New Car Reviews

Racing the Mid-Engine BMW M1 Supercar at Mazda Raceway

The M1 in anger at the track.

MONTEREY, California — Vintage? Yes. Historic? Very much so. Old? Not even a little bit. This BMW race car is alive, a machine with a shrieking soul. It vibrates all around me, as if there’s a live-wire tremor radiating from the center of the car all the way to its fiberglass skin. Yet the chassis is rock solid, so hooked up to asphalt that I can’t get it to pivot even if I snap off the gas while cornering. I muscle the shift lever of the five-speed from second gear into third, and the straight-six flexes its rough power. The sound of the 470-horsepower lump behind my head is magnificent.

Wait, the motor behind my head? In a BMW? Yes, this is the BMW M1, Munich’s own mid-engine sports car made from 1978 to 1981, a time when it was unthinkable that such a thing could come from a company that was not Italian. It was a curiosity then, and its commercial impact was negligible. But it was a surprisingly grand statement by BMW, and if anyone who had a poster of an M1 in those days is still curious if it drives as good as it looks, the answer is yes—even better, actually.

But why should we care about this aging one-hit Bavarian wonder car today?

Because as BMW of North America celebrates its 40th anniversary, it very much cares. If we’re all doomed to repeat history (car companies as well as drivers), it is instructive to drive that history and see what went right and what went wrong. In so many ways, the BMW M1 was tremendously right, the kind of special vehicle a current BMW executive might mull over today.

Which makes BMW of North America’s decision to acquire and exercise an ever-growing collection of historic race cars pretty smart indeed. This fleet of competition machinery is an excellent riposte to those who accuse BMW of forgetting what the Ultimate Driving Machine feels like. The cars not only run, but they’re also actually raced by the kind of people who help determine decisions about future products. On a lesser level that includes a lucky stiff like me in this 1980 M1, a former runner in IMSA sports car races of the 1980s. Far more importantly, it also means BMW executives such as Ludwig Willisch, North America’s president and CEO, who is piloting the very BMW 3.0 CSL that won the Sebring 12 Hours in 1975.

Both cars are in the iconic colors BMW race cars made famous. And on this happy day in Monterey, California, Willisch and I are among the 44 cars brawling on Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca at this year’s Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion. I was cautioned that this event would be more of a procession than a race, but I’m mixing it up with winged Porsche 935s spitting fire from tailpipes and wickedly flared Corvettes making the pavement rumble. The rubbing of fenders is verboten, but these guys are racing, no lie, though the driving is smart and even friendly in a mildly cutthroat sort of way. And there’s nothing that puts you more in touch with the spirit of sports car racing than the sight of a 1972 Porsche 911 RSR and a 1972 Nissan Skyline GT-R in your mirrors as you rocket toward the crest of the hill where the famous Corkscrew awaits on the other side.

Despite its 1970s heritage, the BMW M1 has a jet-set quality to it, a wedgy, clean futurism that still looks modern. Its style was derived from the BMW Turbo, presented by BMW design director Paul Bracq as a show car to celebrate the 1972 Munich Olympics. Shortly afterward, the rules of sports car racing turned away from futuristic prototypes toward cars with the silhouettes of production models, so BMW racing director Jochen Neerpasch persuaded the company in 1975 to embark on a plan to build a mid-engine car. The M1 project was initially placed in the hands of those who had made the mid-engine sports car a sensation—the Italians. Italdesign’s Giorgetto Giugiaro handled the design, and Lamborghini was to build and assemble the hardware.

Naturally, disaster ensued. BMW canceled its contract with Lamborghini and commissioned final assembly of the car in Stuttgart at Baur, known for engineering BMW convertibles. By the time the M1 went into production in 1978, the racing rules had changed, forcing BMW to create a single-make racing series called the Procar Championship to promote the car. It ran as a support race for Formula 1 events in 1979, and F1 stars including world champion Niki Lauda went wheel to wheel against privateers. (Go figure; Lauda won the season.)

This car is just so damn good—better and more modern than any 35-year-old race car has a right to be.

The good news is that some 450 M1s were made in all, the majority as street-legal cars with a 277-hp version of BMW’s 3.5-liter M88 inline-six. Before my Rolex race, I drove a cherry-red example to the track, and it was peppy and fun and so, well, normal compared to other mid-engine cars of the time, all of which were horrors. But the M1 race car is the thing. It gets 470 hp out of the M88, with its Kugelfischer mechanical fuel injection and 24-valve, DOHC, six-cylinder head. The car is bigger than you think, measuring nearly 172 inches overall. Its spaceframe chassis features a classic racing suspension, with control arms, coil springs, and anti-roll bars.

Not only does BMW North America president and CEO Ludwig Willisch (right) have some of the best sideburns in the business, he’s a fantastic driver to boot. Willisch drove the 3.0 CSL while the author drove the BMW M1.

I’ve had the luck to drive the Lancia 037, the monster Group B rally car, in a tarmac-style rally in the mountains of northeast Italy. The mid-engine Lancia roughly shares the same era and architecture as the M1, yet it was continually trying to kill me. Its mandate was to escape the bounds of asphalt and get sideways, no matter what. The M1 is nothing like the Lancia. The steering is lively yet precise, just this side of heavy. The car glides out of the garage at Laguna Seca and trundles around the pits, drivable at even ultra-low speeds. The clutch action is easy to manage, and the throws of the five-speed transmission are long in the German style. At speed there’s none of twitchiness you’d associate with a mid-engine car, even a modern one.

I race twice on Saturday, each with a race start. There is a long line of historic metal front and aft, millions of dollars glowing in the bright sun. I’m barely aware of the thick groups of spectators in the pit suites on the front straight, the grandstands outside of Turn 4, or those who have made their way to the Corkscrew. My eyes are on the BMWs, Datsuns, and Porsches bunching and weaving on the pace lap, which is always a chance for mass collateral damage. The green flag drops, and the M1’s engine thrills to the chase.

Track workers and fans of vintage racing wave to celebrate a display of racing history at a track where so much racing history has taken place over the last five decade

This car is just so damn good—better and more modern than any 35-year-old race car has a right to be. The M1 launches smoothly out of corners as if propelled by a giant rubber band, and the slick rear tires hook up instantly. Beneath my full-face Stilo racing helmet, I’m wearing a stupid Joker-wide grin. But all this power tricks me into driving the M1 like a Corvette, diving into corners and then braking late and hard, relying on the power to compensate during the exit. The brake travel gets longer and longer, so the braking zones for Turn 2 and into the Corkscrew get hairier and hairier.

For the second race of the day, I resolve to brake less and maintain more cornering speed, trusting the slicks to keep the car under control. My lap times improve, and the M1 helps me nail deceptive Turn 5 and Turn 6, which require a nuanced feel for maintaining momentum. As I clip the curbs I’m back on the gas pedal, which the race car manages comfortably. Still, some of my competitors are really fast. The ventilation louvers in the rear window mean I can’t see out the back whatsoever, and the tiny outside mirrors are next to useless. A Porsche 935 driven by noted car-restoration entrepreneur Bruce Canepa bullets by me just inches away. There are other BMWs out here, including a fabulous Luigi-chassis 1976 CLS and a 1977 320i Turbo. BMW of North America’s Willisch is looking good in his perfect Sebring winner.

According to the M1’s windshield, this is the fifth Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion this car has participated in, and we’d happily be at the wheel for its sixth, seventh, and eighth appearances.

At the end, I bring the car home to the pits, and the crew is happy to see its gorgeous car undamaged. On the cooldown lap, the track workers and fans of vintage racing wave to celebrate a display of racing history at a track where so much racing history has taken place over the last five decades. It’s as good a feeling as I’ve ever had in a car. I briefly entertain the idea of buying a M1 Procar, then later that night I regain my senses when I ask a collector how much one might run. He replies, “Not bad, probably just over $1 million.”

Race weekend over, I’m driving back to San Francisco in a modern BMW i8. If there’s a current link to the M1, it is, curiously, the i8. Despite the complicated drivetrain with its electric motors and three-cylinder engine, the BMW i8 is balanced and poised like the M1 yet also as ready to thrill to the throttle. The BMW i8 isn’t just another front-engine sports car, and it certainly isn’t some kind of utility vehicle. It feels special. And that’s what a BMW really should be about.

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