Amazing experience. Excuse me for the lack of pictures but there was simply no time! We had 6-7 40 minute sessions each day, that’s 4+ hours of seat time per day! No wasting time at this school - minimal theory, max seat time. The cars were really good and reaffirms ///M knows what they are doing. I know we have fun here talking about modding cars with power mods or throwing on coilovers etc…. I encourage you guys that have not driven your BMW ///M car on the track to actually go do it, you will not get the true nature of your car until you do. Read below on some specific comments on the program, track and cars.
Any car company can talk about the driving experience and some may even have fast hardware but no car company has delivered the whole packagethat BMW has with the US driver training program. BMW USA has invested heavily here in the cars and the Spartanburg facilities but more importantly they have some of the most talented instructors that I have met. These guys (and gals) make the school and the BMW program, not the cars.
The instructors know what they are doing but beyond that they were patient but eager to push you. No matter what skill level you entered the school with, you were driving faster and better at the end of the school. They remembered everybody’s name and tailored the experience to the individual. Everybody was friendly and approachable and answered any question thrown at them. I enjoyed talking with them over a couple of lunches and dinners, they have some really funny car and driving stories – they all seem to happen in Germany.
In my class there were 10 students, all great guys, and we had 6 instructors and 3 techs. The maximum class size is 12 students so the worse student to instructor ratio is 2:1!!!
We had radios inside our helmets and while we were buzzing the track, we received live and constant feedback on how to improve in a constructive manner. This is one part of the BMW experience that is perfect….I hope BMW USA doesn’t change this aspect of the program and cheap out on the instructors, it would be a huge mistake.
Facilities & Weather
Virginia International Raceway was awesome. In addition to the track, they had 2 hotels, a couple of restaurants and a pro shop. I have never seen a race track like this. Very well maintained….
There was threat of rain all week but we didn’t get any until the last 10 minutes of the last run. Normally grip isn’t affected by a little rain, but VIR is so big, we had different weather at different parts of the track. I almost spun the car after the Roller Coaster and hitting a wall of rain in Hog Pen….
I will need to reference specific corners of the track to have a meaningful summary so I encourage you to look the track map. The track is scary fast and filled with blind corners, off camber corners and elevation changes. It is clearly one of the premier tracks in North America and indeed the world – built in the 60’s, abandoned for awhile and resurrected recently. The track can be configured in multiple ways, including the North, South and Patriot courses, but the top dog is the full track. The speeds the M cars attained are incredible. The sensation of braking from 150 mph+ under compression was amazing. Going over blind downhill corners under full power, entering upper esses at 106 mph+ were puckering experiences (see the picture).
The fastest speed that I attained was something north of 150 mph in the M6, this is coming up the back straight after Oak Tree. I saw 152 mph (I think) in the HUD on the plateau after the crest and then I had to look for my braking point for the Roller Coaster. In the M5, I hit 148 mph on the speedo. I didn’t see the speed in the M3 – I was looking at the tach and I needed to focus on the braking point for the roller coaster.
The instructors wouldn’t let us do open lapping on the full course and they didn’t go full out on the front or back straights. So the “trick” that some of us played was to fall back until they yelled at us to go full out to “catch up”, this was when we attained these speeds. For those who have not driven on the track, 150 mph might sound lame but I can assure you when you need to brake from 150 mph or fall off the track, it is very fast. Going 150 mph on a highway is nothing. Even with the neutered straight speeds, the instructors were leading us around the full track in the mid to high 2:20s (not 10’s). I hit a mid 2:20's (I think 2:24) in the M6 on a “catch-up lap”, there was more time to be had but these seconds are the hardest to attain. As far as I can tell, these were fairly fast times. Timing was not permitted by the instructors so we had to use whatever we could improvise (i.e. watches, spotters)
For my fellow Mosport friends, VIR’s Oak Tree is very much like Mosport’s 5A and 5B. You can dive bomb into the first part of the corner and then you need to get the second part of the corner right to get a good run up the straight…..eerily very similar between the 2 tracks.
For my Laguna Seca friends, VIR has a corkscrew that is apparently GPS identical to the corkscrew at Laguna Seca….but without the uphill before and downhill after.
The ///M Cars
All the cars were wearing Conti’s and used factory fluids. Every car that I saw had new brakes and rubber at the start of the weekend. We drove the M3, M5 and M6 back to back so it was relatively easy to compare.
E90 M3 6MT no sunroof – This was by far the most nimble car. You felt like could point and shoot the car anywhere on the track. It was also the most confidence inspiring. Going through the upper esses, it was the only car where I had no hesitation going through with just a lift on turn-in (mind you, it was also the slowest entering the esses). The car was extremely well balanced so on corners like 10 and the bottom of the Roller Coaster, you could really use all of the car’s power in these downhill corners. I have bashed the 6MT as primitive but the box was really easy to use….and yes, it felt good to heel-n-toe at the track again. The sound was amazing….Other Notable Things
The obvious shortcoming is the power versus the M5 / M6. The lack of power was felt on the straights. The M5 / M6s were scary fast, the M3 was OK. VIR is a power track. The other big issue is brake rotor warping, most of the students had M3s that had warped rotors. So bad that you felt the vibration driving at high speed, i.e. 100 mph+, it felt like an unbalanced wheel. Also braking from 140 mph or so, the vibration in the pedal was awful. I spoke to some of the BMW people and they acknowledge the M3s were suffering from this consistently….keep an eye out for it. (EDIT: Lucid and others cite this problem is cause by stock pads melting on the rotors and not warped rotors)
The other interesting thing was that we were not using the Power button. On the Patriot course there is a high speed right hand sweeper that you had to go through in 3rd gear using throttle steering. The instructors said, it would be too hard to modulate the throttle with the power button. Sure enough, I tried using the Power button for a couple of laps and it was much harder to control the car with the throttle.
M5 – The only comment that I have for this car is that you can definitely feel the difference in balance between the M5 and M6 at VIR. The M5 is nowhere near as crisp as the M6 on turn in. I honestly felt intimidated by the esses in the M5 versus the M6 – the M5 just didn’t turn in like the M3 and M6. Also, while the butt dyno didn’t indicate it, the M5 was slower than the M6 on the straights as evidenced by speedometer.
M6 – This car had lots of power and slightly better but discernable handling over the M5. Maybe the carbon roof wasn’t a marketing gimmick after all. Like the M5, the brakes were strong but as the BMW people noted, they usually show up to the track with lots of brake parts…..
Apparently, the BMW computer doesn’t register fuel economy worse than 6 mpg. In all the cars that I drove, I checked the fuel economy and they were all 6.0 mpg. Before we ran the full track in the M5 / M6, we always had half a tank of fuel and it would run out after about 35 miles or 30 minutes of operation (the needle was just above empty). The M3 also “achieved” 6 mpg. The group had consumed over 1000 gallons of fuel over the 2 days.
MDM versus DSC Off:
We drove around with MDM. There have been some debates here whether being smooth means MDM is good enough…. Clearly being smooth is good but MDM doesn’t allow the car to work as well as DSC Off. A specific example is the M3 after the Esses in the Patriot Course. After the esses, there is a long fast 3rd gear right hand sweeper with multiple apexes that could be easily maneuvered by just using the throttle…. MDM kicked in constantly on track out which required you to use the steering wheel….this is slower. On the M5 / M6’s MDM intervened several times throughout the track.
Things for me for the Next Time at VIR:
I will be going back to this school next year. Some things that I will be working on including getting my entry into the lower esses better, going through the upper esses better and faster, later braking for Roller Coaster and a better run through Hog Pen. I think I can hit mid 2:10’s in the M6. There is more in this car than what I can extract for the next few sessions......
6MT vs. SMG (or MDCT)
: I know I have been on the MDCT / SMG side of the discussions. Clearly, I don't want to start another argument here but there is no doubt having either SMG / MDCT makes driving easier. In fact, without strategizing braking points, heel-n-toe points, shift points, I find that your mind has more time to think about other things, and perhaps this is the one factor that people rarely discuss between the 2 technologies. I found I had more time thinking about braking points, throttle modulation, bracing with the SMG. With the 6MT, you were always busy....but I must readily admit, I loved going through the gears manuallly
I am still bruised from my seat belt. If you are going to track your car seriously, you need a 5 point harness.....
Here is the detailed itinerary……
- Briefing: 30 minutes
- Session 1 – Skid Pad in M5s
- Session 2 – Heel-n-Toe / Braking exercise at Oak Tree with M3
- Session 3 – Highspeed braking at Horseshoe in M6
- Session 4 – Skid Pad M5s
- Session 5 – Follow the leader North Course in M6s
- Session 6 – Follow the leader South Course in M3s
- Session 7 – Full Track Tour
- Briefing : 15 minutes
- Session 1 – Follow the leader Full Track M5s
- Session 2 – Open Lapping Patriot Course M6s
- Session 3 – Follow the leader Full Track M3s
- Session 4 – Follow the leader Full Course M5s
- Session 5 – Open Lapping Patriot Course M3s
- Session 6 – Follow the leader Full Course M6s
- Session 7 – Autocross on Patriot Course – cancelled due to weather
I encourage you guys to do one of these schools offered by BMW USA. Considering what you get at these schools, it is the BEST deal offered by BMW.
Great classmates, great instructors, great time.