BMW Performance Driving School: Brought To You By The Letter M

Ten years ago, I enrolled in a BMW driving school – and promptly slid my teenaged self behind the wheel of a 328i to practice defensive driving and car control techniques. A great lesson, yes, but I couldn’t help but envy students of a higher-level performance driving class, as they shrieked around in wicked-looking E39 M5s. The tables finally turned the other week, when BMW invited me to attend its one-day M Performance Driving School – and, to sweeten the deal even further, I’d be one of the first to slide behind the wheel of the school’s batch of 2012 M5 sedans.

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Both the one- and two-day M Performance Driving School programs are situated at BMW’s Performance Center, adjacent to its X3/X5/X6 manufacturing plant in Spartanburg, South Carolina. The track neither sounds nor looks as sexy as Laguna Seca (one of several tracks that rival Mercedes-Benz AMG offers a similar school), but that doesn’t mean it can’t be challenging. Every inch, corner, elevation change, and slick surface is designed to challenge – and, ideally, improve – your ability to control a performance machine when driven in anger.

 

 

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After a brief classroom session to discuss fundamentals like weight transfer, cornering, and racing lines, we’re quickly ushered out of the building and onto the tarmac. Instructors break large groups into small chunks; no more than 4-5 cars are assigned to a single instructor. First up: cornering basics in a M3 coupe. After the requisite lead-follow demonstration laps, it’s your turn to try flying solo. A radio placed in each car allows the instructor to observe right at the first corner, a hard left that sends you through a tight chicane and then spits you out onto a long straightaway. Is this approach impersonal? Hardly – in fact, being able to watch classmates tackle the same course while listening to their critique allows you to watch, learn, and improve surprisingly quickly.

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Next up: a handling course, which puts us behind the wheel of the oh-so-hot (and oh-so-collectible) 1 M Coupe. The loop starts with a long slalom, followed by a right-hand sweeper that spits you into an extremely tight right-hander. Aim the car right, and you’ll exit that corner atop a knoll before pitching the 1 M into a long, almost-straight stretch. You then have to apply the brakes hard, track wide, and late apex into descending-radius right-hander that spits you back into the original chicane. Sweat. Grin. Repeat.

 

 

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After that, our group moved to the facility’s hallmark feature: the skidpad. The polished concrete surface is big, round, and perpetually wet – and to make things more interesting, we’re trying to tackle this in the big, bad, M5. Striking the right amount of throttle to slide the tail out dramatically – but not to the point of no return – is a little tricky at first, considering peak torque – some 500 lb-ft – comes on at only 1500 rpm. I’m not without fault, but after a couple of “familiarization spins,” I’m catching and correcting the car. Several catches later, and your coach is goading you into goosing the car into a long, dramatic, and controlled powerslide around the ‘pad.

 

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But wait: there’s another wet skid pad. For this, we jump back in the 1 Ms, and are presented with a tight oval course, and told to race one another with neither traction nor stability control activated. This challenges you to launch quickly without wheelspin, brake in time to corner without grinding into oversteer, and apply liberal amounts of throttle upon exiting but without oversteer. I managed to advance into a “final four” (of eight), but a flirtation with understeer in the second round costs me an early lead. D’oh.

After a spot of lunch, we’re then led out to the “big track,” a long, course that combines bits of our first cornering exercise with portions of the wet skid pad. We start off into the back straight in an M3, but have to jump on the brakes to dive into a tight chicane that dumps you onto a still-soggy skid pad. Loop halfway through, and exit up an uphill straight before tackling some esses leading into the front straight. We do several laps in the M3 before switching to the larger M5. Both are a blast to drive, but the F10 delivers mind-boggling speeds in the straights and surprising prowess in the corners. Perhaps most impressive are the brakes: these are the first M5s in the country fitted with optional carbon ceramic brakes, which won’t be available until next year. Once warm, they quickly and confidently shave the 4300-lb car’s velocity down to manageable levels with virtually no fade over several laps.

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Are we done yet? Not quite: our instructor suggested we’d see our initial handling course again, and sure enough, we do at the end of the day. Two twists: we’ve ditched the 1 Ms for M3s, and we’re now running this as a timed run, instead of continuous laps. If you’re in the mood for a little friendly competition, you’ll find you can make the most of the car by squeezing on power earlier in the slalom, carrying speed as late as you can in the back straight, flooring the throttle through the last straight, and standing on the brake to stop within the stop box. We’re each given three passes, and I progressively see my 26-second pass carved down to 24.8 seconds, which is good enough to tie for third place. Practice does, in fact, seem to make perfect.

 

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By the end of the day, you emerge from the car tired, parched, sweaty, and perhaps a bit exhausted. But you also gain some valuable seat time. You leave with a newfound appreciation of what these M-fettled cars can do when pushed to the limit. And perhaps most importantly, you leave with a grin etched across your face as permanently as my memories of those E39s. Scratch that – I’m now dreaming of F10s.

The only problem? The program doesn’t come cheap. The 1-day course is lumped in with the purchase of a M5 or M6, but others – including M3 customers – will need to shell out a solid $1450. You’ll also need to schedule a few weeks in advance, as demand remains considerably high. Are there other schools that teach these basics, and occasionally at lesser prices? Yes, but for Bimmerphiles seeking some personal instruction while behind the wheel of their dream M machines, the program may be worth every penny.

John Gwin
I did the Bondurant 4-day Competition Driving School in California more than 20 years ago. It was generic, which I believe gives me a broader skill set than a marque-specific school. You might get all whiz-bang behind the wheel of a BMW, but that doesn't serve you well in a different brand. While we drove what are now hopelessly outdated Mustang 5.0 and Formula Fords, I still have a lot of confidence in what I learned then when I drive now.

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