BMW M4 GT4 Driving Experience – How To Get A Taste Of Racing

Finally got my chance to get behind the wheel of a BMW race car – and you can too!

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If you’re like me, you grew up playing video games and spent many hours racing virtually. My game of choice was Gran Turismo for PlayStation. I logged so many laps that I still have the Nürburgring Nordschleife memorized, and I even completed the 24 Hours of Le Mans by myself! I knew as soon as I got my driver’s license I’d get on track, but I dreamed of sliding into the seat of a real race car. And after many years of autocross and track days, I finally got my chance to get behind the wheel of a factory prepared BMW race car – and you can too!

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A New And Unique Driving Program

The BMW Performance Driving School has created a new program for their West Coast location at The Thermal Club in Palm Springs which allows you to suit up in a racing fire suit and pull on a full-face helmet before you get strapped into one of the latest race cars from BMW Customer Racing. This new course allows BMW enthusiasts the opportunity to experience the highly successful BMW Motorsport M4 GT4 race car first-hand as well as receive one-on-one race driving instruction at one of the most premiere race facilities in North America.

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BMW at Thermal Club, Palm Springs

Introduced for the 2018 racing season, the BMW M4 GT4 is a serious piece of machinery. This isn’t an M4 with some BMW M stickers on it, this car was crowned “Race Car of the Year” at the Professional MotorSport World Expo Awards! Last season, it won three GS Class IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge races, nine SRO Pirelli GT4 SprintX races, and the SRO Intercontinental GT Indianapolis 8 Hour for the GT4 Class.

Your Own BMW Race Car For A Day

The BMW M4 GT4 is powered by the same 3.0-liter S55 inline 6-cylinder engine that is found in the BMW M4 road car and delivers more than 430 hp. This all depends on class regulations and balance of performance as there are different power sticks used to control the engine output. The power-to-weight ratio is significantly better that the road car’s though due to the M4 GT4 weighing around 700 pounds less than the M4 since the roof, hood, doors, front splitter and rear wing are all made from carbon fiber and the entire car has been gutted.

The race car comes with the 7-speed dual clutch transmission (DCT) featuring custom motorsport software which transfers power to 18-inch wheels wrapped with full racing slicks via a mechanical limited-slip differential. The chassis is reinforced with an FIA compliant BMW Motorsport welded safety roll cage. It features, three-stage adjustable motorsport anti-roll bars and specially-valved Ohlins motorsport shock absorbers at the corners. Plus, it’s equipped with fixed six-piston front and four-piston rear AP brakes controlled by a cockpit adjustable AP racing pedal box and a manually adjustable brake bias.

What does that all mean? The BMW M4 GT4 has a starting price of $210,000 – almost three times the cost of an M4 Competition! Thus, $2,795 for the BMW M4 GT4 Experience is actually quite a bargain.

BMW M4 GT4 Driving Experience Package

The full-day experience includes a classroom session, warm-up and training sessions in M2s and M4s to get you up to speed and prepared, then culminates in multiple stints with the M4 GT4. In addition, the program includes:

  • VBOX data and video system in the M4 GT4 to record the session.
  • Professional instructors plus trackside crew and support.
  • All driving gear – racing suit, helmet, gloves, and shoes.
  • Lunch at the BMW Performance Center café.
  • Insurance, with a $2,500 deductible for vehicle or property damage
BMW M4 GT4 Driving Experience – How To Get A Taste Of Racing
BMW M4 GT4 Fleet

I arrived at the Performance Center early and there was already one of the M4 GT4s sitting right out front just waiting for me. It wasn’t there for show though as we started our day hopping in and getting a quick introduction to our “office” for the day. Dusty, our BMW Motorsport engineer, guided us through getting the car set up for each of us with a seat fitting, pedal and steering wheel placement, a quick rundown of the controls, and how to easily get in and out of the driver seat. If you haven’t tried this before, it can be quite awkward if you don’t practice yoga. Plus, it becomes much harder when you are suited up in safety gear and have no peripheral vision due to your helmet.

Warm Ups In the M2 Competition

After a quick introduction class on what to expect from the day, we walked out to a waiting lineup of BMW M2 Competitions and headed over to one of the Performance Center’s short tracks. Our instructor took us out for a few slow lead-follow laps and talked us through the racing line and braking points. Then we were set loose to get warmed up. With COVID causing so many places and events to close down over the last year, I had only been on track once very briefly, so it was nice to shake the rust off and get back into the rhythm. The M2 Comp feels perfect on this autocross sized course and it’s easily tossed around on the tight corners. I have always enjoyed how this car drives!

Once we were up to speed and starting to lap at a consistent pace without many mistakes, the instructor had us pull into the paddock for a quick break. We discussed a few techniques as a group while we grabbed some water (remember to stay hydrated as it is in the middle of the desert), then swapped the M2s for M4s and drove over to The Thermal Club’s South Palm Circuit. This was the first track built at this facility and is a 2-mile circuit featuring three long straights, one of which is long enough to reach speeds of over 130 MPH in the M4!

The track is where the M4 really shines. This car loves to be opened up and pushed hard! After a good session though, I was noticing that I was heating up the front tires a little too much which was producing some understeer. Not sure if the tires were a little worn, or if my skills were a little rough, but I did start to notice that I was driving off of the car in front of me a little too much. This is something that you can fall into in a lead-follow training session – when the car in front turns, you turn, making your turn-in a tad early. So, I laid back a little and worked on hitting my turn-in point, apex, and track-out points better. I knew this would be even more important in the M4 GT4 if I wanted to really maximize its performance later in the day.

BMW M4 GT4 Driving Experience – How To Get A Taste Of Racing
Getting Ready For Hot Laps

Lunch at the BMW Performance Center is not like your typical track day; theirs is catered, delicious, and up on a patio overlooking the track. It’s a great way to split up the day and makes me think about all those times I scarfed down a hotdog and a Coke while sitting in the pits with the smell of hot brakes close by. No thanks… I’ll take this from now on please!

Once we were refueled, we jumped into the M2 Comps again and headed back to the autocross track. This time it would be timed, winner take all – and by “all”, that means the timing sheet. It’s the best trophy there is, physical proof you laid down the quickest time of the day. And for the first time in quite a while, I was not going to be taking it home and adding it to the others in my collection. So, let’s not talk about that and move on to what we came here for: the BMW M4 GT4.

The Wait Is Finally Over

The first thing you’ll love about the M4 GT4 is the sound when you fire it up. With no sound deadening insulation and a motorsport-specific lightweight exhaust system, you can hear the great rasp of the BMW inline-6 engine. And once you get it revved up and bouncing off of redline with each pull of the paddle shifter, you’ll be addicted! But before we could do that, we had to get everything warmed up.

To get the brakes and tires up to temperature, on our first out lap we went through a succession of hard acceleration followed by hard braking multiple times down the straights. We followed that up with a couple laps at a moderate pace while we familiarized ourselves with how the M4 GT4 felt in comparison to the M4 we just got out of. To simply put it, everything was turned up to 11 and it instantly reacted to every input I gave it.

After we had completed this short warmup session, we pulled back into pitlane so that the BMW Motorsport engineer could check tire pressures and make sure everything was operating properly. Once he gave the thumbs up, our instructor led us back out, and then dropped the hammer!

BMW M4 GT4 Driving Experience – How To Get A Taste Of Racing
Best Racing Scenery

The pitlane exit on the South Palm Circuit puts you right onto the longest straight of the track. This gives you a great run onto the straight and you get up to somewhere around 130-135 MPH at the end of it. And that’s when you notice that the brakes are very different from the road car! They are much, much firmer and take quite a bit of effort to get them to engage. But this is on purpose as they are designed to not overheat during long endurance races. If you’ve been on track, you know how brakes can start to feel rather squishy as the pedal throw gets longer throughout the session. That won’t happen in this car.

Once you do get it slowed down, the next thing that instantly jumps out at you is how well the M4 GT4 corners – it’s on absolute rails and can change directions very quickly! The full slicks and aerodynamics make it feel so much more planted and composed. The lateral g-force that it produces is just awesome to feel. In the M4, there’s some suspension compliance and you can play with the edge of adhesion with the tires – not so much in M4 GT4. And that’s why we worked on a different driving line while in the M4 earlier. With the M4 GT4, the line isn’t as arcing, it’s sharper and more geared to get the car pointed straight sooner.

I found out very quickly why that is too: traction control.

The M4 GT4’s traction control was clearly tied to the steering input. If there was a lot of steering angle, there was less power available. As you opened up the wheel, it would give you more, and as soon as the steering wheel went straight, you had max power. This was a cool experience as the power-to-weight ratio was much better than the M4, plus add in the additional traction from the slick tires, and it would just rocket out of the corner!

We ended up getting two, rather long sessions in the M4 GT4 before the experience was over and they had to drag me out of the car. I had an absolute blast and could have continued on for hours.

In all, we ended up spending a good hour with the M4 GT4. But the way they have structured the BMW M4 GT4 Experience makes it feel like I spent half the day with it. The interactions were sprinkled throughout the day – the walkaround, safety gear fitting, steering wheel and controls overview, and driving past them getting prepared trackside as we headed out on circuit in the street cars. All of this didn’t just extend the excitement, it built it up so that when we did finally jump into the cockpit, got our seatbelts sinched tight, and our radio jacked into our helmet, we were amped and ready!

Plenty Of School Sessions, Even For Beginners

For those who desire to take it to the next level, the BMW Performance Center also offers a SCCA-certified racing school to take the next steps to becoming a pro driver. Students can even add this one-day school to an Advanced M School or Two-Day M School session and get qualified all at once. They will coach you through the art of passing under both braking and acceleration, you’ll learn how to navigate with other cars on track, and even practice starts to help you set up for that first turn after the green flag drops.

If you are looking for more seat time, they also offer a half-day program which includes 125 miles of track driving and a full-day program which includes 250 miles. These programs are geared for people who are looking to get plenty of seat time so they can compete with the best in any global GT4 racing series.

The school alone is amazing, but to make the experience complete, it was recommended that we stay at the Hotel PASEO – and we are glad we did! This boutique hotel is the first new luxury hotel in Palm Desert in over 30 years, and carries on the Palm Springs vibe, but with a modern twist. Just off El Paseo, which is known as the “The Rodeo Drive of the Desert”, there are plenty of nice restaurants, shops, and entertainment within walking distance. And after a long day at the track, they have SPA LA LÉ right on site so you can wind down with a nice massage. Plus, they have partnered with the BMW Performance Center to offer exclusive discounts of up to 25% off their standard rates to those attending a driving school.

Memories Of A Lifetime

The BMW Performance Center is more than just a driving school, it provides premium experiences that create memories of a lifetime. This was something I’ve been dreaming about for a long time and I’m very happy to be able to finally check it off my list. Guess I need to come back and get my racing license now so I can hit up BMW Customer Racing teams for some seat time. This was just the start of the dream, ultimately I ended up at the Nürburgring 24 Hours!

To find out more about the BMW M4 GT4 Experience, or any of their other driving schools, visit their website at bmwperformancecenter.com.