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The BMW 3 Series: An Unparalleled Career in Motorsports

Karl Funke
Sep 16, 2011
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Munich. Over the 5 generations since its launch, the BMW 3 Series has enjoyed a most impressive career. This applies to its market success, but also especially to its career in motorsports. During the past 35 years, the 3 Series models with their characteristic compact dimensions, dynamic engines and sporty suspension have contributed considerably towards dynamic performance and the brand's excellent reputation on the racetrack. With such attributes, BMW's midrange model is ideally suited for successful use in motorsports in particular. With its return in 2012 to the DTM, a top motorsport category, BMW intends to replicate its earlier successes with the BMW M3 DTM now currently under development.

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A start with a bang: BMW 320i for the BMW Junior Team.

The BMW 3 Series Sedan of the first generation had been on the market for just two years when it caused an incredible sensation on the racetrack. The task was to render the new series a flagship of the brand in terms of sportiness through its successful deployment in motor sports. The BMW Motorsport GmbH, which was established in 1972, developed the BMW 3 Series with the greatest consistency into a so-called Group 5 racing touring car in accordance with an extremely sophisticated technical regulation. The car was powered by a proven racing engine - the 2-litre four-cylinder power unit with four valves per cylinder, which had dominated Formula 2 racing for several years and already boasted 300 hp when first deployed in the BMW 3 racing car. Trimmed for good road holding by means of lightweight construction, torsional stiffness and huge wings at the front and rear, the three exclusively painted cars for the BMW Junior Team (comprising young talents Manfred Winkelhock, Marc Surer and Eddie Cheever) were the main topic of discussion during their first race at the Belgian Grand Prix racetrack in Zolder on 13 March 1977. But when one of the three BMW juniors, Marc Surer from Switzerland, went ahead of the established competition, eventually going on to win the race, the sensation was perfect. The BMW 3 Series had got off to a storybook start on the racetrack.

During this first season and in the following years, the path to victory in its class always led via the BMW 3 Series racing touring car. It was deployed in countless national championships and at the end of the season the champion in those days was usually a BMW driver. Time after time, leading racing drivers such as Hans-Joachim Stuck or Ronnie Peterson demonstrated their extraordinary talents in this racing car. 3 Series cars in the Group 5 were also successfully deployed in the Manufacturer World Championship.

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In 1978, the German Racing Championship was won by a turbo version deployed by the Team Schnitzer from Freilassing. Incidentally, it was a 1.4-litre, 410 hp BMW works car also featuring this technology that encouraged advocates of an idea how to accomplish even greater deeds: The engine of this BMW 3 Series was, so to speak, the predecessor to the power unit with which, in 1983, the Brazilian Nelson Piquet became the first 'turbo world champion' in Formula 1 racing history driving a Brabham BMW. The spectacular chapter of Group 5 racing cars drew to a close in 1982, but the next chapter in the history of BMW 3 Series motorsport had already been opened.

BMW M3: the world's most successful touring car.

In addition to the convertible, touring, compact, diesel and four-wheel drive versions and simultaneously with the expansion of the second generation of the BMW 3 Series starting in 1982, a further very special variant stepped into the public and racing limelight - the BMW M3. Then, in 1987, nobody could anticipate that this 3 Series would one day become the world's most successful touring car. The idea was to create a basic car that contained all that was needed to develop a potentially successful racing car according to the so-called Group A regulation. And in compliance with the rules in force, 5,000 of them had to be built within a year. The central issue was yet again the engine. Here, the BMW Motorsport GmbH reverted to a trick they had already used in the past. A great in-line six-cylinder engine featuring four-valve technology was available from the BMW M1 and the BMW M 635 CSi. This was, in simple terms, 'shortened' by two cylinders. The final result was a 2.3-litre four-cylinder engine, whose initial 200 hp had already catapulted the series production BMW M3 into the sports car sector. In 1987, following a victorious interim period with the BMW 323i, the 300 hp racing version of the BMW M3 took to the starting grid for the first time and went on to win everything that could be won in touring car sports. In the years 1987 to 1992, hardly a racing weekend went by without Munich receiving a report of a BMW M3 victory or a championship win in a country somewhere in the world. Whether in Australia, Finland, France or Holland and Germany, M3 drivers were gaining championship titles everywhere, which even included victory in a rally sport world championship event. In the hotly contested DTM (Deutsche Tourenwagen Meisterschaft) alone, the M3 seized 40 victories and more than 150 top three rankings.

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A special mention should be given to the World and European Championship titles, as well as the hard-fought victories in the 24-hour race at the Nurburgring-Nordschleife and in Spa-Francorchamps / Belgium. In short, the racing battles fought by drivers Roberto Ravaglia, Johnny Cecotto, Steve Soper, Emanuele Pirro or Joachim Winkelhock (to name just the wildest), are among the classics in motorsport - and include some of the 3 Series' greatest sporting moments.

On the way to success with four and six-cylinder engines and with diesel.

The sporting career of the third-generation 3 Series was characterised by deployment in various countries and championships, some of which were subject to very differing technical regulations. For example, from 1993 to 1998 vehicles featuring varying modifications and engines were put on the starting grid. The choice of racing cars ranged from the BMW Coupe and Sedan with an almost production-ready body and a 2-litre four-cylinder, four-valve engine with around 300 hp to an extensively modified version of the BMW M3. BMW 3 Series cars stood out impressively from the competition wherever they competed. Victories in Germany - in the STW Cup, in England or Italy were everyday occurrences as were the successes in Asia, Australia and South America. However, all of this was outdone by a result in an event that has been a BMW domain for some time now - the long distance race. During the 24-hour race at the Nurburgring in 1998, a BMW 320d with a 200 hp turbo diesel engine achieved the rare feat of crossing the finishing line as overall winner.

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The chase for victory in the World and European Touring Car Championships.

Also in the case of the fourth generation of the BMW 3 Series, the four-door sedan once again served as the basis for the racing versions designed to participate in touring and long distance events. In addition to many national championships, the European Touring Car Championship and, later, the World Championship were BMW's main focus of interest. Since 1999, the BMW Motorsport GmbH had been developing the BMW 320i powered by a four-valve in-line six-cylinder engine, initially with approximately 200 (later more than 250) horsepower - a racing car that was to become a guarantee for success. 3 Series racing cars regularly supplied the Munich sports department with best driver and manufacturer rankings. 2005 saw a highlight of those years, with BMW winning the newly established World Touring Car Championship with the BMW 320i, the triumph being completed by Andy Priaulx, after BMW's Roberto Ravaglia the second World Touring Car champion in the history of motorsports. The second "weapon" based on the fourth generation of the BMW 3 Series was the BMW M3 GTR. BMW was highly successful with this high-carat racing car in long-distance races (including double victories in 2004 and 2005 in the 24-hour race at the Nurburgring), as well as in the American Le Mans Series.

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The future has already begun.

As in previous years, the latest and meanwhile fifth generation of the BMW 3 Series focused on the sedan and the BMW M3. Again, the schedule comprised the major touring car championships and long-distance races. The BMW 320si now featured a four-cylinder engine and for the international and national 24-hour classics BMW came up with something really big: The sporting achievements for the racing cars of this generation include the triumphs in the 24-hour race with the immensely powerful and extremely reliable BMW M3 GT2. Highlight: Overall winner of the Eifel Classic 2010, in which well over 200 competitors took part. Further sporting highlights: World Championship title in 2006 and 2007, second place at the Nurburgring in 2011, third place in the 24-hour race at Le Mans and the 2010 manufacturer's title in the ALMS.

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And the BMW 3 Series' future in big-time motorsports has already begun: From 2012, BMW will return to the German Touring Car Championship with three teams and the BMW M3 DTM. In mid July, the BMW M3 DTM Concept Car was presented in Munich to the world press. Technical data: CFRP monocoque construction with steel rollover structure, naturally aspirated 4-litre V8 engine with a maximum power output limited to 480 hp by means of an air restrictor. Acceleration from 0 to 100 km/h in around 3 seconds, top speed approximately 300 km/h. The first BMW works drivers have also been selected: multiple World Touring Car Champion Andy Priaulx (GB) and shooting star Augusto Farfus (BR).

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By Karl Funke
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