BMW AT LA­GUNA SECA

8 Se­ries and the Bat­mo­bile on road and track

Wheels (Australia) - - Contents - WORDS SAM SMITH PHO­TOS ALEX TAPLEY

THERE is nowhere like La­guna Seca. First, you are in Cal­i­for­nia. A pile of con­tra­dic­tions: desert and ver­dant, rich and poor, large and empty or small and crowded, de­pend­ing on where you look. La­guna it­self lives in a dry lake atop a scrub-cov­ered moun­tain, perched in the hills of Monterey county, 190km south of San Fran­cisco. On a clear day, the place feels like a sandy snow globe, the ocean shim­mer­ing in the dis­tance. And in the mid­dle, there is tar­mac. La­guna is a mi­cro­cosm of Cal­i­for­nia’s vari­ance: al­ter­nately fast and slow, pretty and ugly, for­giv­ing and not. So nat­u­rally, when I go there to race a 320kw 1975 Group 4 BMW 3.0 CSL works car, at the 2018 run­ning of the Monterey Rolex Mo­tor­sports Re­union, Amer­ica’s most pres­ti­gious his­toric race week­end, a team mis­com­mu­ni­ca­tion sees me grid­ded on fresh front slicks but rear tyres nearly dead. More du­al­ity: you’d think this would be ter­ri­ble. It is not. The CSL is owned by BMW of North Amer­ica. The Re­union is part ex­hi­bi­tion, a BMW em­ployee tells me. Be safe, he says, and mind the car’s value, but if you can, put on a show.

So I sit on the false grid be­fore qual­i­fy­ing and look around the cock­pit. Long wheel­base, miles of belt-line, seat mounted so high I can see the next county. A lap of feel-out shows the car to be friendly, so I drive it for sideshow grins. Bags of throt­tle, tidy hands, early cor­ners and long, slidey apexes. It’s dra­matic and glo­ri­ous and loud as a bomb, opera on the hoof. I fig­ure lap times will be large and em­bar­rass­ing, but the car is ab­surdly for­giv­ing, and CSLS look great in a slide, and I’m not tak­ing even a hint of a risk with it, so hey, I think, why not?

Thirty min­utes later, some­one hands me the times. The BMW is grid­ded sixth over­all. Fastest of the non-turbo cars in the Re­union’s 50-car IMSA race group, be­hind four 935s and a Dekon Monza. It turns out that a Group 4 CSL doesn’t re­ally mind los­ing rear grip, be­cause you can’t miss what you didn’t have much of to be­gin with. CSL tubs, no­tice­ably flexy, were built by Kar­mann, a com­pany whose ’70s at­ten­tion to de­tail mir­rored that of a herd of cats. The springs seem to have been bor­rowed from a par­tic­u­larly chip­per mat­tress. Goofy fun, glacially slow steer­ing, chas­sis a bit com­pro­mised but not so much as to get in the way, plus a bonkers en­gine; old BMW writ large.

Which fits. The 1972-’75 3.0 CSL was the first ma­chine to be de­vel­oped un­der BMW’S Mo­tor­sport Gmbh M sub­sidiary. The name stood for Coupe Sport Le­icht and sig­ni­fied a light­weight, alu­minium-lid­ded ver­sion of the 1968-1975 CS (E9) coupe. Spec var­ied with op­tion, mar­ket and year, but in peak form the cars got re­duced trim and plexi win­dows, around 200kg of diet un­der a reg­u­lar 3.0 CS, and a ho­molo­ga­tion pack­age that in­cluded a roof spoiler and a sweep­ing, but­tressed rear wing in the boot, to be fit­ted at a later date. Some in­spired race fan or jour­nal­ist dubbed them Bat­mo­biles, and the name stuck.

Ap­plied to FIA tour­ing-car rac­ing, this weapon helped build a dy­nasty. Rac­ing CSLS were 1970s mo­tor­sport in fla­grante: enor­mous flares, fat tyres, aero­dy­namic bits of lim­ited ef­fec­tive­ness but aes­thetic ge­nius. Power came from a ver­sion of the road car’s sin­gle-cam M30 straight­six: 250kw ini­tially, then 320kw in late works trim. Early re­li­a­bil­ity trou­bles – chiefly bro­ken crankshafts above 7000rpm – gave way to a rock-solid, 9000rpm con­fig­u­ra­tion sport­ing twin cams and four valves, plus ex­otic al­loys, a slide throt­tle and 3.5 litres of dis­place­ment. It sounded like fire and was bru­tally ef­fec­tive. In Amer­i­can IMSA com­pe­ti­tion, CSLS won over­all at the 12 Hours of Se­bring and the 24 Hours of Day­tona. Across the At­lantic, they landed the 1973 Eu­ro­pean Tour­ing Car Cham­pi­onship and

a class vic­tory at Le Mans the same year, plus ev­ery ETCC ti­tle from 1975 to 1979.

Five decades on, the show­room E9 re­mains a lithe style icon. The Le­icht comp car is an inar­guable peak in BMW fir­ma­ment, the mar­que’s 2.7 RS or 250 GTO, and early proof that Mu­nich en­gi­neer­ing was among the best in the world. And no big BMW two-door since has made as much of a dent in the cul­ture. Not that they haven’t tried.

Leg­end-fol­low­ing is rarely easy. The E9’s suc­ces­sor, the 1976-1989 6 Se­ries, wasn’t a rac­ing land­mark but was nev­er­the­less ap­plauded. It was el­e­gant, it sold well and it re­tains a large fol­low­ing. Less so BMW’S next big coupe, the tech-heavy E31 8 Se­ries. That ma­chine was di­vi­sive even among loy­al­ists – the BMW Car Club of Amer­ica’s glossy print monthly, Roundel, panned the thing. (If the E31 was in­tended to be ‘a crown jewel,’ the ed­i­tor later wrote, ‘then it’s cu­bic zir­co­nium’.)

BMW sub­se­quently built two gen­er­a­tions of two-door range-top­pers. Both were badged 6 Se­ries, and nei­ther was that mem­o­rable. It’s enough to make you won­der if the mar­que’s modern en­gi­neer­ing verve is sim­ply lim­ited to a hand­ful of blue­prints. Which is why I’m also driv­ing a 2019 M850i xdrive de­vel­op­ment car on Monterey black­top, al­beit high­way tar­mac. Ac­cord­ing to BMW, the car’s largely rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the fin­ished ar­ti­cle, if await­ing fi­nal cal­i­bra­tion. The truth is that big coupes no longer sell in big num­bers but they still mat­ter for brand im­age, and I’m cu­ri­ous whether the new car mir­rors the old one’s soul.

The 2019 8 Se­ries de­buted as a con­cept in 2017, at the Villa d’este con­cours. The pro­duc­tion car is less el­e­gant, the same rear-drive sil­hou­ette plus a few styling fil­lips. Few of those ap­pear nec­es­sary or func­tional, though a de­sign team in Ger­many would un­doubt­edly tell you oth­er­wise. In M850i form, with BMW’S xdrive all-wheel drive – Aus­tralia will get this model, and the rear-drive, six-cylin­der 840i in March – the car can look oddly dis­jointed from cer­tain an­gles. You see Ford Mus­tang and As­ton Martin in the rear quar­ters, E31 in the trunk, Lexus in the front. A thou­sand other coupes in those silly front-guard vents.

The pro­por­tions are fit­ting, how­ever, be­cause the 8’s cen­tre dif­fer­en­tial was de­signed to be­have like the one in the cur­rent M5: all grunt to the rear wheels, all the time, un­less trac­tion gets hinky. Power comes from a twin-turbo, 4.4-litre V8 good for 390kw and 750Nm. The en­gine is a heavy re­work of the re­verse-flow 4.4 in the out­go­ing 650i, with larger tur­bos be­tween its cylin­der banks, plus other up­dates like a new crank and pis­tons.

It is, pre­dictably, a honker. Peak torque wal­lops in at 1800rpm and sticks around un­til 4600rpm. It trans­lates into all the shove you could ever want on a B-road, which is nice, be­cause the chas­sis ac­tu­ally works in tight con­fines. So on a week­day af­ter­noon, I weave down to Monterey’s Carmel Val­ley Road, a quiet gem in a re­gion chock with amaz­ing pave­ment.

CVR heads east from the ocean, four lanes and a di­vid­ing me­dian, past a few shop­ping cen­tres and petrol sta­tions, be­fore neck­ing down into a two-lane. The val­ley nar­rows a bit, past farms and a few small winer­ies. Shortly af­ter, the road dives into a run of nar­row canyons, tun­nelling un­der oaks and eu­ca­lyp­tus. The lane mark­ings dis­ap­pear, along with the on­com­ing lane, and then the road climbs again, pop­ping out of the trees to crest golden ridges. It ends to the south­west, in flat com­mer­cial farm­land. The whole run takes just over an hour if you’re hus­tling and is mostly empty dur­ing the week.

A land­scape like this can make an E9 or most modern GT cars feel long of foot. The 8 Se­ries feels smaller than it should, oddly at home. Partly be­cause our test car is equipped with rear-wheel steer­ing and the op­tional ac­tive anti-roll bars. And partly be­cause it re­acts quickly to mid-cor­ner changes without beat­ing my kid­neys to pieces.

The tun­ing phi­los­o­phy is a sea change – un­like most sport­ing BMWS of the last 10 years, the M850i errs

It’s dra­matic and glo­ri­ous and loud as a bomb, opera on the hoof

on the side of us­able sus­pen­sion travel and mod­er­ate damper re­bound, re­gard­less of chas­sis mode. (Four are avail­able: Eco Pro, Com­fort, Sport and Sport Plus.) In Sport Plus, the ac­tive anti-roll bars will stiffen the rear on turn-in, help­ing the car pivot into a cor­ner be­fore re­leas­ing. At any­thing short of a mur­der­ous pace, the 8 feels en­tirely rear-drive, more in­ter­ested in the rear tyres than the fronts. The elec­tron­i­cally lock­ing diff, the all-wheel-drive sys­tem’s torque-vec­tor­ing abil­i­ties; when you’re not crank­ing, it all goes soft-fo­cus in the back­ground. Even the gear­box, ZF’S ex­cel­lent eight-speed au­to­matic, does a de­cent im­pres­sion, in Sport Plus, of the gear-guess­ing in Porsche’s amaz­ing PDK dual-clutch. Brak­ing or a lift can trig­ger a snap down­shift, and gears are held when you want. It might be the best tune of the best tra­di­tional au­to­matic on the planet.

As I drive, my head cir­cles around why a per­son buys a fast coupe with a huge foot­print. And what might make a car like that feel spe­cial. By way of il­lus­tra­tion, con­sider this: at a claimed 1890kg, partly thanks to clever touches like a car­bon­fi­bre trans­mis­sion tun­nel, the all-wheel-drive 8 is around 200kg lighter than its most ob­vi­ous foil, the Mercedes-benz S560 4Matic coupe. The Mercedes looks more liq­uid, but the BMW makes more power and torque. The 8 is less ob­vi­ously el­e­gant and lacks the Benz’s rav­ish­ing in­te­rior, but it feels sparkier on a back road.

Which of these qual­i­ties are crit­i­cal for a large GT car is a sep­a­rate dis­cus­sion, but ei­ther way, one of these cars seems sure of what it needs to be, and the other seems the prod­uct of a com­pany try­ing to rec­tify its past with what it wants to be next.

Our de­vel­op­ment tester, still a work in progress, of­fers a few glar­ing draw­backs: greasily numb steer­ing no mat­ter the chas­sis set­ting, plus a brake pedal grabby at the top of its travel. The en­gine sounds like noth­ing in par­tic­u­lar, anony­mous V8 gur­gle, even in the chas­sis modes where the ex­haust by­pass valves are open and the stereo plays a syn­the­sised, en­gine-ish noise. For the record, the lat­ter prac­tice is fe­ro­ciously lame. Just be­cause car mak­ers keep on do­ing it does not make it any less lame, espe­cially given that the ma­jor­ity of the world now views au­then­tic­ity as fash­ion­able.

The rest, how­ever, is food for thought. It makes me think about what makes up the per­son­al­ity of a mar­que. And it re­minds me of the cur­rent M5, in that it hints at how BMWS haven’t be­haved in far too long.

“THEY were squishy,” race driver Sam Posey told me, over the phone. “Re­ally de­signed to be driven by Hans Stuck. He ini­ti­ated slides well be­fore the turn – you could just about read the writ­ing on the side of the car, he was so far out of shape. It was re­ally some­thing.”

There are worse philoso­phies around which to tune a ’70s rac­ing weapon. Months be­fore my trip to Monterey, I rang Posey to ask about the CSL. An Amer­i­can driver and broad­caster, he raced the cars, in pe­riod, for BMW of North Amer­ica. As did Hans Stuck, Brian Red­man and Ron­nie Peter­son, among oth­ers.

Red­man once told me that the pil­lar­less CSL was ‘a big wig­gly piece of steel with a hole in the mid­dle’. His eyes twin­kled and then he winked, al­low­ing that he loved the car.

I think of his words at the start of my first race at La­guna, look­ing at the spindly pe­riod rollcage. I’m in chas­sis #2275985 – the last of five IMSA works ex­am­ples. One of its four sis­ters later be­came BMW’S Alexan­der Calder Art Car. Nine-eight-five has a dog-

At any­thing short of a mur­der­ous pace, the 8 feels en­tirely rear-drive

leg five-speed and 16-inch-wide rear slicks. Red­man and Posey both drove this chas­sis, as did Stuck. Like all E9s and most BMWS be­fore the early ’90s, it uses struts up front and semi-trail­ing arms in the rear.

The en­gine, a rare four-valve M49, is rev-lim­ited to 8000rpm for longevity. It shrieks at idle but bel­lows un­der load, a raspy tenor that fire-hoses torque on ev­ery shift. I want to be buried in its noise, rip­ping through the gear­box for the rest of my life.

I run two races. In the first, af­ter start­ing sixth, the brakes go soft and I fall to eighth, be­hind a 911 RSR. Each cor­ner takes two early pumps of the pedal but it never feels dicey, and the car al­ways stops. (Blame a lack of brake ducts; the BMW ran with them in pe­riod but some­how ar­rived at La­guna without.) So I carry on, skat­ing around in a bliss­ful trance, in awe of the ro­mance of the thing, try­ing to make up what the brakes lose, watch­ing that long white nose vec­tor off the tail lights. I start eighth in the se­cond race, caught in an elas­tic fight be­tween two other RSRS, and fin­ish sev­enth.

My re­sults are telling of the car but ul­ti­mately im­ma­te­rial. His­toric rac­ing is a modern mo­ment never as im­por­tant as when its hard­ware was con­tem­po­rary; by the same to­ken, con­tem­po­rary rac­ing per­pet­u­ally hinges on what hap­pens in the next mo­ment. Which is part of what makes mo­tor­sport so in­ter­est­ing.

“BMW was first and fore­most an en­gine-build­ing com­pany,” Posey ex­plained to me. We dis­cussed how a small group of Bavar­i­ans were sent across the At­lantic with a hand­ful of CSLS and told to go rac­ing. The Ger­mans called them ‘cowboys’.

“Penske and Fer­rari, the other big teams I had driven for – Fer­rari was very ca­sual; with NART, hardly a team at all. With BMW, it felt like we were fron­tiers­men. There were ex­ec­u­tives hold­ing signs in the pits. They wanted the pub­lic­ity, to get peo­ple to un­der­stand that BMW didn’t stand for Bri­tish Mo­tor Works. They’d taken a sur­vey in the US and found that peo­ple thought that, and they were ap­palled.”

A fac­tory-backed BMW M8 GTE rac­ing car de­buted at this year’s Le Mans; I sus­pect that it’s fairly good. But un­like the CSL, any com­pe­ti­tion suc­cess it sees is un­likely to sway the fate of the com­pany. The world just doesn’t work like that any more, and car mak­ers no longer pivot around noise and speed. The new M850i isn’t per­fect but it is a very en­cour­ag­ing sign of life. Maybe the full-house pro­duc­tion M8, due next year, will riff on the old CSL’S lessons; evoca­tive and time­less, more than the sum of its parts. The Bavar­i­ans went there once – here’s hop­ing they go there again soon.

TOP: AU­THOR SAM SMITH CHECKS HIM­SELF IN THE MIR­ROR: YEP, SEXY IS DEF­I­NITELY BACK. LEFT: BACK IN THE DAY, THIS EN­GINE SPUN TO 9000RPM; HERE IT’S LIM­ITED TO 8000RPM, BUT NOONE’S COM­PLAIN­ING

WIDE OPEN AT LA­GUNA SECA, CHAS­ING 8000RPM ON SHAGGED REAR TYRES. BLISS

Model BMW 3.0 CSL racer En­gine 3498cc 6cyl, dohc, 24v Max power 321kw @ 9000rpm Max torque 380Nm @ 5000rpm (es­ti­mated) Trans­mis­sion 5-speed man­ual L/W/H/WB 4660/1670/1370/2624mm Weight 1103kg 0-100km/h 4.0sec (es­ti­mated) Price n/a On sale 1972-’75 Model BMW M850i xdrive En­gine 4395cc V8 (90°), dohc, 32v, twin-turbo Max power 390kw @ 5500rpm Max torque 750Nm @ 1800rpm Trans­mis­sion 8-speed au­to­matic L/W/H/WB 4851/1902/1346/2822mm Weight 1890kg 0-100km/h 3.7sec Price $290,000 (es­ti­mated) On sale March 2019

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