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M’s moment of madness

  1. Yesterday you read about us heading to the Nürburgring to celebrate BMW M division’s 40th. We blew its birthday candles out in style by driving and riding in some of the best - and most recognizable - cars it has ever produced.

    But while we were there, we also noticed an X5 looking very plump parked next to E21, M1 and E30 race cars. It looked a bit out of place - like that kid at birthday parties who always sits in the corner because they’ve eaten too much cake. But take another look.

    With a closer inspection, we realised that this wasn’t your standard yummy mummy’s school-run chariot. Oh no. This was something way, way cooler.

    Words and Photos: Rowan Horncastle

  2. This, TG.Commers, is the X5 Le Mans. A car that single-handedly proves that German’s can loosen their ties, have a couple of pints of strong coffee and do silly things. To the untrained eye, it may just look like a lightly modified E53 X5, buts it’s got a hidden secret - a 700bhp V12 race car engine under the bonnet.

  3. It’s the same six-litre V12 engine that powered the McLaren BMW F1 and V12 LMR to victory at Le Mans in ‘95 and ‘99. It kicks out 700bhp, 720 Nm of torque. Which is a fairly earth-shattering amount in a first-gen X5.

  4. The car exists for several reasons, though not all of them are immediately obvious. First up, when BMW won Le Mans in ‘99, they thought that dropping the same engine that got them to the top step into their first ever SUV would be a fitting way to showcase both their victory and their new car. OK, then.

    BMW engineers also liked the idea, mainly because they wanted to explore the X5’s dynamic limits, and slotting a race-bred V12 into an SUV seemed like a great way of making Newton really angry. And finally, when the engineers were done finding out how far you really could push the SUV brief, the X5 V12 did a bit of moonlighting for the marketing department on the stand of the 2000 Geneva Motor Show, mainly to help drum up some interest in the controversial new car. That’s three birds killed with one 700hp stone.

  5. But we don’t really care why it exists, we’re just glad it does. And, after seeing it lurking at the back of the garage, we were interested in what it could do round a track. Well, you just would be, wouldn’t you? Luckily we had the Nürburgring GP circuit, a DTM driver and access to the car to find out. Rude not to, really.

  6. You may be wondering who the rather sinister-looking man above is. That’s Martin Tomczyk, one of BMW’s current DTM drivers. And if there’s a man to show me what this car can do, its him. He’s a little bit less intimidating in real life. But not very much.

    The car itself feels reassuringly recognizable. In fact, I was surprised at the similarities to the standard road-going, daily-grind X5. The dimensions are the same, the dash is pretty much identical and, like all good family cars, it has flexible seating. It’s not like your Zafira, though. The X5 Le Mans can be fitted with four bucket seats (two in the front, two in the back) but for our trip, the seats in the back had been ripped out, Martin was in a carbon-Kevlar bucket and, slightly worryingly, I was in a standard cloth road car seat. It’s also got a rather large roll-cage that I don’t remember from the standard car…

  7. Before I had time to write a makeshift will on my iPhone, Martin hit the throttle and the car instantly reared backwards onto its hind axle, and almost literally took off. Thanks to that mighty engine, this big, heavy car hurls itself from standstill to 60mph in 4.7 seconds and, if pushed, can batter its way to a thunderous 173 mph. Which sounds insane enough, but because you sit so high and have the glorious - and mightily incongruous - screaming of a naturally aspirated V12 assaulting your ears, the sensation of speed is enhanced dramatically.

  8. But cornering is where it gets interesting. First of all you have kill some of that speed that’s been inevitably delivered by the motor - which doesn’t happen very easily with a car this big. I turned to Martin and asked how the brakes were, “S*%^!!!, this thing is an effin’ elephant!”, he shouted through his helmet.
    Which is not exactly what you want to hear when approaching a damp corner at speed.

    Still, he managed to turn the car in, but we were welcomed at every corner by a massive dose of understeer. Which isn’t a huge surprise - this thing is nose heavy - weight distribution 51/49% front-to-rear, with that heavy engine up front - 4x4 and tall, meaning lots of weight transfer. Chuck in some decently high speeds and you start to notice that apparently understeer is the X5 Le Mans’ best friend.

    To try and tuck the car in somewhere near the apex, Martin eased back off the throttle. It helped, but with any stab at the accelerator you’d once again be ploughing through a corner, rather than around it. Not particularly elegant, but somehow terrifically amusing. Not particularly to the taste of a precise racer, though. For the rest of the lap Martin didn’t even bother trying to keep to his DTM lines and just had a bit of a play with it: mind you, the car is basically a freak and having smoke pour off its inside-front wheel seems appropriate somehow.

    So at the next complex Martin simply applied accelerator to carpet to see if the four-wheel-drive would be able to manage the mighty engine’s power a little more judiciously. Which, it…er.. didn’t. Though we both laughed at the thought of what it looked like from the outside.

  9. But that’s not to say that the X5 Le Mans isn’t a proper racer, in its own way. If you’re not pratting around, you can get an unbelievable lap time out of the thing. Hans Stuck, BMW’s famed touring car and test driver, managed to get the beast around the Nordschleife in 7:49. To give you some perspective, that’s six seconds faster than a Caterham R500 and three seconds faster than a Lamborghini Gallardo LP 560-4. Now laugh that one off.

    It’s funny, really. Just yesterday we were wondering if M would have a mid-life crisis and do something a bit mental now they’ve hit 40. But after a ride in the X5 Le Mans, it seems like they’ve already had one… just thirteen years too early.

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