*Updated Text and Photo
BMW M235i Racing Details:
- Race-tuned steering, traction control, ABS and motor
- Steering wheel-mounted info display
+ Pros: Purpose-built racer | Incredible chassis | Easy to use | Relatively affordable
- Cons: US delivery uncertain
As I raise my leg over the door bars of the FIA-spec rollcage, I can't hide from the weight of expectation upon me. I'm honored to be the first journalist to drive the BMW M235i Racing but, in addition to my own high hopes, I have to contend with the presence of BMW senior management, development engineers, an experienced racer in the shape of works driver Joey Hand, and our own Mike Sabounchi, poised with cameras and GoPros to capture any incompetence on the small, tight Inner Handling Course at Las Vegas Speedway.
Ducking my head under the roof bar, the BMW-supplied helmet clunks into the steel cage; something I'll repeat with annoying regularity. By now my mouth is dry and hands sweating into the Nomex gloves. I've driven lots of cars on countless tracks but this was special - my first time in a factory racecar and a rare outing on slicks. It was a real privilege and I was going to make the most of it...
Sinking my backside into the tight seat, I'm struck by the low driving position. It's about 4" lower than a regular M235i but seems more. In fact, I'm peering over the M Performance steering wheel, trying to familiarize myself with the controls.
An engineer sticks his head into the doorframe to help with the harness belts. Cinched in tight, the Coupe feels almost alien after the BMW Alpina B7 we rolled up in this morning. He runs me through the startup procedure. My head was spinning and the limited peripheral vision from the helmet wasn't helping.
"Push the brake pedal, press the starter button and select drive," he instructs. Hang on, I can do that...
I take a deep breath. The fog clears. Despite its widebody fenders covering 18x10" BBS Motorsport wheels and Dunlop slicks, its door numbers and racing stripes, this is still an M235i with a race seat, rollcage and fuel cell. Yes, it's more complicated than that, but it certainly wasn't intimidating when I took stock of my surroundings. This was going to be fun!
Check out our First Drive of the BMW M235i to see the differences in the two machines.
So how did the latest factory BMW M235i Racing come into existence? Talking to BMW Motorsport Director, Jens Marquardt, he explained that during last year's VLN 24-hour race at the Nürburgring, he walked the grid with other senior management. After admiring their Z4 GT3-spec cars up front, they realized that further back BMW's representation was primarily from older E36 and E30 chassis. They simply didn't have any modern machinery for the grass roots racers. In fact, the last real product was the M3 GT4, which wasn't exactly bargain basement.
Taking the task by the horns, Jens gathered his team, appointing Sebastian Golz as the M235i Racing Project Manager. They examined several solutions and, with the new 2 Series about to start its life cycle, it seemed the ideal candidate since it would be both affordable and around for a few years.
Involving all BMW departments, from its Leipzig production plant where the bulk of the car is assembled, to the BMW dynamics engineers, software technicians, purchasing and Motorsport departments, their priority was to create an affordable, accessible vehicle for national racing series and club events.
As such, the racecar would use a surprising number of production parts. The 333hp engine, for example, was essentially the stock N55 3.0L but for software tuning; even the engine cooling and intercooling was production BMW M235i.
During the BMW M235i Racing model's extensive Nürburgring testing, which included a two-week continuous driving program, Sebastian Golz assured us his team experienced no overheating issues (although we'll be interested to see how that translates to a Californian summer or the heat of Dubai...). Equally important will be the software upgrades to ensure the car doesn't drop into Limp Mode when it does gets hot. Make no mistake, this car was built to race and BMW has put its reputation behind it.
Perhaps the most controversial decision was to retain the production ZF 8HP eight-speed automatic transmission, not even offering a manual option. According to Jens, the decision was taken during development of the BMW M4. While driving test mules on the 'Ring, BMW management and engineers felt the speed and simplicity of a paddle shift would make the car more accessible to a broad range of drivers. It would also protect the engine from over-revving, and wouldn't add any development cost beyond software. It also transpired that ZF was very keen to support the project.
Despite the sound of straight-cut gears inside the cabin, Golz assured us the transmission was internally stock, the noise was the result of a lack of soundproofing - it even keeps the same ratios as the road car.
What was different was the shift speed, engaging fast and hard. The torque converter disengages once the car's rolling to prevent it slipping the power after each shift. With this transmission, the BMW M235i Racing is like driving the E60 M5 with the shift force turned up to max - it comes in with a real bang.
So why doesn't it have DCT? After all, it's BMW's flagship transmission and reputedly the most advanced around. Well, it was a simple matter of economics, according to Golz. The M235i wasn't engineered for DCT, so developing it solely for the racecar would have introduced greater cost, a longer gestation period and more expensive repairs.
After looking at all the options, BMW felt the 8HP was the best option and, after driving it, we're inclined to agree. It's not as engaging as a six-speed manual, but it does allow you to get on with finding the apex and building speed.
Perhaps our only complaint was that the downshift threshold seemed a little low. On occasions it refused to give us gears because the revs were higher than permitted. To be honest, it's also a bad habit of mine, preferring to use a lot of engine braking rather than getting it done with the enormously capable US-made Performance Friction four-piston front brake set up.
Talking to Joey Hand after his handful of laps, the brakes were also a standout feature for him. "You'll never run out of brakes in that car," he confirmed. "The ABS threshold was set very high, allowing a degree of lock up on hard application."
The surface of the Vegas Speedway track was smooth, with gentle curbs that didn't seem to upset the car. In fact, the ride on its combination of KW dampers with H&R springs seemed remarkably compliant, allowing the weight to be transferred and traction to be found.
After completing a few laps with the traction control in its Sport setting, I put on my brave trousers and switched everything off. The sticky Dunlops ensured remarkable traction, allowing you to get on the power before the apex, with only a slight wiggle from the rear in protest. Yet everything felt very predictable and reassuring.
The car also cornered remarkably flat, allowing a degree of weight transfer to load up the tires, but the H&R sway bars fitted front and rear did an admirable job of body control.
It exhibited no understeer at this speed. Undoubtedly, the prodigious grip from the wide front tires were the primary factor, but the M235i Racing appeared wonderfully neutral. You had to want it to oversteer, because otherwise it would simply follow the line you picked without fuss or drama.
The mechanical limited-slip differential was another welcome ally, providing further stability and traction. Apparently identical to the LSD available as an option on the M235i road car, but with a different locking rate, I'd swear you could feel it transferring power across the rear axle in the transitions. Whatever it was, there was no lack of confidence when driving the car.
After his laps, Hand would decrease the tire pressures, finding more grip in the process, while I was still in the learning phase. Given only 10 or 11 laps to familiarize myself, I concentrated on trying to interpret what was happening and where I was going.
However, I did expect more heft to the steering with its wide 265/660 R18 slick front tires - the square set-up front and rear was designed to save teams from needing different size spares, even allowing the rubber to be rotated.
Again, the racecar retained the stock electric steering of the production M235i, but BMW's dynamics engineers had worked tirelessly to get the correct ratio and weight. Certainly, the turn-in was beautifully precise, but I'd have requested a little more weight. Joey Hand was of a similar opinion but, two days after his appearance at the Rolex 24, his frame of reference was very different to mine...
The new bumpers and fenders replaced the stock panels, constructed from carbon fiber-reinforced fiberglass, a material chosen for its low weight and cost. A rear wing was deemed unnecessary thanks to aerodynamic balance being established with the carbon splitter on the front spoiler, and was proven by Nürburgring testing. However, BMW will happily sell you a wing but stressed that the front spoiler and suspension would need corresponding upgrades.
The interior featured more carbon fiber, with it appearing on the dash, console, door cards and floor panels. If you don't specify a passenger seat, an optional carbon floor panel is available to replace it. However, we should stress these weren't your typical racing parts. The fit and finish was certainly worthy of a factory racer.
As prototype number two of three cars built, this particular example retained its iDrive screen on the dashboard, which will be absent from the final version, according to Golz. Instead, most of the data will be available in the small display on the BMW M Performance steering wheel, which also sported shift lights - this is another item available from your dealer for BMW road cars.
With its adjustable seat position and steering column, it was possible to quickly get comfortable in the M235i Racing, reducing distractions.
The overall weight reduction measures, such as the lightweight bodywork, wheels, removal of insulation and factory seats, was countered somewhat by the rollcage and fuel cell - the latter not required by many race series but Jens explained the team focused on creating a safe car. As a result, we were told the weight savings over the production car would be in the region of 270 lb, with the car expected to weigh around 3140 lb once the final spec is signed off. While it's a relatively small saving, it greatly benefited the performance, handling and braking.
With the insulation removed, a lot of work had gone into producing a good sound. In fact, the driving experience was intensified by the mild transmission whine and purposeful exhaust note. Relatively subdued at low RPM, the BMW M235i Racing had an angry tone at speed. Yet the exhaust neither droned nor buzzed inside the car, although the helmet might have helped... That said, you won't need earplugs to race this car.
Coming to America
Once the initial nerves had settled, the M235i Racing was remarkably civilized. It was comfortable, lightweight and quiet - everything the road car offers but with an utterly different character. This was undoubtedly a racecar. Perhaps not hard-edged like a 911 GT3, it won't bite too hard if you make a mistake, either. The big brakes, prodigious grip and predictable handling would see to that.
The M235i Racing was designed to offer an affordable access point for track day enthusiasts who want to take the next step to club, regional or national race series. Costing around $82000 (depending on the Euro exchange rate), the car is relatively affordable for established teams. It's also competitively priced if you were to try and replicate it yourself. As a result, BMW reported taking 35 orders at the car's Nürburgring introduction for European race teams, with more enquiries continuing to come in on a regular basis.
According to Marquardt, there are no production limits. He claims BMW will build as many cars as are requested, with the Racing assembled alongside the regular 2 Series at BMW's Leipzig plant. The vehicles are then transferred to an outside contractor for final assembly of the specialized items like the rollcage, fuel cell and so forth.
European deliveries will take precedence, with the US being supplied rather late in the day. Nobody would give a date but didn't contradict us when we suggested deliveries might start towards the end of the year.
With that said, we spoke to a leading BMW race team in the US that contradicted this information. They had tried to order cars directly from Germany to avoid the delay but had been refused. They were apparently told the order books were full for the next two years and that the BMW M235i Racing may never actually reach the US!
This clearly contradicted what BMW was telling us, creating a confusing situation but, until we see cars in the hands of North American race teams, we won't know who's correct...
Impatient US customers could look at building their own versions of the car, with many of the parts available through the eight BMW Motorsport dealers across the country or from the aftermarket. The problem will be in the software calibration for the ABS, traction control, steering, engine, temperature control, transmission tuning, etc. Without these, the car won't be as suitable for competition.
It will be a shame if the BMW M235i Racing doesn't reach these shores because it's a remarkably good package that would make an ideal entry-level racecar for anybody looking to make that first step into wheel-to-wheel motorsport. I guess we'll just have to wait and see...
2014 BMW M235i Racing
Engine 2979cc N55 six-cylinder 24v direct injection, turbo with BMW Motorsport software, Racing exhaust and catalytic converters
Drivetrain ZF 8HP eight-speed automatic transmission with paddle shifters, BMW Motorsport software and modified torque converter, BMW M Performance mechanical limited-slip differential
Brakes Performance Friction four-piston fixed calipers, 370mm rotors f, BMW M4 two-piston calipers, 345mm rotors r
Suspension KW V3 dampers, H&R springs, H&R adjustable front and fixed rear sway bars, carbon fiber and aluminum front strut tower braces
Wheels & Tires 18x10" BBS Motorsport wheels, 265/660 R18 Dunlop Racing slick tires
Exterior BMW Motorsport carbon fiber-reinforced fiberglass fenders, front and rear bumpers and spoilers, M Performance carbon fiber front splitters, rear spoiler and diffuser, black grilles, hood latches
Interior Recaro Pro Racer SPGracing seat, Schroth six-point harnesses, FIA-approved rollcage, fuel cell, BMW M Performance steering wheel with info display and shift lights, carbon fiber dash trim, center console, floor panels and door panels with cloth pull tabs, rear seat and sound insulation removed, optional passenger seat
Max Power 333hp
Max Torque 332 lb-ft
Top Speed n/a
Weight 3140 lb (estimated)
MSRP $82000 approx