Collaborations by the factory and teams around the world drive BMW’s global race programs. (LAT)
Rhythmic waves of turbulence jumbled me from sleep. I lifted the mask from over my eyes and peered around the darkened cabin of Lufthansa Flight 456 bound for Frankfurt. This was the intermission in a two-act play in which I was participating on the weekend of Oct. 19-20. The play in question was titled BMW Motorsport Celebrates Two Finales in One Weekend the ALMS and the DTM. RACER, along with a few other media from the U. S., Canada and Mexico, was invited to witness the opening days of the last-ever American Le Mans Series race, Petit Le Mans on Saturday before jetting off to the Hockenheimring in Germany to arrive on Sunday morning in time for the Deutsche Tourenwagen Meisterschaft season finale. At stake for BMW Motorsport was an ALMS driver title for Dirk Muller as well as manufacturer and team titles in both series.
My particular quest in this odyssey was to compare and contrast what is at the heart of BMW Motorsport’s two leading programs. Furthermore, I wanted to better understand why BMW turned away from global motorsports such as Formula 1 and the World Endurance Championship to focus on what are officially two “national” series rooted in production-based technology. After all, its two principle competitors in the marketplace, Audi and Mercedes-Benz, maintain very high-profile positions in the WEC and F1 respectively, as well as their DTM programs.
Before we delve further into the answers, let’s get on the same page about what “production-based” racing really means with respect to both the American program, run last year in the ALMS and now in the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship, as well as the DTM.
In the case of the U.S. scene, BMW Motorsport campaigns a Z4 which begins life at BMW’s Regensberg, Germany plant, where every Z4 is built. A complete body-in-white, along with all of its structural underpinnings, is peeled off the line and diverted to BMW Motorsport in Munich, where it is then fitted with a V8 engine from the M3 assembly line. Both the engine and the chassis are then converted to race spec including all the necessary safety items such as roll cage and fuel cell, along with performance upgrades to the engine and driveline as well as aerodynamics. Once completed, it is rechristened a BMW Z4 GTE and handed over to Rahal Lanigan Letterman Racing or BMW Team RLL as it is officially known in IMSA competition. Interestingly, the first Z4 GTEs retained their MacPherson strut front suspension on the front end until RLL developed in collaboration with BMW Motorsport a double-wishbone layout more customary in racing.
On that note, stating RLL’s relationship with BMW Motorsport as “collaborative” is not just political correctness. I had the chance to speak with both team principal Bobby Rahal and BMW Motorsport Manager Gordon McDonnell and witnessed the team in action, and I can attest to the strength and seamlessness of their partnership; they work in absolute harmony and were it not for the German accents of most of the BMW Motorsport portion of the crew, it would be difficult to ascertain to which specific payroll each member belongs. And, just as BMW Motorsport sends a battery of technical and marketing staff over from Munich, RLL sends much of its crew to Germany during the off-season to aid in the build of each car. Make no mistake, BMW’s effort is a full factory effort.
On the DTM side, the story is much the same. From a technical perspective, the M3 DTM is closer to a pure racecar than the Z4 GTE, despite the fact that the DTM stipulates that cars must have the identical shape to their production-based counterparts. This means that the height of the hood at the nose, the rake of the A and C pillars, the height of the roof and the length of the wheelbase must be the equivalent of the road car. Aerodynamically, DTM rules free the manufacturers to sculpt the car as they wish below the centerline of the wheels as well as on the hood and wheel arches. Engine and driveline rules are also largely unrestricted so long as the V8 engine is based on a production configuration, and each must run with a 28mm [1.1 inch] air restrictor. Also, unlike the Z4 GTE, the M3 DTM is built around a carbon fiber monocoque tub that is produced by a third party supplier for all three makes competing in the series. In all, there are 48 components, including the tub and gearbox, that are spec for all competitors. Finally, outside of a paddleshift-operated gearbox, DTM cars do not run any electronic driver aids like traction control, nor are they allowed to stream real-time data back to the pits.
The BMW M3 DTM is campaigned by four separate teams; Schnitzer, RMG, MTEK and RBM, the home of the only American in the DTM and longtime BMW driver Joey Hand (ABOVE). As with RLL in the ALMS, the interaction between the teams and BMW Motorsport is harmonious.
About to complete his sophomore season in the DTM while also campaigning selected rounds of the ALMS this year put Hand in the enviable position of being able to compare the two cars.
“There’s a big difference in the driving techniques needed to get the most from the Z4 GTE and the M3 DTM,” said Hand. “I would say that the Z4 GTE requires a more classic driving approach. That means getting a majority of the braking done in a straight line, followed by a brief coasting period to corner apex before squeezing on the power. The DTM car requires almost the completely opposite approach. Carbon/carbon brakes, a pretty sophisticated aero package and the monocoque tub make it drive more like a single-seater formula car. The braking happens so much later, harder and all the way to the apex. I’m constantly juggling the mechanical and aero grip and bleeding brake pressure as I get deeper into the corner to compensate. There’s no coasting period. I’m going from brakes back to throttle almost instantly.”
Arriving in Atlanta to wet weather with the promise of more, the cast at BMW Team RLL was optimistic. The Z4 GTE, in its first season of competition in the ALMS, had already garnered two wins and was in the hunt for the Manufacturers’ title. The team knew full well that straightline speed is the car’s Achilles heel, putting it at a disadvantage to the Corvettes on Road Atlanta’s long back straight in particular so there was hope that rain would somewhat level the playing field.
Watching the Friday morning practice session from the team pit box with Thomas Plucinsky, manager for BMW Corporate Communications in North America, I put to him the question of value for the BMW brand in the series, given that neither the TV ratings nor event attendance figures match the profile of some of BMW’s other sponsorship activations like support of the USA Olympic Team. How does BMW’s participation sit with those in the company who don’t come from the motorsports side?
“It’s a great value for us,” said Plucinsky, shrugging off the audience size. “For example, the BMW Car Club of America is the second-largest active car club in the U.S. with over 70,000 members. They are all very vocal and dedicated in their support of our motorsport activities. We see it not only in direct communications with the club, but in the volume of our social media activity around each race weekend, which includes both club and non-club members. They may not all be motorsport fanatics, but it is important to them that we race and that we bring our best. The members of our club are some of our most active brand influencers as well as consumers and their voice carries a lot of weight, so much so that we acknowledge the club on the front splitter of the car.
“One example of how vocal our social media followers can be was the amount of dialog there was after we debuted the Z4 GTE and one of the cars is black instead of both being white. There was a lot of debate and passion around the fact that BMW racecars should be white. In time, everyone got used to it and even embraced it, but it shows how even relatively small details like that incite interaction among our followers.”After practice, I had a chance to catch up with Bobby Rahal who, in his long and illustrious career as both a driver and team owner, and even a brief stint as a series chief, had the opportunity to work with a variety of manufacturers. He’s sure this experience is what has enabled RLLR to mesh well with BMW.
“When we made the deal with BMW, we were much better prepared as a team and more experienced working with a manufacturer partner than we had ever been before,” related Rahal. “I have always respected BMW because of their long and consistent commitment to motorsport and because of that I hope, and believe, that we are delivering for them and that it will be a long-term situation for both of us.
“I think when we started this relationship, not a lot of people within BMW knew much about us but three years later, we have a great amount of influence on the car and technical side. The Z4 was largely built by our guys who traveled over to Germany, and we’ve continued to make a lot of progress on suspension and weight that’s emanated from our side of the equation. But, it’s not about one side or the other steering the ship. It’s more about bringing all of our experiences and resources to the game to produce the best car and race winning effort, and I think collectively we’ve shown that.”
Rahal is a racer through and through, admitting that earlier in his career as both a driver and team owner that his racer mentality occasionally blinded him to the needs and machinations of a manufacturer and their view toward racing. Having developed both better instinct for and appreciation of the manufacturer perspective, how would he regard the Z4 GTE program and what it brings to BMW?
“BMW has won at Le Mans, and had a successful run in Formula 1 from engine supplier all the way through to constructor,” said Rahal, “but, I think it’s important to BMW that they race what they sell, and while F1 was a fantastic technical exercise, it was much harder to translate that to benefits for the average BMW customer. With the Z4 here and the M3 in the DTM, the relevance is much easier to grasp and the fact that we race against Ferrari, Porsche, Corvette, SRT and others puts us in direct comparison to the cars that BMW competes with in the marketplace. And, I think that this series is the best and most competitive GT class racing in the world right now.”
The next morning, following the annual, season-ending team photo and pre-race warm up, BMW Motorsport Manager Gordon McDonnell shared his perspective as the leading representative of BMW Motorsport in North America. McDonnell came to the role a year ago via stints with Mini and BMW in sales and service departments and is neither an engineer nor a pure business person, but a jack-of-all-trades. Consequently, he has a keen perspective on what’s necessary for BMW at both a sales and marketing level as well as technical and operational level.
“Going all the way back to the BMW 3.0 CSLs of the ’70s, right up to today, it’s important to BMW that we race what we sell,” said McDonnell. “There’s a romance about races like the Rolex 24, Sebring or Petit Le Mans, and they are a great showcase for proving that BMW is the Ultimate Driving Machine.’ Although the car’s not built and designed by BMW, the two wins we had powering Chip Ganassi Racing in the Daytona Prototype at the Rolex 24 are still important to BMW as well.
“BMW management understands implicitly that we have to be racing, and so when we look at the landscape here in the North America, ALMS offers us the best positioning with our brand and product because we do go head-to-head with the brands that we sell against. The Z4 is not a high volume car for BMW, so we aren’t here to focus on a model of car; what matters is that the BMW marque is seen to be competing and beating marques like Ferrari and Porsche.”
Arriving the next morning at a sodden Hockenheimring, the atmosphere was electric despite the inclement weather. Fans flocked to the circuit sporting their BMW, Audi or Mercedes-Benz gear and the chants and blaring horns in the stands would have been more appropriate at Bundesliga soccer match than at an auto race. The paddock was gleaming with drool-worthy examples of new Bimmers, Audis and Benzes, and each of the three manufacturers had erected temporary, two-story hospitality buildings yes, you read correctly, buildings complete with gourmet kitchens, working bathrooms and, in the case of BMW, a setup straight off the set of The Today Show where assorted luminaries gabbed on camera to TV screens scattered throughout to keep some 1,500 guests perpetually entertained.
The DTM is often likened to NASCAR, and the comparison is a fair one. Yet while NASCAR works to stay close to its working-class aura, the DTM is very decidedly upscale and techno, befitting the three manufacturer brands that pillar the series. While the hospitality was for invited guests only, the latest and greatest road car and motorcycle machinery from BMW, along with a M3 DTM, were sat out front for all to see. Midway down the paddock, BMW also ran the “Race Taxi,” not just for BMW guests. Any fan with more than a few Euros to spare could get suited up in a BMW Motorsport firesuit, don a helmet and go for a white-knuckle ride around the race track in a BMW M1 Procar, an E30-model M3 Evo or an M3 GT2. The professional drivers, including one Gerhard Berger, were wringing the most from the cars.
While BMW certainly had a number of fan engaging displays and activities at Petit Le Mans, including the mighty BMW-powered McLaren F1 GTR from the mid-’90s, it pulled out all the stops at Hockenheim to create the unbroken link between motorsport activity and the showroom floor. That tour de force of marketing activity is the sort of thing that we don’t see Stateside and it is, in a word, impressive.
Soaking it all in took me back to the words of Rahal and McDonnell just 24 hours earlier and an ocean away “BMW must race what it sells.” Those words certainly rang true at Road Atlanta, and the parking areas and car corrals were filled with BMWs of all description, yet one has to be realistic that motorsport in America reaches a passionate but narrow segment of the buying public. Accordingly, BMW’s motorsport activation budgets in the U.S. are a fraction of the spend on the DTM, where coverage and following reaches the level of big-time sporting event.
The BMW camp was in ebullient mood following the race where Timo Glock took taken his first DTM career win and BMW sealed the manufacturer’s title. Inside hospitality, I asked BMW Motorsport boss Jens Marqhart (BELOW) to compare BMW’s effort in Germany versus North America from a brand perspective.
“I’m not sure that I can compare the DTM to ALMS so easily,” he said. “Throughout its history, manufacturers have been deeply involved in the DTM because it offers very good platform for race fans, partners, suppliers and customers to see us up close and for BMW to display the best of what we do from a performance, technology and brand point of view. The relationship between what we race and what we sell here is very clear.
“Looking at our program in America, I personally feel that it is a great fit for BMW. We have all the top manufacturers involved with maybe only Audi and Mercedes missing. I am extremely happy with the program and the results we get regarding the exposure of our brand. Racing in the U.S. has a different history to here in Germany and the rest of Europe and there isn’t a lot of the infrastructure of permanent circuits with pit garages and the like so the presentation is different. However, I don’t believe that the quality suffers because of it.”
Two races, two days, two continents later, I appreciated better that for BMW it’s not a question of why it races but where it races. Clearly, the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship as well as the DTM are not random choices, but are selected for their continuity with BMW’s sales and marketing objectives. The “why” of BMW in motorsports was answered consistently and persistently throughout this trip: “We race what we sell.” And, you can be sure, as a direct consequence, BMW sells what it races