It’s been an epic couple of days for the M3 and this trip to the Nurburgring 24-hour race has really shown just what a versatile car it is. The long autoroute and autobahn trip down to Nürburg was despatched with a quiet calm. The ride (on the softest of the damper settings) is excellent, the 4-litre V8 is subdued at a three-figure cruise and the miles seem to melt under its wheels. I did break-up the journey with an overnight stop at Spa just because I’d got a late evening ferry and because it’s always nice to park up near Eau Rouge and imagine keeping an F1 car pinned through the incredible compression and following rise. Those boys earn their money around Spa.
Next day was just a short blast across country to the ‘Ring and the first part of my training course – which all Nurburgring race virgins have to complete (although I didn’t spot Sainz in the classroom!). This is a theory session, reminding drivers of flag signals, safety procedures specific to the ‘Ring, the seemingly endless pit-lane permutations that change from qualifying to the race, and some horror footage of monster accidents just in case you’re not scared enough already. Amongst the crashes was the most sobering piece of footage – especially if you’re in something relatively low powered: a Viper bottled up behind some slower cars filmed from a helicopter above, jinking and weaving through the traffic and then seeming to hit the hyperdrive button when the last car is cleared. It’s the most graphic illustration I’ve yet seen of the speed differentials between the big boys and the little minnows. Being perhaps the littlest minnow in the 220-car field I was somewhat spooked by the footage.
In the evening there was a guided track tour on a coach. If that sounds a bit dull it really isn’t. In fact it’s an incredible way to appreciate the massive climbs, huge camber changes and the differing surfaces close-up. The sheer scale of the place hits home, too. It’s really going to be a privilege to race here. And in front of so many people! This was Tuesday night (the race starts at 1500hrs on Saturday) and already there were thousands of campers settled-in and with a pile of empty Bitburgers next to their tents.
To be honest I went to bed feeling a bit overwhelmed by it all. The track itself (driving it on a public day and racing on it is altogether different), the other faster traffic, the potential dangers… think too deeply about this race and you can quickly wrap yourself up in anxiety. But this morning I blew all that stuff clean out of my head with the ‘practical’ part of the training course. Laps behind a pace car started at 8am and then from 10am until midday it was free lapping. The M3 was simply phenomenal and those two hours reminded my why I love this place.
The ‘ducks-and-drakes’ exercise is a nice gentle way to ease back into the circuit, and the balls-out free lapping a great way to remind yourself how much fun it is around here as long as you drive within yourself. Driving to the limits of the M3 takes serious commitment because it’s just so capable. The engine in particular feels immense and shows that people who say it lacks torque are clearly mad. It pulls like crazy over 4000rpm and even on a racetrack you often find you’re changing up way too early. Wind it out to the rev limiter and it just flies – rattling up to 140mph or more without any hint that it’s running out of puff. I must confess I left the stability and traction control on its most lenient ‘M’ Dynamic Mode for the fast laps and it felt nicely judged, only cutting in maybe twice a lap over particularly vicious bumps.
Predictably the brakes were the only weak link, struggling to cope with two quick laps in succession and after a total of maybe 7-laps, starting to judder really nastily. BMW and the M division must sort this out. However, they seem to have nailed pretty much everything else. The balance felt superb, the tiniest, tiniest trace of understeer at the limit and then plenty of options to keep the car up on its toes and driving forward. It could do with a little more steering feel but I’m searching for faults here – in the main it just feels hugely fast, secure and entertaining. To put its speed into context it easily hit its 167mph limiter on the long straight, and then just sits up against it – God only knows how fast it’d be down there without the electronics.
Interesting to follow some of the other cars in the group, too. An E46 M3 looked shockingly small next to the E90 saloon, but it obviously had neither the body control nor front grip of the new M3 and was easy meat. A 996 Carrera on track optimised suspension similarly seemed to struggle to match the M3’s turn-in speed – and following one of the Audi RS4 ‘incident’ vehicles was fascinating. It was bloody quick but the M3 felt composed and nimble whenever the RS4 ahead was understeering and seeming to be working its suspension to the very limit of its travel. It looked effective but clumsy – a bludgeon to the M3’s scalpel-like precision.
So within the space of a couple of days the M3 has been consummate GT and flat-out ‘Ring taxi. It only managed 21mpg on the trip through Europe and 11.1mpg on the track (which I thought was pretty good!) – but when in return you get 8500rpm and 420bhp it doesn’t seem so bad. I’m mightily impressed with it. Wonder how the 500 will compare…