A beautiful car with everything you could need – except bulk power.
BMW relies heavily on motorsport to sell its sporting road cars. The Munich company is in competition come hell of high water, and touring car racing is its motor sporting priority.
A couple of years ago the BMW motor racing think-thank sat down to conjure up a supercar to take over from the 625CSi, then nearing the end of its competitive career.
The new weapon, it was decreed, should be non-turbo, reflecting the mainstream of BMW road-going products. The engineers looked at the rules and then at their options.
The road version of the M3 is a 200 horsepower fireball based broadly on the popular 3-Series. To drive one is the realise that the Germans have done more than anyone to bridge the performance gap between a street car and its track counterpart.
It incorporated bodywork which reduced lift on the front and rear axles while providing commendable streamlining. The coachwork conveniently offered ample room for the widest wheels and tyres. The suspension was sensibly designed to take full advantage of the touring car regulations.
The M3′s engine is basically four-sixths of the legendary M1 sportscar power unit. It’s a high-revving four of 2.3 litres capacity, with four valves per cylinder, twin cams, injection, and with a computerised engine management system controlling the variables. The BMW M3 is a spectacular road car. And it makes a predictably effortless transition to the circuit.
Frank Gardner’s JPS Team BMW M3s (five have been built; three remain with the team and the others have been sold to New Zealanders) have been developed independently of the West German works-associated Schnitzer and Linder equipes. Visits to Bathurst by Schnitzer cars in ’85 and ’86, and their performances against the black-and-gold cars, suggest the local machines lose nothing by comparison.
Gardner knows what he wants in a race car. Jim Richards’ championship winning M3 is immaculately presented, but more important, the cockpit is designed to offer the driver every assistance. Gardner is stickler for ergonomic perfection. Everything – seating, gauges, gearshift, pedals, footrest, switches – must be in a perfect relationship with the driver. Gardner follows the quite reasonable doctrine of keeping the centre of gravity as low as possible.
Therefore the bucket seat in Jim Richards’ l.h.d. M3 is set down low, but not so low that the driver must strain to see over the scuttle. It’s a splendid seat, too, supporting the lumbar area and firmly gripping hips and shoulders. The idea is that the driver stays put; the car slides. Keeping the man firmly located is a big rest for the left boot, and an impressive-looking $3000 five-point harness. This is my second sampling of an M3. I could detect minor differences; four months is quite a spell in the early development phase of a new race car like the M3.
The M3 is now on super fuel, and Gardner acknowledges a loss of eight to nine bhp. Richards says he hasn’t noticed any difference and lap times have not been hurt because of the drop in power has been offset by gains in other areas.
The M3 is now showing less of a tendency to hang the bum at fast corners like Mazda House. It is a brilliant handling motor car; turns in with just a hint of understeer, like the good book says. Then it hangs on, before making an easy switch to a barely discernable oversteer. It’s nimble, predictable, fun and well balanced. The steering is constant and doesn’t become heavy with the power off, like some.
It is indecent the way an atmospheric 2.3 litre cylinder engine gets 960 kils up and mobile like this one does. Mid-year goodies have helped hike the M3′s output to 310bhp, giving it a respectable weight-to-power ratio.
Flooring the throttle doesn’t bring kick-in-the-tail acceleration. It’s not a turbo and it’s not a V8.
If the little Bee Em has a weakness, it must be its modest low-down torque. The M3 does not blast out of slow corners. The engine’s flexibility does surprise, however. Given the twin cam’s engine spec, a narrow power band was expected. Not so. It’s not lacking performance low down in the rev range, hauling with enthusiasm from 5000rpm right through to the recommended maximum of 8500. It’ll go further – to 9000 – but Gardner says it goes off the boil after eight and a half.
All the JPS cars are left-hand drive, so the gearshift to the Getrag box is to the driver’s right hand. Unlike Perkins’ gearbox, the M3′s is spring-loaded to fall in the second-third plane.
Given that the M3 was designed and developed with motor racing in mind, it is interesting that it manages to retain many road car characteristics.
That’s rare. Many competition cars refuse to idle (like Perkins’ Holden) and object to running below 3500revs. Depressing their clutch pedals is a Herculean task. Their gearshifts feel like they are welded in place, and their steering is invariably heavy because of the broad tyreprints.
In contrast the M3 Group A car feels like a noisy, faster version of the M3 street machine. The engine fires at first go and idles without coaxing, and the gearchange is easy and positive.
But the brakes feel different. They require more pressure than in a well-boosted road version. Richards believes he has had a noticeable edge this season in braking, but M3s seem to go just a little deeper into corners. Being lightest of the leading contenders helps.
The M3 is a car that leaves the driver with a smile on his fact. It is civilised. Small wonder it’s invading the world’s race tracks at an alarming rate.