Wolfgang-Peter Flohr is the man behind BMW Motorsport and the most successful M3. Joe Saward talked to him about the car and the firm’s plans to continue its dominance in the World Touring Car Championships – Autocar
“BMW is ‘only’ a relatively small manufacturer compared to other companies,” begins the Munich marque’s 1987 motor sport brochure, “but in touring car sport, it ranks among the greatest.” It is hard to think of the name BMW without associating it with a long and successful history in racing which culminated in Nelson Piquet winning the Formula 1 Drivers’ World Championship in 1983 with a BMW-powered Brabham BT52.
Back in 1972 BMW AG decided to form a subsidiary dedicated exclusively to the sport. Thus BMW Motorsport GmbH was born, under the direction of Jochen Neerspach. Since then ‘Motorsport’ has expanded to produce not only racing engines and competition cars, but also the legendary M-range high performance road machines, each car bearing the ‘M’ logo and the distinctive blue-violet-red stripes. Today, the company’s Preussenstrasse base in Munich houses 350 staff under the direction of Wolfgang-Peter Flohr.
This year sees a major shift of emphasis in the company’s racing programme. The Formula 1 turbo project is drawing to a close and the future rests with the company’s remarkable new M3 touring car model, which was homologated for Group A on 1 March this year. In European racing, the car has yet to be beaten on the track.
Why then, has BMW decided to abandon the high-profile Formula 1 programme and switch instead to touring car? “Our role as an engine supplier in Formula 1,” says Flohr, “was that of a manager who had to manage incidents. We could not take over command because we had no influence over drivers, or tyres, or aerodynamics. In order to be successful that was not enough. We could not come to the decision to start our own team and we figured that it was better to leave the field and reconsider where our stronghold was. We consider this be touring cars.”
“We could have financed a Formula 1 team, but the political situation was such that there was uncertainty over the rules and with the enormous cost explosion we felt it would be better for the make to enter a championship which is closer to the cars which we are selling in our showrooms.”
“When you analyse the cost-effectiveness of Formula 1 you see that it takes 40-60m dollars, and then compare that with touring cars; you could not spend that much money on a touring car even if you wanted to!”
Nonetheless BMW’s investment in the touring car world has been substantial. “First of all,” explains Flohr, “we built a racing car for Group A regulations – the M3 – and then we converted it to a saloon car to enable us to build the 5000 models necessary for Group A homologation. Secondly, we spent a substantial amount of money to get a competitive number of drivers and when you add this to the efforts of the various teams and so on and so forth, you can figure that we have spent a total of DM10m.”
This figure does not include any promotion of the project which BMW intends to use to bring about a greater understanding and recognition of touring car racing – for so long the poor cousin of the other major racing championships.
Things have not been easy in recent months for the touring car world. The decision to stage a new World Championship was taken at a very late stage and then, at the opening round of the series at Monza in Italy, there were widespread technical problems which saw the exclusion of all but one of the new M3s, which had finished the race 1-2-3-4-5-6-8 on the track.
For Flohr and the men from BMW this was a huge setback, but he has no worries about the future. “I am sure that within the next few months FISA and the FIA will find a solution. By making cars to the rule book, rather than adapting present saloon cars to the rules, manufacturers have put a great deal of pressure on the scrutineering and the stewards. FISA now has to use today’s methods of measuring and interpreting the rule book.
“The rule book is not strong enough. It leaves too many possibilities. If you say, for example, that component XYZ can be plastic, it is difficult to argue what plastic is. There are so many openings that a lawyer will look at the rules and say that you do comply with the rules as written. The problem is that the rules are meant differently to how they are written. It is a difficult situation, but I am sure that FISA is aware of it.”
“If I had to make a forecast about how touring car racing will go from here, I wold say that after the second race at Jarama the series will recover from Monza and will then become popular through the middle of the year. I see the World Touring Car Championship in the second half of 1987 really gaining and in 1988 it is going to be really interesting an successful. We feel that with Bernie Ecclestone in charge of the promotion, it will end up eventually like Formula 1 and I believe that some of the promotion which took place after Monza on behalf of FISA proves that we are going in the right direction. Of course it will take time; no-one can expect this to happen overnight”
“I think that you have to make an assessment as a businessman. If you want your business to work in the long term you have to invest beforehand. That is what we are doing.”
Although other manufacturers are moving to join BMW in WTCC, at present the men from Munich are enjoying a monopoly of competition. “Absolutely right! To have six or seven MWs at the front is a difficult situation, but I think as soon as the Ford Sierras come in , and the Alfa people get going and the Holdens come back, there will be tough competition and things will look very different. I’m not too happy with the in-house competition.” Some people have asked if BMW has made the right decision to produce a normally aspirated racing car and not a turbo, given the opposition from the turbos of Ford, Alfa Romeo, Nissan and Maserati. “It may look to the outside world as if we have made a mistake,” argues Flohr, “but I believe that the turbos, especially next year when the equivalency factor changes, will find it harder and in the future that touring car racing will move the same way as Formula 1 has towards normally aspirated engine.”
The M3 is undoubtedly the first of a new generation of Group A racing cars. To see the machines on the track beings a whole new horizon to touring car racing, and it must be remembered that the cars have raced only a couple of times and still need a great deal of development before they reach their full potential while the political situation in touring cars needs time to be sorted and the regulations and promotion developed.
The competition will come given time and BMW is keen that it should, but as he says “right now, it isn’t any good complaining. We were a bit disappointed at the decision of what was going to happen in 1987, but this is the year in which we all learn and upgrade the whole thing so that in 1988 the World Touring Car Championship can really be the event we want it to be.”