to describe the feeling is to try it yourself by feeling how your car behaves when you drive a little too fast while getting on the expressway via the on-ramp. What happens is the front tires start to reach their physical grip limits, making it harder for you to steer the car. Depending on your speed, the front end may push or plow around the corner, and send a chatter sensation through to the steering wheel. Having a little under-steer dialed in from the factory will help the average driver from loosing control and steering off the road. Over-steer, on the other hand, is done by adding power to get the rear end to slide out (think drifting). To control the drift, and keep the car moving in the intended direction, means you need to counter-steer, and delicately balance the throttle. There were a few times when I didn’t move my hands quick enough to correct, and it consequently sent the sports saloon into a fast 360 degree spin (I’ll admit those were pretty fun, though)! After around the eighth time around the circle, I got the correction part down – what a sigh of relief. The driving dynamics of the large M5 (in comparison to a M3 sedan) surprised me on the skid pad. The long wheelbase and even weight distribution coupled with precise steering, a mechanical limited slip rear differential, and electronic wizardry made it feel balanced, and forgiving when I attempted to recover from under-steer, and drift the tail out. I can only imagine the F10 M5 will feel even sharper on the track. I do good with motion sickness, but this was the hardest exercise on my body – time for a break!
We headed back into the Performance Center cafeteria for a nice lunch. I had a good time chatting with my fellow classmates, and the instructors about cars and life. Andrew and I used some of our break time to take a peek at the cars parked behind the building. We spotted a new red F30 335i Sport and blue X5M test vehicle which looked to be sporting led headlights. We learned the Performance Center serves a training center for BMW technicians.
They also maintain the entire fleet of cars used at the driving school, and any car owned by the plant employees. A popular option you can take advantage of is taking delivery of any new BMW vehicle at the Performance Center – even if it wasn’t manufactured at the Spartanburg plant (as a bonus you get to spend some time on the track with driving instructors in a car just like yours). BMW Driving School also offers a motorcycle training program, and teen driving courses. After lunch we met in the classroom so we could ask any follow-up questions about what we did in the morning, and then reviewed the curriculum for the rest of the day. We also got fitted for our BMW helmets that we would be using on day two.
I started the second half of day one at the timed autocross exercise in the M5. This short technical course was set up with a slalom section, a long decreasing radius right hander, a quick S curve, and a coned off stopping box. We were required to get the car to come to a complete stop within the the box, or penalty seconds were added to our final time. Many skills are taught during the auto-x course: steering input, weight transfer to the tires, trail braking, threshold braking, and of course vision.
These skills not only help on track days, but also during everyday driving on public roads, and emergency driving situations. I was surprised after my first couple laps just how good I was doing. I started to regain some confidence after the skid pad, and heel-toe stints earlier in the day. I ended up tied with Andrew for the second fastet time in our group by a couple tenths of a second.
Now it was time for a fun rat race competition. The school had us use 1Ms, but I asked if I could use a 135i Coupe instead. I wanted to see how the 1M and standard 1er stacked up against each other. Steve, our instructor, called this little Talladega raceway, and had me smiling the entire time with his Southern charm, and Nascar references over the radio. The objective: each driver would start at opposite ends of the short oval track with a large diameter of about 50-60 yards, and see who crossed the start/finish line first the most times out of five laps.
The driver who won would go to round two, and ultimately there would be one rat race winner. On my first lap it was evident that the 135i under-steered more than the M3 and 1M, and the electronic differential held it back a bit on corner exit compared to a mechanical limited slip differential on the M cars. However, the steering felt nicely weighted, and the low end torque of the N55 engine really made car feel quick. For not being an M car, the 1er Coupe is still a very capable, fun car out of the box. If I started autocrossing my 135i, I would consider some suspension modifications, and non-runflat tires. Otherwise it feels great for spirited street driving. This exercise was particularly helpful with training my eyes look ahead of the car, finding the balance of letting off the brake while steering the car around the curve, and feeling how much power to squeeze as I went onto the short straight. The oval rat race on the wet skid pad ended up being a blast!
We ended the day on a short road course in the M3s for two timed laps. This session proved to be a lot of fun as we strived for our best personal times, and also tried to best our classmates at the same time. I remember watching Jim demonstrate the course layout, and noticed how calm he was behind the wheel with his movements. I kept this in mind while doing my laps. By this time I felt confident with my driving, and thought I had a good chance for some sold runs – it also helps that the M3 is a confidence inspiring driving machine.
The M3s were set up by the school via the M button on the steering wheel. The shift setting was at the most aggressive (6), and M Dynamic Mode was on which allowed for some wheel spin while accelerating out of corners. This made for a fun and dynamic driving experience. We had the option of turning the power button (sharpens throttle response) on, or off depending on personal preference. I like to have it on while on the track, but not for everyday street driving. The course had a long back straight with speeds reaching around 100 mph. My favorite part of the course was the tight technical uphill section after coming off the wet skid pad. I really pushed the car hard here, and since the tires were wet, the rear danced around which made me work the over-steer. I felt that each exercise I practiced earlier in the day made me faster on this short road course. I ended up posting the fastest lap time out of 15 drivers (48.87)! We ended the day with a great dinner, and adult beverages inside the Performance Center.
Day two of M School is broken down into three parts which are designed to prepare you for the full track circuit. Everything we learned during day was applied, and kicked up a notch. The first part was the figure 8 exercise on the wet skid pad where the rat race took place. Each driver got 10 laps – once in the M3, and once in the 1M. This exercise was very challenging and designed to always keep the car in an unbalanced state. Concepts such as proper vision, quick hand movement, throttle control, braking, and managing the tire contact patch with weight distribution were all reinforced here. Since we had smaller group, and extra time, we were able to squeeze in a few more laps. I used the bonus laps to step out of my comfort zone, and to see if I could get the car to drift around the entire figure 8 – I almost managed to do it. It required delicate balance of the throttle, and steering. I feel that pushing myself during this exercise helped to make me a better, and quicker driver during the full road course sessions.
Here is a video demonstration of the figure 8 exercise in the E92 M3:
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For part two and three the instructors split the full circuit up into two parts. For one session we drove the M5s and the other session was in the M3s. I started in the M3 on the most technical part of the course. It consisted of a: blind drop off corkscrew section, decreasing radius corner, and tight chicane section with several elevations changes. The key here was being as smooth as possible, approaching the limit smoothly, and learning the proper race line. If you are too aggressive with the throttle, and overkill corners, you will loose time from having to correct your line. I attached a video of me in the M5 that shows a better visual of the course and line. Unfortunately, the video of me driving the full circuit in the M3 (the better of my two sessions) didn’t save properly via the in-car video recording and telemetry device.
Part three is designed to practice the fastest corner of the track in the M5 – a right hand double apex dubbed the “man corner.” The name came from how fast you enter the braking zone, and the G force generated during cornering. The key to the man corner is to see how late you can brake, you’re not applying full brakes, just enough to scrub off some speed, and get as close to the first clipping point (yellow cone) as possible; add a touch of maintenance gas, let off the gas just before the blue turn-in cone, let the car rotate, and follow the line keeping as close to the second yellow cone as you can. As you straighten the wheel you unwind the power toward the next blue cone, and onto the back straight. This led to the second section we would be practicing – a compromise S bend corner.
The objective here was brake as hard as possible (10/10) before the corner, make a wide arc toward the first late apex (making sure not to give the car too much gas), and then unwind a little more power toward the second late apex, so you can carry more speed onto the next short straight. Compromise corner really made the suspension work hard due to the road camber change, and quick weight transfer. It was my favorite part of the track as it challenged my corner transition technique.
Now it was time to put everything together and attempt the full circuit. By this time we were all pretty tired, but excited to apply everything we learned. We got about 8-10 laps in both the M3 and M5. I pushed the M5 too hard in certain sections (you will hear Jim giving me feedback before the downhill section) which ended up slowing me down, and adding a couple seconds to my lap times. I felt more comfortable in the M3 – I believe it was a combination of being a more nimble car, and the dual-clutch gearbox was much smoother than the sequential manual in the M5.
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Overall, this was one of the best experiences I’ve had. I learned a tremendous amount about proper performance driving technique, and had a lot of fun doing it at a unique facility with first class coaches. The M cars are truly engineering icons. We pushed the cars to their limit all day, and except for a punctured tire, not one had a mechanical issue. Very encouraging considering some of the cars in the fleet were over a year old with several miles of hard driving. If you haven’t had any track experience in your own BMW, you will be surprised to find out during M school just how capable, balanced, and forgiving these cars really are.
I highly recommend going if you’re a driving enthusiast that likes a fun challenge. I’m looking forward to attending the Advanced M School next.
Disclaimer: BMW North America arranged the M School accommodations for the BMWBLOG team.