Track test: Behind the wheel of BMW’s M6 GT3 racer
Motorsport.com Germany editor Stefan Ehlen recounts his experience of track-testing the new-for-2016 BMW M6 GT3 race car at the Bilster Berg test facility in Germany.
Just don’t stall the engine. This is all I have on my mind on a sunny Wednesday at Bilster Berg.
And my track test in the BMW M6 GT3 does indeed have a lot in common with the training to get your driver's license. Actually, it has more in common with that than you would think - as there are a lot of lessons to be learned before you even touch the wheel. And the big question is whether I have paid enough attention during the theoretical parts of my training…
It all starts with a 10-page dossier explaining all things technical about my track test, featuring a lot of data, procedures and dos and don’ts. How do I start the car? When do I shift? What do I have to do in an emergency? And lots of other basic questions. All covered, I should be ready to go.
After I have studied the dossier in detail, I am paired with a senior BMW instructor to go through it all once more, and in even more detail. This takes a bit of time as the 500bhp+ M6 GT3 is the fastest and certainly most complex car I’ve driven so far. And my past experiences include only a few test outings in touring cars.
Watch our man behind the wheel...
The M6 is a very different kind of machine. And that shows during the preparation I get ahead of my track test. Take the extraction training, for example. You have to complete it in order to qualify for the run. You fail, you don’t drive – simple as that.
In practice, this means: getting into the car fully harnessed with helmet, HANS, belts, radio, safety net at the door and rollcage all around you – and from the word ‘Go!’ you only have seven seconds to clear the car, move around the door to the hood and put your hand on the engine cover.
It is as tough as it sounds! But with a few explanations of what to do first and how to move quickly (and with your eyes closed!) I get there, right at the first attempt. Now that’s a relief! But my racing gear is all sweaty already…
Learning the track
The adrenaline keeps pumping because I’m about to go out on track for the first time. I take the shotgun seat next to DTM driver Martin Tomczyk in a BMW 235i.
It’s a totally new experience for me as I know Bilster Berg from paper only and from a few pictures and videos I saw before heading there. But reality always is different, and I’m startled by seeing it first-hand from inside the car while trying to remember as much as possible from our reconnaissance laps.
Martin hands over the wheel to me and gets in the 235i sister car to give me a few guided laps around the Ostschleife. And I start to get a feeling for the corners, the braking areas and the speeds.
Then I’m alone on track to further familiarize myself with everything. And I have to say: The 235i is a great pleasure to drive already. So is the track, which is flowing and twisty. But there’s not (yet) time to enjoy all this for too long as I’m called back to the pits for the most interesting part.
Sampling the “beast”
Back in the garage, it’s out of the touring car and straight into the GT3 - the “beast”, as Martin calls it.
Just a few days before my track test, I had witnessed the M6 in action at the 2016 Nurburgring 24 Hours. Now I am being strapped in in the very same car and my hands grab the steering wheel.
Once inside, I’m already focused on one thing alone: the launch. Will I be able to even start the car and get going without stalling it? Well, at my previous track test in the Opel Astra TCR touring car, it didn’t work too well a couple of times - so, yeah, I’m a bit nervous about this one.
I’m happy, however, to have the support of “my” race engineer Jeroen Den Boer via radio.
He once again guides me through all the necessary steps to start the car. Main power switch – on. Ignition – on. Start! And there you are, that deep growling from under the hood, and the car comes to life!
As I’m told to get going, the big moment has finally arrived. I’m on the clutch, feeling for the bite point, right foot on the accelerator, soft at first, then harder, mentally crossing my fingers not to make a fool of myself…
But – hey! – the machine is moving.
It’s a jumpy kind of start, but the M6 and I are rolling. And I’m just glad this worked out fine. However, there’s not a moment to waste as Martin in the 235i is already waiting for me to catch up at the end of the pitlane to guide me around again and to see how I cope with the M6.
And while driving below 60km/h in the pitlane you just feel that this car hasn’t been made for low speed. It’s anxious to get going fast, and so am I. But for the time being it’s all about learning again, developing a feeling for the stronger package I’m driving now.
And boy, what a difference! The M6 is not only much bigger than the 235i but also a lot more powerful, albeit very agile and easy to handle. And that sound…
I hear it properly for the first time when, after a few guided laps, I get the ‘Go!’ to run without the leading car in front. Bilster Berg, the M6 and I, here we go!
Time to see what it’s got
Finally, it’s pedal to the metal on the longest straight. The dash lights signal me to upshift every few seconds and I’m pushed into my seat every time I pull the shift paddle at the steering wheel.
We’re over 220km/h and on high revs in fourth gear when I start to brake for the long left-hander that leads to the rear part of the circuit, where it gets twisty – and hilly.
The M6, however, is a pleasure to drive everywhere. It’s stable in the corners and easy to handle. I feel secure and safe enough to really concentrate on being fast, even at the end of the second big straight where you need to brake uphill and make sure to hit the line just right.
But after only a few laps I’m being ordered back to the pits for debriefing with Jeroen and the crew. It’s on the laptop screen where my performance will be analyzed…
I’m happy with my laps so far, but well, there’s some disillusionment, too: I mostly used the right gears but didn’t go on the power soon enough after the corners. And the biggest “problem” is my braking.
“You’re braking with a pressure of 35kg,” Jeroen explains. In the reference data we have from BMW works driver Lucas Luhr we see that he’s braking with the force of 70kg.
So there’s plenty of room for improvement on my side. Jeroen tells me that I could brake a bit later, and harder, of course, to gain even more time.
Then again, during a track test you want to see a bit of performance but you definitely don’t want to crash the car. So it is with mixed feelings that I get behind the wheel again, and with the aim to at least achieve a small improvement on my second stint.
The starting procedure is the same all over again. But when I hit the start button, there’s a strange sound and the engine won’t come alive. I’m puzzled, but only for a moment. “Ignition,” Jeroen tells me on the radio. “You have to switch on the ignition first.” Whoops…
On my second attempt, the M6’s engine rumbles to life again and I manage to put the car in drive, too, without stalling. This bodes well for the next laps in the car which I will undertake completely on my own again as Martin waves me by just after the pitlane exit.
So I go, flat-out on the long straight, and I even manage to accelerate into fifth gear for a moment before braking slightly for the fast left-hander. The braking point for the twisty rear part, however, I miss. And I’m angry with myself for messing up the first lap already.
But I try hard to work on my braking on the back straight. I hit the pedal harder this time, and a bit later, too. And I’m thankful for the belts that hold me in place in my seat!
It’s definitely tougher now, but I have no time to rest: around the hairpin in second gear, briefly up to third in the left-hander, back to second, right, left and on the throttle for the last short straight.
And there it is again, the important braking point ahead of the chicane, a spot where you can gain or lose a lot of laptime. This time, however, there will be no overall best for me as, again, I’m a bit late on the brakes and have to work hard to turn the car into the left, right, left chicane.
Concentration is key for this kind of operation, so I vow to do better! Even though I’m already sweating cats and dogs inside the car.
Working hard behind the wheel
Driving this machine is stressful, both physically and mentally. But the car itself is designed to make you feel at ease immediately because it just does what you want it to.
This is why I find new confidence, and my third flying lap is my fastest. It feels like it and it truly is.
On the other hand there, is this little voice in your head that urges you on to go try even better all the time. Go with the flow, now that you have the chance. Just do it, push a little more!
But it’s fast-forward to reality only in my fourth lap when I miss the braking spot again for the chicane. There it is, my personal limit. And suddenly I don’t want to explore what lies beyond.
So I refrain from pushing too much on my final laps and I just enjoy the moment, working the wheel of this great piece of engineering, guiding it around a beautiful yet tricky circuit.
Only a few minutes later I’m back in the pits and I park the car in front of the mechanics. Wow, what a ride!
And it gets even better as once again I’m summoned to the laptop for a quick debrief.
Jeroen is happy with my performance. My braking was harder, my acceleration better. And I improved my own personal best by a total of five seconds – on a 65-second lap! Now that’s something to be happy about!
There’s more I learned at Bilster Berg. For instance, a bit of coaching can help you to really get to terms with a proper race car. And the M6 is a vehicle even an amateur driver like me can control with ease.
You certainly feel the thrill of driving a real racecar, which it is.
And it leaves you wanting more…
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