BMW M4 MotoGP Safety Car in Qatar, you say? You need somebody handy? I'll take the compliment, however undeserving. Oh, and yes, please. As bravado quells, concern grows. It's been a while since I've driven a standard M4, though a hastily arranged few days in BMW's press car reacquaints me with it, reminding me of its senior and sometimes prickly nature. A colleague casually mentioning in passing that it can be a handful on track is unhelpful, especially given he's as happy moving sideways as your average crab. He's referring to the standard M4, too, and the MotoGP BMW M4 Safety Car's specification I'm climbing aboard a plane to Qatar to drive is a little bit more focused. This could be interesting...
BMW M Division's involvement in MotoGP has been long and illustrious. The Official Car of MotoGP since 1999, the premier motorcycle racing championship has always featured M cars in the Safety Car role—and will do so until 2020 at least. Medics and other staff also use M vehicles on track over the race weekends. The Safety Car is the most obvious, though, chasing the pack on the first lap and policing any full-course yellow flag events, so it needs to be fast.
Since last year, that Safety Car role has been undertaken by the M4. The tri-color M and Safety Car decals give it even more presence in front of a global audience of millions. The ultimate machine for shepherding riders when they part company from their bikes, the M4 Safety Car's role is an essential one at the race weekend. Visually, other than the decals, there are some trick carbon bits, such as an adjustable rear spoiler, rear diffuser, BMW M Performance front splitter, and air blades. When you've a two-wheeled loon bearing down on you at unimaginable speed, the roof-mounted red LED light bar, allied to additional flashing front and rear lights, make a lot of sense, too. Sadly, you'll not find them on BMW's online M car configurator, however hard you look.
Given the M4 is required to operate in the intensity of a race weekend, at some of the fastest and hottest tracks around the world, M's engineers have made a few other choice revisions. The carbon brakes are straight off the production car's options list, though the rollcage isn't. Fitting it necessitates the removal of the rear seats, and the space where the seats once were allows a fire extinguisher to be fitted.
The Recaro bucket seats and Schroth six-point harnesses are all wise additions here, too. There is also some adjustable KW coilover suspension that's more suitable for the Safety Car's track role and a louder, BMW M Performance titanium exhaust system off the options list. It's noisier than it should be as it has had its central muffler removed because, well, why wouldn't you? It sounds magnificent, too, while the 20-second optimal warm-up cycle the engine goes through before settling to a slightly muted idle is joyously, overtly naughty in its intensity. There's a main electrical cut-off switch and a fuel-pumping system that allows the electrical system to be isolated and the fuel emptied to ease transportation. After all, the M4 Safety Car gathers more air miles in a MotoGP season than your average pilot.
Nothing too out of the ordinary so far then, and the sort of revisions an M4 owner might make if regular track use was high on the agenda. But it's what's under the bonnet that it all gets a bit more interesting, revolutionary even, as this BMW M4 features water injection.
Water and combustion might traditionally be uncomfortable companions, but here H2O's role is to cool air from the turbochargers to improve performance. Ready for the science bit? A fine spray of water is injected into the collector to create cooler air with a higher density and greater oxygen content. That's all to the benefit of combustion. It, in turn, allows the charge pressure to be increased, as well as the compression ratio. All that removes the potentially engine-destroying knock that can occur when temperatures get too high and combustion occurs in an uncontrolled manner. The water—distilled—is held in a 5.0L tank in the boot, it needing to be filled (in normal use) every fifth fuel stop. It's conceptually simple but really rather clever thermal management that brings some very obvious advantages in a number of areas, including economy and emissions.
The engineers are excited about it, justifiably so. Officially, BMW is claiming an increase in performance of around 8 percent, though we believe that's a conservative figure. BMW M's boss, Frank van Meel, grinning, speaks of a power gain that might mean the peak output that starts with a 5 rather than a 4. Torque also improves, though not by quite the jump as the horsepower, while the improved combustion is also beneficial to both economy and emissions. That's relatively speaking here, as that economy relates to the very extremes of the M4's performance. Still, it's good to know that every bulkhead-troubling push of the accelerator is using a little bit less fuel than it would do without the water-injection system, yet produces more power. Water here really is the giver of life.
If the numbers quoted so far are vague, it's not because Meel is being awkward and secretive, but because he says he genuinely doesn't know. It's that cutting-edge in OE terms; the M4 Safety Car's engine is effectively an experiment, in the most public and challenging arenas. There's a pair of engineers plugging a laptop into it periodically to see what it's doing, but they're not prepared to discuss specifics.
"I like that it's being tested on the racetrack," Meel says. "It's in keeping with M's philosophy." It's difficult to argue with that, though it does mean the car's busy. As in, due to be used in a few hours later today, so definitely don't break it busy. Before there's time to think about that, its usual driver, Mike La Fuente, runs through the cockpit operation. The compact, affable Spaniard raced both bikes and cars before hitting the usual sponsorship and management ceiling that makes the next step all but impossible for the talented but unlucky handful. He's pre-programmed the M buttons on the steering wheel to his preferences, both of which seem to equate to turning the M4 up to 11. Press the M1 button once, another time to confirm, and it's got your back. Just. "It won't add power if it starts sliding and you ask for it, but it'll still spin up its wheels in Third," La Fuente says. Oh, good. Press M2, La Fuente's preferred setting in anything but the wet, and you're on your own. Completely.
That's about as far as the briefing goes. Clamber over the deep bolsters of the Recaro bucket seats, rummage around your groin amateurishly and embarrassingly to get the Schroth's buckle housing out, and tighten those belts before there's a chance to really think about the enormity of an unfamiliar track, a car that's needed to fulfill a very important job in a few short hours and the boss of BMW M looking on.
Push the button to start it before driving out of the pit lane with La Fuente chattering away incomprehensibly on a radio that's been chucked in the cupholder. Three sighting laps—behind La Fuente in an X5—follow. That's sighting in the racing driver sense, which means an X5 in all manner of shapes ahead, driven like no ordinary X5 has ever been driven before. The M4 behind barely breaks a sweat. It's obvious after the first turn of the wheel that this is a very different feeling M4 to the standard car. That's not initially related to the engine, either, even if it is determined to smoke up the rear tires at any opportunity. Where it's most obviously different centers around the steering. Nothing has been done to the system itself, as the only difference is that KW suspension. Whatever the settings, they work. The chunky, almost overly thick wheel is familiar, but its response is so much crisper than the road car's. The Safety Car's nose feels keener than ever to turn in; the immediacy at the wheel initially shocking, while there's some real information at the rim—even on the glass-smooth tarmac of Qatar's Losail International circuit.
Sat in the firm hold of the Recaro buckets and tight grasp of the six-point harness, the M4 doesn't intimidate. Indeed, it feels so much more benign despite its greater potency. The water injection doesn't get working until you're pulling 5,000 rpm and more, after which the chase to the 7,600-rpm redline never quells in its intensity. That trick mist of water might only do its thing at higher revs, but the Safety Car's engine feels more muscular and immediate at lower revs, too. Thanks to that naughty exhaust pipe, it sounds magnificent as well—enough to drown out the initial additional din created by that not-so-aero-friendly lightbar on the roof. Pushing the accelerator brings an immediate response, yet there's none of the sometimes prickly, tricky, on-off delivery of the standard M4, so the Safety Car's power, crazy as it might sound, is mightier, but so much friendlier. It's all enough that once the X5 peels off into the pit lane and the track is gloriously free, the temptation to press that M2 button and go it alone is impossible to resist.
What follows are two laps of total hilarity, the M4 Safety Car so easy to steer under power it's borderline ridiculous. The blown, water-injected straight-six turns the Safety Car's rear wheels into controllable castors, leaving lines of rubber and smoke at will around the Losail circuit. All very silly, but demonstrative of a very well sorted chassis. Plenty of tarmac—rather than gravel—run-off ups the bravery, and greater speed does nothing to quell the M's appetite for sliding. It is possible to drive it neatly, but a couple of corners of tidy apex chasing quickly descend into willful power oversteer with the merest whiff of additional input on the accelerator. La Fuente's an absolute hero for keeping it neat with a pack of bikes chasing him down, while BMW M Division's trick new tech does exactly what it promises and more. It'll reach production, too, both in high-performance applications like M cars, but elsewhere in the BMW lineup, where its focus will be more economy biased.
What nobody's admitting openly is that the M4 Safety Car is a not-too-subtle hint at what a much-rumored M4 GTS might, no, will be like. If that's true, and the rye smiles of denial from M's staff when asking about it suggests it is, then BMW M car fans should be very excited indeed.