The all-new BMW Z4 GTE is the most welcome sign that winter is fading and another season of motorsport is on the way. Being run as a works project by Bobby Rahal's ALMS team, this new car replaces the highly successful M3 GT racer.
Despite the outgoing car's title-winning ability, things change. The current M3 (E90/92/93) is coming to the end of its lifecycle so there's no point fielding an old car, and no way to field the next M3 that isn't in production yet.
Another element to consider is the merger of the American Le Mans Series and Grand-Am in 2014, which may require a new car anyway. So BMW's solution is to run an interim car. Enter the Z4 GTE.
Grand Touring Endurance is an ACO classification (Automobile Club de l'Ouest, ruling body for ALMS and Le Mans). It differs from the GT3 class by not allowing ABS or electronic traction aids, and has its own aerodynamic stipulations.
The Z4 GTE was based on the Z4 GT3, so development didn't start from scratch. And members of Team Rahal Letterman Lanigan (RLL) visited Munich to work with BMW's race engineers on the new car.
The 2013 season will still involve a certain amount of development, but that hasn't dampened the enthusiasm of everybody involved. "I see no reason why we can't be competitive," said Rahal.
BMW also has a new tire partner in Michelin. The racing rubber, affixed to 18" BBS wheels, has the task of applying 480hp and 354 lb-ft of torque to the track, courtesy of a naturally aspirated 4.4-liter V8 linked to a six-speed sequential manual transmission.
Suspension is a McPherson axle with pushrods and adjustable shock absorbers at the front, longitudinal links with wishbones and adjustable shocks at the rear, plus H&R coil springs at each corner. The car weighs just 2,739 lb.
The driver roster is impressive: Joey Hand, Bill Auberlen and John Edwards (from the USA), plus Dirk Müller (Germany) and Maxime Martin (Belgium).
Hand, Auberlen and Müller are already experienced BMW racers. Jens Marquardt, BMW's director of motorsport, described the trio as "the cornerstone of our success so far."
Because of his DTM commitments (with BMW), Hand will be unable to compete in all ALMS races this year. Edwards and Martin are newcomers, but still deserve their places in the team. Edwards first won Daytona in the Skip Barber series in 2003; he was 12 at the time. Martin won the Renault Clio Cup title in 2008.
For the longer endurance races, Dutchman Jörg Müller and German Uwe Alzen will be drafted in.
At the Z4 GTE's official launch at Daytona Speedway, we had the good fortune to witness Martin's skills up close. BMW offered a couple of laps in several of its past racing cars. When it was my turn, dressed in a borrowed fire suit and helmet, I was ushered into the passenger seat of the M3 GT. The harnesses were tightened around me, I secured the helmet strap and took a deep breath, aware that my heart was beating much faster than usual. We set off and my first thought was: "Heck, if he attacks the pitlane exit this fast, what's he going to be like on the actual track?" Even with earplugs, riding in a racecar is a rush to the senses: the noise; the cornering, acceleration and braking forces; the rumble strips on corner apexes; the grandstands zipping in and out of your limited vision. It's like video on fast-forward to an almost ridiculous degree, while someone punches your spine.
And Martin had never driven the M3 GT until that day. Yet I felt strangely calm. He's super-quick but smooth, no sawing at the wheel, no jamming on the throttle. The car was completely composed, with no washing out at the front, no nervous tail-end. Grip levels were never in question. It was almost comfortable. All the ingredients you need for endurance racing.
There was only one point I thought Martin might be leaving the braking too late. Coming off the banking, there was a line of cones signifying a sharp left turn. As I was preparing to see pieces of orange plastic fly everywhere, Martin proved himself right (of course) and me wrong. He applied just the right amount of brake at just the right time, got back on the throttle and we careened around the corner without a care in the world. It was wonderfully intense. I thought about what Marquardt said earlier when he was talking about how endurance racing had changed over the years. Today's drivers have to run qualifying times on every lap. It gets so hot in an ALMS car that sometimes the sole of the driver's racing shoes will melt, sticking to the transmission tunnel. Imagine doing that for hours...
The combination of man and machine served as another reminder that racers live on another level. For example, Joey Hand broke his back in 2002 while testing an open-wheeler. But he returned to the sport, won races and championships, then became the first American in DTM. He never slowed down. This kind of determination sets people like Hand apart from the rest of us. But he also has a sense of humor. "If you're going to be dumb, you'd better be tough" is how he puts it. He's tough, but he's not dumb. Like the rest of the team, he's also optimistic about the Z4 GTE's chance of success in its first season.
The 12 Hours of Sebring gets underway on March 13. Nobody at BMW is saying whether the Z4 GTE is a transitional model before the ALMS/Grand-Am agenda kicks in, but if it means giving the street Z4 more credibility and better sales, then BMW will have the same wish for the new M3 and M4 when it arrives. This could be a brief moment in the motorsport sun for the Z4, but it should be interesting.