First drive: BMW M4 DTM racer
TG gets an exclusive drive in Germany's carbon fibre-clad touring car. Screams a bit
DTM. Remind me.
Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters - German touring cars. These used to me the absolute pinnacle of tin-top racing technology, but in a bid to cut costs it's now a silhouette formula.
Silhouette? As in there's nothing M4-ish about this BMW underneath?
Precisely. Not only does it still use a 4.0-litre naturally aspirated V8 (the series will switch to 2.0-litre turbo four cylinder engines in 2017), but underneath the carbon tub is common to every car on the grid. As are the brakes, the gearbox, the rear wing and more. 13 major parts in total.
So underneath, this BMW is an Audi and a Mercedes?
Sounds confusing, but there are plenty of similarities, yes, all in the name of close racing. And the racing is close. On occasion this year the entire 24-car grid has been separated by less than a second in qualifying.
But don't go imagining this is a cheap racing series. The cars have carbon bodywork as well as that full carbon tub, the work that goes into them is amazing. The attention to detail is peerless. And underneath it's more of a single-seater than a touring car.
So the rear wing isn't just for show?
Oh no, it even has a DRS function, although the majority of the downforce is generated underneath the car - the BMW team got decidedly twitchy when photographer Rowan Horncastle tried to take pictures from low down at the back. Car looked mega from that angle, but it was a no-no. Nor were we allowed to take pics that showed the lower half of the cabin. No idea why - they wouldn't tell us.
Above all, it was how quickly I had confidence in the car that surprised me - that's always a good sign
Looks pretty good anyway...
Doesn't it just? Length, width and height are about the same as a LaFerrari, only the engine is up front. You sit tucked far back and pretty reclined, snugly contained within the carbon chassis and a network of tubes. Before driving it I had to prove I could extract myself in under seven seconds should anything go wrong. That was quite a challenge given you have to disconnect the communications lead, remove the steering wheel (more of a steering bar, it's so cut down), undo the belts, punch the door open and slither your way out. I had to rehearse.
If the worst does come to the worst, there's a Bond-style pop-out panel in the roof to extract the driver. No ejector seat, though.
Hmm, intimidating. Is it tricky to drive as well?
Surprisingly, no. The M4 has a gorgeously sensitive throttle and a much lighter clutch than I expected, so pulling away without stalling was simple. And it's an easy car to drive smoothly.
I was lucky enough to drive Matt Neal's BTCC Honda Civic back in the summer, and that was a proper handful, with active differentials and loads of throttle adjustability. This felt far more natural from the word go.
What about the brakes?
Well, the team told me to do an installation lap of the Monte Blanco circuit, then come straight back in to confirm I was happy. However, the carbon brakes felt softer than I expected, so I said so.
I expected the team to have a look at some data and confirm they were within tolerance. Instead the door opened and a mechanic shoved his leg in and had a prod of the pedal himself, pronounced himself happy and told me to get on with it. I found this low-tech approach oddly reassuring.
So the brakes worked OK?
No, they didn't work OK. They were so far beyond OK it was untrue. The first time I hit the brakes properly hard it felt like my face had fallen off. My HANS device was the only thing that stopped my forehead butting into my chest. It was unbelievable. The only thing that's taken my breath away more was having a parachute snap open - and here I could repeat the process at every corner.
However, because the downforce is so great, getting the braking technique right is vital. You have to hit the pedal with all possible force, then bleed out of the brakes as the aero grip drops off. Doing this while the g-force is making your face look like that of a Shar Pei takes a bit of practice.
What about cornering force?
Again, it's all a bit ridiculous. In the tight, slow corners you can get your head round the M4. The slicks do their job, generating vast grip, but grip you can, um, get to grips with. In the quick stuff, it's frankly inconceivable.
After three timed laps I went back into the pits to be belittled by having my laps compared to Marco Wittman's - this year's DTM champion. Marco hung a screen off the rollcage and showed me where I was going wrong. Apparently I was trying to carry too much apex speed in the hairpins, but the differences there were slight compared with the yawning gulf through the fast fourth-gear, 160kph corner round the back. Should be a 200kph corner apparently. Lord alone knows how.
Unless you experience it frequently, aero grip messes with your head - telling yourself that a car that felt edgy at 160kph will be stable and secure at 200kph is not an easy thing to do.
How much slower were you?
I think about four seconds slower over the 3.7-kilometer lap. I'm not exactly sure: I assumed I'd get a print out, but because of the sensitivities involved, the team wouldn't let me take away a copy of either Marco's or my own lap telemetry, so the graph of my embarrassment will have to go unpublished.
Actually, being honest, I'm reasonably chuffed with that. If the car hadn't been so friendly to drive, I'd have been far further off the pace.
You get so much confidence from the steering and positive front end that you can find yourself over-driving this 500bhp car through slower corners, but in order to put a really quick lap in you have to absolutely nail your braking points and get the whole technique dialed.
I did have a proper lock up into a third gear right hander while seeing just what the brakes were capable of, and a big second gear slide (no ABS or traction control here, folks) out of the final corner onto the pit straight, but on both occasions it was surprisingly easy to gather the car up and carry on. It was more forgiving than I expected.
Anything else stand out?
The rear end grip was amazing - you can brake and turn in really hard without the back end sliding. I could see out way better than I expected, given my head was at thigh level, and the six-speed sequential gearbox was dreamy - instant shifts and no threat of locking up the rear axle during downshifts. Oh, and the engine wasn't bad, either.
How powerful is it?
‘Around 500bhp', that's all they'd confirm. And about 502Nm of torque in a car weighing 1120kg. Including driver. The engine has to breathe through a pair of 28mm restrictors - without them the team reckons the car would easily develop over 200bhp per litre - but because it feels so stable and well tied down, it never feels that fast.
Until you look at the speedo and see you're doing the thick end of 250kph and you're less than 150 metres from a hairpin. Honestly, the brakes... How long did it take to wipe that speed off? Three seconds, maybe less? As long is it took to pull the left hand paddle four times, anyway.
Above all, it was how quickly I had confidence in the car that surprised me - that's always a good sign. The noise was pretty cataclysmic, too.
Bit of an epic experience. I hadn't realized how closely related DTM cars were to single seaters. The mechanics said they despair of how close the racing is, because the drivers treat the DTM cars like tin-tops and aren't shy about rubbing panels, ‘and every time they do this it means so much work for us'. Still, makes for a compelling spectacle...