When former world class rally co-driver David Richards set up Prodrive, with a Silverstone base, in 1987, he clearly set his sights from the start on international success. Prodrive, however, has been successful even beyond Richards’ own wildest dreams – Performance Car
Think of BMW and it is fairly natural to think of motorsport, but things have been a little fraught in Munich of late. BMW Motorsport GmbH is currently leaderless, following Wolfgang Peter Flohr’s resignation in late summer and although BMW still have an eye on the motorsport scene, the main company board seems set to await the sporting plans of Mercedes before committing themselves further.
Certainly, it seems, BMW have already turned their faces against rejoining the Grand Prix circus (their 1.5 litre/640bhp turbo helped Piquet’s Brabham to the world title in 1983), and that was largely responsible for Flohr’s resignation, and for some time now the main sporting interests have been production car based.
It seems that Munich’s decision makers see maintenance of upmarket status for the new 5- and 7-Series, where commercial success is assured, as of far higher priority than sporting achievement.
But although they are currently so non-committal about their own competition plans, BMW nonetheless continue to support the activities of diverse outside specialists – largely nowadays in pursuit of racing and rallying glory for their M3.
Schnitzer, for instance, based in Freilassing on the Austro-German border, won the first (and apparently last) World Touring Car Championship title last season, with M3 driver Roberto Ravaglia, yet they lost the Makes title to those wicked black Ford Sierra RS500s.
This year, Schnitzer (and many other, private concerns, including Alpina in the German championship) continue to chase wins for the M3.
But lacking sanction, so far, from the BWM board for the necessary 5000 run of a turbocharged car with which to fight Ford on more equal terms, outright racing success has been hard to obtain in Europe.
We are told that BMW Motorsport have developed a turbo M3 ‘Cosworth crusher’, but it is not scheduled to appear before the new sheet metal of the 3-Series itself, early in the 1990s. That time gap to the turbo M3 leaves the new Evolution M3 (with 10 percent of the original 5000 homologation figure uprated, or only 500 models produced) as the standard bearer for BMW Motorsport and their allies in racing. And even that car doesn’t fit into any plans for rallying, where Evolution models are banned.
Yet every cloud has its silver lining, and for the 18 month old Prodrive organization, based in Banbury, near Oxford, BMW’s indecision could not have come at a better time.
Now, instead of simply acting as ‘the biggest sales outlet, anywhere in the world, for BMW Motorsport cars and parts’, Prodrive are initiating their own engineering moves.
These have already included the design, development and manufacture of a non-synchromesh six-speed gearbox – masterminded by former Williams and Benetton transmission consultant John Piper, and brought to fruition in the space of only six months.
It is typical of Prodrive’s dynamic approach; talking, for instance, for more than the allotted 10 minutes at a time to Prodrive boss David Richards its bound to leave even the most determined Yuppie deflated.5.5 million.
Here is a man who had the courage and the foresight to sit as co-driver with 1981 World Champion rally driver Ari Vatanen, from his British debut onward, but whose retirement from world class rally co-driving actually resulted in an increase in achievement.
New, 36 year old Richards is winning his championship solo, and commuting in his own helicopter, but when he set up Prodrive, it had neither its present BMW British racing bias nor its Banbury home.
In the beginning, Prodrive ran Rothmans-backed Porches and Metro 6R3s from a base at Silverstone, for drivers such as the late Henri Toivonen and multiple British rally champion, Jimmy McRae.
Before long, Prodrive managed to ‘push’ BMW into allowing them to rally the 3-Series and with that they expanded so rapidly that they very soon had to move to a new, bigger base. They found it in Banbury, in January 1988. The move included 32 personnel and Perodrive now number ‘more than 58, with 75 expected by March 1989′, says David Richards briskly.
Naturally enough, turnover has boomed and the forward projections will doubtless excite interest in the City, too. The founder and majority equity holder revealed, ‘in 1987 our turnover was £1.7 million. 1988 that figure will be around £5.5 million. We expect £12.5 million next year and £20 million annually by 1990.
‘Such growth takes account of the interesting business opportunities created by our competition contacts to increase our engineering business, with a move into retail dealerships also likely. In fact, I think pure competition income will account for no more than £3.5 million of that 1990 total.’
So, who controls Prodrive apart from managing director and majority equity holder Richards? Well, his co-directors include former Rothmans sports executive Ian Parry (sales); ex-Ford competitions administrator Charles Reynolds (competitions); David Lapworth (engineering); former Rolls-Royce employee Dave Campion (technical services) and John Bailey (finance). The engineering division sees equity shares for Mr.Lapworth and designer John Piper, the latter a cheerful young engineer who has worked with Nigel Manshell in both Formula 1 and Formula 3.
The acceptance of BMW’s four-wheel drive 325iX for international competition also stemmed mainly from a Prodrive initiative, but that was almost nothing compared to the idea of taking the M3 into internationally rallying.
David Richards recalls how it happened; ‘We really forced them into it, step by step. BMW were not keen at first, but we have always had fantastic support from the national sales companies, particularly from BMW France. They are the best export market for the M3.’
Thus it was perhaps particularly fitting that it was on the French island of Corsica, last year, that Prodrive engineered BMW’s first world championship rally win.
Such success had its own commercial reward for Prodrive. ‘We built 28 of the 120 competition M3 kits released by Motorsport’, reveals Richards. ‘And besides building the front-running M3s for championship honours in France, Belgium, Italy and the European series that Patrick Snyers presently leads, Prodrive have built up M3s, or materially assisted in BMW’s motorsport programmes, in Holland, Spain, Switzerland, Greece and Norway.’
Most of those M3 activities were concerned with rallying, but Prodrive have not ignored the M3′s racing raison d’etre.
The two-car M3 team which they run under Mobil r/BMW Finance colours, for Frank Sytner, will be familiar to many British TB viewers now that saloon car racing gets regular exposure. At the time of writing, Sytner is just, but only just, leading the British Championship – from Any Rouse in the inevitable Sierra RS500.
Prodrive have also contested some European races this season. The six-speed gearbox, as homologated on 1 July, survived 23 hours of the Spa 24 hour race at the end of the same month (around eight of the European Touring Car Championship), only to be let down in the end by engine failure.
Our test cars were two of the three Prodrive Evolution M3s which are contesting the UK Series; the much-repaired Mike Smith machine and the series-leading M3 of BMW and Alpina UK retailer Frank Sytner.
The differences between the first M3 and the Evolution model were not so radical as to force new cars upon Prodrive. They share the new front and rear spoiler, and lightweight bootlid and rear glass, but it is worth noting that neither power nor weight are notably changed in Group A racing guise.
Prodrive’s senior race technician, Peter Holley, explained: “The road car changed do not affect the racing systems that we use, so power remains around 300bhp for a really cracking example, with 285 to 295bhp the norm.” And race engineer David Potter added: “The quality of the panels used and the slight reduction in glass thickness don’t drop weight appreciably below 1000kg (2200lb), which is still above the M3′s class minimum of 940kg (2068lb).
In Group A racing, in fact, M3 power is augmented by little more than 35 percent, even in the best examples, which is considerably less than any team running turbo cars would expect. This shortfall leads to inevitable discontent, particularly when the M3′s arch-rival the Sierra RS500 can be transformed from 224bhp in road form to a widely available 440 to 480bhp in competition guise.
Three times this season, the disparity between the two has led the German authorities to restricting the Ford’s power output by means of air restrictors, while allowing the BMW’s up to 330bhp with the use of single-side fuel injection. The British rules, by comparison, remain unfettered, save in the less prestigious (Uniroyal/Monroe) ‘production’ series, but David Richards is among those who support rule changes to make the racing closer between BMW and Ford in 1989.
On the M3 rally engines, replacement camshafts help bring the torque peak down to a reasonable 5500rpm, but on the racing engines the 199lb ft peak doesn’t occur until 7000rpm – which explains the need for close gear ratios and plenty of them for circuit success.
The conventional five-speed synchromesh Getrag gearbox has ratios (from first to fifth) of 2.337, 1.68, 1.358, 1.150 and 1.000:1. The ‘Prodrive six’ offers ratios of 2.449, 1.913, 1.579, 1.332, 1.148 and 1.000:1. That means a more appropriate ratio for most race track cornering problems.
Peak power is at 8200rpm, but the Bosch Motronic chip in the digital engine management system of Frank Sytner’s car allows a maximum of 8800rpm. On Britain’s short tracks that will allow Mr. Sytner to brush 150mph, but the wide choice of axle ratios is claimed to yield up to 175mph on longer circuits. German magazines have electronically timed the M3 from 0-60mph in some 4.5 seconds and there is no reason to think the Prodrive examples would be any slower.
The cabin is functional in the business tradition, but far from stark. The door panels are trimmed and the predominantly white colour scheme extends to the steel scaffolding which Matter sell as a roll cage.
As you would hope in a world that is going to be subjected to the considerable g-forces generated by 9-inch wide Pirelli slicks, the driving position bolts you into the car as an integral component, located by six-point Sabelts and the clinging embrace of an ultra light Sparco racing seat, while braced by a massive aluminum foot rest. There is little chance that your feet will slip off either a foot pedal or the floor, since anti-slip grids are liberally applied.
Instrumentation is extensive, with six dials, and functions such as ignition, lightning and fuel pumps are supported by nine, fused push buttons over the transmission tunnel. The Stack rev-counter is a particularly memorable device, for it recalls the maximum rpm used, via two recall commands, and can be plugged into a micro-processor analyser to spew forth engine speed readings at regular circuit intervals.
The four-cylinder 2332cc engine (slightly overbored from standard, at 94.0mmX84.0mm) literally starts on the push of a button. It pays not to touch the throttle pedal, as the engine management automatically accelerates the engine beyond the 1150rpm tickover to produce perfect starts – helped by a Pulsar battery transplanted from a helicopter.
You may study the six-speed plus reverse gearshift pattern apprehensively, but such fears are quickly dispelled by the instant selection of first. There is the inevitable clonk of a generously dimensioned dog-gear box without synchromesh, and the fifth to fourth downshift takes some finding, yet the deft speed with which each shift can be made thereafter will be familiar only to motorcyclists and formula car-drivers.
‘You do have to be brave and just slam the changes through confidently,’ admits designer John Piper, ‘but we are in the process of designing a “Mk2″ unit that will be even better, because the lever will be shortened and a degree of compliance built in to reduce the shocks fed back to the driver in long rallies or 24 hour races.’
Naturally, the engine does not like full throttle in racing trim while the Stack tacho’s needle is in amongst the small numbers below 4000rpm. Even then, you are better waiting to 5000rpm for a rude response. In practice, 7000 to 8800rpm is the natural habitat of this tough, 2.3litre, 16-valve screamer.
For our test, the British Championship silencing was fitted, below 5000rpm the noise emitted really wasn’t much more than that experienced on a sporting road car. But above 5000 there is a definite increase in interest and from 7000 onward the whole unit seems to pull its short stroke act together and soar towards the rev limiter in each gear.
‘You hardly ever hang onto a gear for more than a couple of seconds.’ says Sytner with enthusiasm. You share his glee when the tachometer blinks by barely 400-500rpm on each marvellous change, and the engine resumes its supercar standard of thrust.
As we’ve already noted, the M3, even in Evolution guise, does not have much power by the standards of the ‘boosty boys’ who utilise turbocharging in their Sierras and Nissans, but it transmits every drop to the pavement and preserves every precious decimal point of cornering speed.
The sheer grip available is hard to comprehend in something that bears such a close relationship to a road car, but the steering is not monumentally heavy on the move, even without the standard power steering.
Basically, you point the M3 at a corner under full throttle and it either screams through….or not. In the latter case, just radio the experience Mike Smith for further low level landing advice!
Ask Frank Sytner to list the virtues of his white Evolution steed, and he will cite in comparison to the original car, ‘the car does feel better. It has more aerodynamic bite and it just turns in terribly well.’
We later learned that part of the reason for this lies in the use of 16inch diameter front wheels and 17inch rears. They’re BBS at present, but likely to be Speedline in the near future.
Next, stir in a thoroughly sorted suspension system (based on newly fabricated parts for the MacPherson front struts, and vastly stronger rest trailing arms). Then deploy 1000lb/in front springs (about eight times stiffer than those of a sports hatch!) and 675lb/in rears. In addition, the system is swiftly adjustable in most respects, and has a number of alternative leverage points for the 27mm front anti-roll bar and 20mm rear, to transform roll stiffness.
Of the M3 in general, Frank feels its winning qualities are ‘firstly, robustness – it never feels that you should drive it anything but absolutely flat out, and there are no worries about boost levels, or any of that nonsense. It will run to nearly 9000rpm for 24 racing hours. Secondly, the handling gives it the capability of qualifying in amongst Sierras with nearly twice the power. They brake like hell where we might dab and have to go flat out.’
‘You have to work really hard in this car for a lap time, but it’s supremely satisfying when you succeed.’
‘And thirdly, the brakes are excellent. At 300bhp you try not give speed away, but when you do need them they are brilliant. Not as good as they have been, because the authorities made us lose an inch of rubber width this season, but still fine.’
Whatever the treat from the Sierras, it’s still likely that the cars we drove represent the formula that will ultimately win this year’s British Saloon Car Champship. It was an exhilarating privilege, and maybe there’s a lesson beyond racing – that there must be a future for six speeds in the next generation of roadgoing 16-valve performers.