There are a few ways to get behind the wheel of a new BMW M car. The first takes a bit of planning and effort, around 12-years’ worth – do well in school and work hard so you can be a captain of industry. Second, beg a higher power for the right six-number combination to secure that weekly lotto draw win. Third, make friends with someone who’s managed to get either of the first two things right. There is, however, a fourth way that’s much easier to achieve.
BMW has a division called BMW Driving Experience, headed up by Gennaro Bonafede (yes, that’s three generations of racing Bonafedes) who is also currently battling for the lead of the GTC Championship as part of the SASOL BMW GTC Team. It’s with the driving experience crew that anyone, for a price, can drive the latest cars bearing the hallowed M badge on a variety of different courses. While it’s good fun (amazing really) to drive these cars on a racetrack, the main function of the courses is to teach participants how to drive a ridiculously powerful car safely. Some of the courses on offer are tailored to different aspects of driving; depending on what you want to learn and what skills you think need improving.
A good start is at the beginning, and that’s with the M Introduction course. This is also the same course that’s offered to prospective M car owners in an attempt to sway them from whatever they’re currently driving (if it’s a competitor brand), or if someone is finally ready to level up from a non-M car to an M car. It’s a brilliant marketing exercise because once you leave the track, all you can think of for the next month is the most powerful letter in the world, M. Another brilliant feature of these courses is that they’re not confined to one racetrack, the cars and driving instructors travel to tracks around the country so you can book a course in your region when they’re in town.
The M Introduction course takes half a day to complete. For our course, we were lucky enough to do it at Zwartkops Raceway where the BMW Driving Experience has its head office, a classy new building overlooking Turn 8 that allows for views of Turn 4 and the back straight up to the tabletop at Turn 5. On arrival you’re treated to all manner of breakfast snacks, drinks and coffee to get you ready for the theory part of the course. The theory covers the basics of driving, handling and track driving so that when you do get on track you understand what the instructors are telling you about braking points, the right line to use for a fast and smooth lap, and most importantly, how to set up the seat and steering wheel to give you maximum control of the car. You’re looking at around 45 minutes for this part of your day, so now you can work out just how much of the day is spent on track. A lot!
Course attendees are introduced to and paired with instructors (most of whom are current or ex-racing drivers) for the day. The cars available neatly cover the entire M range; the lineup included the 272 kW M2, the 317 kW M3, the 317 kW M4, the 441 kW M5 and the 423 kW X5M. If you’re lucky you’ll be able to sample each of them, but if the course has a lot of people on the day, try snag your favourite of the lot early. No matter which you choose, you’re guaranteed some very high speed driving, don’t let the M2’s lower power or the fact that the X5M is an SUV fool you, they’re fast enough to make you scream. Depending on the size of the group, the order of activities can vary, but you can expect at least four disciplines.
To exploit the power of M, fast laps are the order of the day. If you’re open to instruction and you do what the instructors tell you to do, you’ll find yourself doing some fast laps. Of course, you don’t need to take the car to 10/10ths, just to where you’re comfortable. Then the instructor takes you for hot laps, it’s at this point you immediately think these guys have the coolest job in the world. Next is a braking demonstration with the M2 to show how speed affects stopping distances, and this leads into trying out the dynamic handling capabilities of the cars in a slalom test. This is good fun, as you’d expect, but the next activity is even better – drag racing! Everyone pairs up to race against each oneanother in four matching M3s. It’s not a full 400m stretch but it’s long enough to get up to silly speeds before jumping on the brakes. This part brings out the beast in everyone, getting to the finish first becomes a must, it’s great. The final activity is drifting through Turn 6 and 7, but this time it was the instructors at the wheel because even though the M3 has more then enough power for a novice to try it, you still don’t want to test those airbags in an embarrasing crash.
With track activities done, the last order of business is to head back to the boardroom to give feedback on the day and the instructors, and then to receive a participation certificate. This is one of those things that will remain among your best motoring memories for years to come. As said, this course was just the introduction to what BMW M is all about. The other courses on offer include M Advanced (to get acquainted with the racetrack), M Drift (controlled perfection) and M Intensive (high speed). The courses are a must for anyone with a high-powered car, no matter the make or model. The lessons learned will apply to any car and make you a safer, more confident driver. If you don’t have the insane urge to buy an M car after any of these courses, the only logical reason would be that you already own one.