BMW M235i Racing Details:
- Race variant of new 2 Series
- 320hp, 330 lb-ft of torque
- 0-60mph in 4.8sec
- Plans for model specific series
- Tested at Las Vegas Speedway
As I raise my leg over the door bars of the FIA-spec rollcage, I can’t hide from the weight of expectation upon me. I’m honored to be the first journalist to drive the BMW M235i Racing but in addition to my own high hopes, I have to contend with the presence of BMW senior management, development engineers, an experienced racer in the shape of works driver Joey Hand, and our own Mike Sabounchi, poised with cameras and GoPros to capture any incompetence on the small, tight course at Las Vegas Speedway.
Ducking my head under the roof bar, the BMW-supplied helmet clunks into the steel cage; something I’ll repeat with annoying regularity. By now my mouth is dry and hands sweating into the Nomex gloves. I’ve driven lots of cars on countless tracks but this was special ¬– my first time in a factory racecar and a rare outing on slicks. This was a real privilege and I was going to make the most of it.
Sinking my backside into the tight seat, I’m struck by the low driving position. It’s about 4” lower than a regular M235i but it seems more. I’m peering over the M Performance steering wheel, trying to familiarize myself with the controls.
An engineer sticks his head into the door frame to help with the harness belts. Cinched in tight, the BMW feels very alien after the Alpina B7 we rolled up in this morning. He runs me through the startup procedure. My head’s spinning and the limited peripheral vision from the helmet isn’t helping.
Push the brake pedal, press the starter button and select drive. Hang on, I can do that…
I take a deep breath. My fog clears. Despite its widebody fenders covering 18x10” BBS Motorsport wheels and Dunlop slicks, its door numbers and racing stripes, this is still an M235i with a race seat and rollcage. Yes, it’s more involved than that, but it certainly wasn’t intimidating when I stopped to look around. This was going to be fun!
So how did BMW’s latest factory racer come into existence? Talking to BMW Motorsport Manager Jens Marquardt, he explained that during last year’s VLN Nurburgring 24-hour race, he was walking the start grid with other senior management. After admiring their Z4 GT3-spec cars up front, they realized that, the further back they went, BMW’s representation was primarily from older E36 and E30 chassis. They didn’t have any modern machinery for the grass roots racers. In fact, their last real product was the M3 GT4, which wasn’t exactly bargain basement.
Taking the task by the horns, Jens gathered his team and examined several solutions. With the new 2 Series about to start its life cycle, it seemed the ideal candidate since it would be more affordable and would be around for a few years.
Involving all BMW departments, from its Leipzig production plant where the bulk of the car is assembled, to the BMW dynamics engineers, software technicians, purchasing and Motorsport departments, their priority was to create an affordable, accessible vehicle for national racing series and club events.
As such, the racecar would use a surprising number of production parts. The 330hp engine, for example, is essentially stock but for its software tuning. Even the engine cooling and intercooling was production M235i.
During the car’s extensive Nurburgring testing, which included a two-week continuous driving program, the team apparently experienced no overheating issues, although we’ll be interested to see how that translates to a Californian summer or the heat of Dubai…). Equally important will be the software upgrades to ensure the car doesn’t drop into Limp Mode when it does get hot. Make no mistake, this car was built to race and BMW is putting its reputation behind it.
Perhaps the most controversial decision was to retain the production ZF 8HP eight-speed automatic transmission, not even offering a manual option. According to Jens, the decision was taken during the development of the BMW M4. While driving test mules on the Nurburgring, BMW management and engineers felt that the speed and simplicity of a paddle shift would make the car more accessible to a broad range of drivers. It would also protect the engine from over-revving, and wouldn’t add any development cost beyond software. It also transpires that ZF was very keen to support the project.
Despite the sound of straight-cut gears from inside the car, we’re assured this was the result of no sound proofing and that it’s internally stock. It even keeps the same ratios as the road car. What is different is the shift speed, engaging fast and hard. The torque converter is disengaged once the car’s rolling to prevent it slipping the power after shifts. With this transmission, the car is like driving the E60 M5 with the shift force turned up to max – it comes in with a bang.
So why not DCT? After all, it’s their flagship transmission and reputedly the most advanced around. Well, it’s a simple matter of economics. The M235i wasn’t engineered for DCT, so developing it solely for the racecar would introduce greater cost, a longer gestation period and more expensive repairs.
After looking at all the options, BMW felt the 8 speed was the best option and, after driving it, we have to agree. It’s not as engaging as a six-speed manual, but it does allow you to get on with finding the apex and building speed.
Perhaps our only complaint was that the downshift threshold seemed a little low. On occasions it refused to give us gears because the revs were higher than allowed. To be honest, it was also a bad habit of mine, liking to use a lot of engine braking rather than getting it done with the enormously capable US-made Performance Friction four-piston front brake set up.
Talking to Joey Hand after his handful of laps, the brakes were also a standout feature for him. “You’ll never run out of brakes in that car,” he confirmed. “The ABS threshold was set very high, allowing a degree of lock up on hard application.”
The infield racetrack was smooth, with gentle curbs that didn’t seem to upset the car. In fact, the ride on its KW coilovers seemed remarkably compliant, allowing the weight to be transferred and traction to be found.
After completing a few laps with the traction control in its sport setting, I put on my brave face and switched everything off. The sticky Dunlops ensured remarkable traction, allowing you to get on the power before the apex, with only a slight wiggle from the rear in protest. Yet everything felt very predictable and reassuring.
The limited slip differential was another welcome ally, providing further stability and traction. Modified from its settings on the road car, and still receiving final tweaks, I’d swear you could feel it transferring power across the rear axle in the transitions. Whatever it was, there was no lack of confidence while driving the car.
After his laps, Hand would decrease the tire pressures, finding more grip in the process but I was still in the learning phase. Given only 10 or 11 laps to familiarize myself, I concentrated on trying to interpret what was happening and where I was going.
However, I did expected more heft to the steering with its wide front tires ¬– the square set up front and rear was designed to save teams from needing different size spares, even allowing the rubber to be rotated.
Again, the M235i Racing retained the stock electric steering of the production M235i, but BMW’s Dynamics engineers had worked tirelessly to get the ratio and weight right. Certainly the turn-in was beautifully precise, but I’d have requested a little more weight. Joey Hand was of a similar opinion but, two days after his Daytona 24 Hour appearance, his frame of reference was very different to mine…
The bodywork, attached over the stock steel panels, was constructed from carbon fiber-reinforced fiberglass, a material chosen for its low weight and cost. A rear wing was deemed unnecessary thanks to aerodynamic balance being established with the existing front spoiler, and proven by the Nurburgring tests. However, BMW will happily sell you a wing but stressed that the front spoiler and suspension would need corresponding upgrades.
The interior features more carbon fiber, with it appearing on the dash, console, door cards and floor panels. If you remove the passenger seat, a carbon floor panel is available to replace it.
As prototype number two of three cars built, this example still had the iDrive screen on the dash, which will be absent from the final versions. Instead, most of the data will be available on the small display in the BMW Performance steering wheel, which also sported shift lights. With an adjustable seat position and steering column, it was possible to quickly get comfortable in the car, reducing distractions.
The weight reduction was countered by adding a rollcage and fuel cell – the latter not required by many racing series but BMW focused on creating a safe car. As a result, weight saving are in the region of 270 lb, depending no spec. Combined with its horsepower increase, the performance, handling and braking all benefited greatly.
A lot of work had gone into producing a good sound, and stripped of all insulation, the driving experience was dominated by the faint transmission whine and exhaust note. Relatively subdued at low RPM, the M235i Racing has an angry tone at speed. Despite its lack of sound deadening, the exhaust neither droned nor buzzed, although the helmet might have helped… That said, you wouldn’t need earplugs while racing this car.
In fact, once you’d got over initial nerves, the M235i Racing was remarkably civilized. It was comfortable, lightweight and quiet:¬ everything the road car offers but with an utterly different character. This was undoubtedly a racecar. Perhaps not hard-edged like a 911 GT3, but then it probably won’t bite hard if you make a mistake either. The big brakes, prodigious grip and predictable handling would see to that.
The M235i Race was designed to offer an affordable access point for track day enthusiasts who want to take the next step up to club, regional or national series. Costing almost 60,000 Euros, about $81,000, it’s relatively affordable for established teams. In fact, BMW reports taking 35 orders in one day at the car’s introduction to European race teams at the Nurburgring, with enquiries continuing to come in.
According to Jens, there are no production limits. They will build as many as are requested, with the bulk of the car assembled alongside the regular M235i at the Leipzig plant. The cars are then transferred to an outside contractor for final assembly of rollcage, fuel cell, etc.
European deliveries will take precedence, with the US being supplied rather late in the day. Nobody would give a date but didn’t contradict us when we suggested deliveries might start towards the end of the year. However, we spoke to a leading BMW race team that suggested otherwise. They had tried to jump the waiting list by ordering cars from Germany but had been refused. They were also told that the order books were full for the next two years and that the M235i Racing may never even reach the US.
This contradicts what BMW AG and BMW NA is telling us and creates a slightly confusing situation but, until we actually see cars in the hands of North America race teams, we won’t know who’s correct…
Impatient US customers could look at building their own versions of the car, with many of the parts available from the aftermarket or through the eight BMW Motorsport dealers across the US. The problem will be in the software calibration to the ABS, traction control, steering, diff, etc. Without these, the car won’t be as suitable for competition.
It will be a shame if the M235i Racing doesn’t reach these shores because it’s a remarkably good package that should guarantee a competitive racecar that will be affordable to run, reliable and safe. It would make an ideal entry level racecar for anybody looking to make that first step into wheel-to-wheel motorsport. Make sure you also check out our First Drive of the BMW M235i to see the differences in the two machines.