BMW M4 MotoGP Safety Car Review

Losail International Circuit, Qatar — Retrofitted adrenaline. That’s what the bumper sticker on the 2015 BMW M4 MotoGP Safety Car promises. And if our first encounter with the car is anything to go by, this is indeed what the 2016 BMW M4 GTS will deliver.

To mark the arrival of the new pace car for the 2015 MotoGP season of motorcycle road racing, BMW has swapped last year’s BMW M6 for a 2015 BMW M4 painted in a dramatic style that recalls the BMW 3.0 CSL “Batmobile” racing cars of the early 1970s. BMW has been a sponsorship fixture in MotoGP since 1999 and now has extended its commitment to 2020. Motorcycle racing has become an unofficial hobby for the German car companies, first with BMW’s longtime involvement, then more recently with Volkswagen AG’s purchase of Ducati and Mercedes-AMG’s deal for a 25 percent stake in MV Agusta.
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Yet what we care about most here is a preview of the top-of-the-line 2016 BMW M4. The MotoGP Safety Car shows us the forthcoming 2016 M4’s key technology, which is water injection for the twin-turbo BMW inline-six engine. This motorsports technology of the past is actually the future of high-performance street-legal engines. According to Frank van Meel, the recently appointed head of BMW’s M Division, water injection is an innovative means to improve air emissions and fuel economy as well as pure performance. Thanks to water injection (“DWI” in BMW speak), the power output of the MotoGP M4’s turbocharged engine rises to about 500 hp from the 2015 M4’s 431 hp at 5,500-7,300 rpm and maximum torque climbs to 443 lb-ft from the current car’s 406 lb-ft @ 1,850-5,500 rpm.

We put the one and only prototype of the 2016 BMW M4 to the test on Qatar’s scorching Losail International Circuit, where the 2015 MotoGP season began. We were riding with Miguel, although everyone calls him Mike. He has one of the best jobs in the world: He is the official driver of the MotoGP Safety Car. Short, fit, and fluent in Spanglish, Mike is evidently a happy camper. “I drive everything with everything off” is his opening gambit when he describes his preferred setup for the MotoGP car’s active-safety electronics. Responds the corporate minder from BMW: “Please, guys, please remember we have only this one car.”

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To help us learn the 3.4-mile track, Mike leads the way in an BMW X5 M, only he does it in the style of former WRC champion Carlos Sainz. Once we get some track time in the MotoGP M4, we expect the extra 69 hp to be a real game-changer in this car’s personality. Instead the thing that puts the senses on alert is the much more emotional driving experience. That’s “emotional” as in loud noises, pungent smells, instant response, deceptive grip, and pounding heartbeat. Even more so than the 2015 M4, this more extreme iteration of the breed directs the focus away from the road toward the racetrack.

All it takes to raise the curtain and clear the stage with the MotoGP M4 is to hit the ignition button. No, you naturally can’t hear the siphoning of the water-injection system, but you will definitely register the louder and deeper voice of the exhaust, which is made of thin-wall titanium and has shed the second muffler for a less compromised flow. Blip the throttle, and the exhaust rumble rises to a brief surround-sound roar before dropping a few octaves again.

2015 BMW M4 MotoGP Safety Car Cockpit

The other big change in the MotoGP M4 concerns the seats, or rather the lack of seats. The rear bench seat has disappeared, and now the chairs up front are thinly upholstered Recaro racing seats. Since the rollcage takes up quite a bit of space, seat travel is limited. There is no height adjustment, and the backrests don’t recline. Instead of automatic seat belts, BMW has fitted six-point Schroth polyester harnesses, equipment that fits our 6-foot-8 frame in a manner that should ensure its recognition as Bondage Device of the Year.

Between the iDrive controller and the center armrest, three rocker switches activate the high-beam headlights, a flasher for the emergency red lights, and a flasher for the emergency blue lights. On top of the leather-trimmed dashboard, an electronic lap-time readout sits as if on a throne. The remainder of the cockpit is pure M4, except the primary trim material is carbon fiber. Aluminum covers for the pedals come right out of the parts catalog from BMW M Performance. “I have programmed the M buttons to my liking,” beams Mike. “M1 equals Sport mode; hitting M2 deactivates all electronic aids. Enjoy the car!”

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At first, I didn’t. Not to the extent I had hoped for, anyway. For a start, I kept veering off the racing line, cursing myself for not practicing on the PlayStation4 that is in the custody of my two sons. Then something increasingly odd started happening to the tires: The cornering grip went away. Was it just my inept driving? After only two laps, the M4 felt as if it was driving on a road surface covered with raw egg. There was frustrating understeer followed by random snap oversteer, and merely touching the curbs next to the track required an instant flick of correction from the steering wheel. Shifting up in the middle of a fast corner was an absolute no-go, which is not helpful on the Losail circuit, where certain sections are too fast for third and too slow for fourth.

I caught myself thinking that a Porsche 911 or a Porsche Cayman GT4 would be a much nicer, more composed, and even faster drive, but only moments later back came the nagging self-doubts typical of an unforeseen course of events. What had Mike said when the BMW engineer asked him how he liked the car? “It’s much better than yesterday. Really much better.” Well, he was wrong. When I pitted after only two and a half laps, the crew checked the tire pressures. Because of blistering track temperatures, the readings more than doubled the cold tire pressure, which was not good at all.
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Officially, the representatives of BMW AG tell us that they’ve never heard of the 2016 BMW M4 GTS. This might even be true, since we hear that the M branch is considering changing the badge from “GTS,” an acronym also used by AMG and Porsche. Instead we’re likely to see the return of the “CSL” moniker, a model name created in the early 1970s for the legendary BMW 3.0 CSL “Batmobile” and which briefly returned for a special-edition 2003 BMW M3.

“CSL” stands for coupe sport lightweight, which is a pretty accurate description of this 2015 BMW M4 outfitted for MotoGP duty. After all, the M Division intends to take away up to 220 pounds of weight for next year’s high-performance M4. The means to this end include a hood, doors, and a trunklid made of aluminum, manually adjustable carbon-fiber front seats (and no more rear seat), and a less comprehensive specification for comfort features. The rollcage will be an optional extra, but all the exterior aero addenda featured on the MotoGP pace car is likely to be carried over. These are part of the M Performance aero kit, boasting a front splitter and fender blades, rocker-sill extensions, slippery outside mirrors, a smoother underbody cover, a rear aero diffuser, and a size-XXL tail rudder.

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The water-injection technology is expected to add about 22 pounds to the car thanks to the requisite plumbing and a separate water tank. In a perfect world, the tank that collects condensation from the air-conditioning unit would be used as a source of water, but packaging complications mean that this approach probably won’t be used until the appearance of the refreshed 2018 BMW M4. Meanwhile, the MotoGP car’s water tank is located in the trunk.

Water injection works its miracle in the M4’s twin-turbo engine simply by cooling combustion temperature, which in turn improves the engine’s ability to resist pre-ignition, or “knock.” The result is a claimed improvement of horsepower and torque by up to 8 percent, plus a reduction in nitrogen-oxide air emissions. The effect of lowering combustion temperature is particularly noticeable at high revs and during very fast, full-throttle autobahn stints. In response, the engine’s black box can even increase the boost pressure and advance the spark timing to deliver more performance. Moreover, cooler temps make possible a slightly taller compression ratio, which helps out the old equation of performance versus fuel economy. Under racing conditions, the water tank would need frequent refilling, but regular street driving quintuples the possible cruising range, we’re told.

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For our second track session, things look good now that the tire pressure has been properly set. Then it begins to rain. Even so, the MotoGP M4 feels much better planted on the pavement, and consequently inspires more confidence. Even close to the redline at 7,600 rpm, the engine sounds free of stress. Since the torque curve resembles a pool table, the transmission can stay in third and fourth gear most of the time, and only the slowest bend requires a downshift to second. The 255/35R-19 front and 275/35R-19 rear Michelins now break away with benign predictability, and the amount of grip the car can carry through the high-speed kinks has nearly doubled. But playtime runs out fast, and soon the MotoGP grid girls are posing on the start-finish line with positioning boards for the motorcycles.

Although BMW is still coy about its performance goals for the 2016 BMW M4 CSL, there’s little doubt that the car must get to 60 mph in less than 4 seconds since the current production car does the job in 4.1 seconds. To do so, the gearing might change in either the transmission or the final drive unit, plus the e-differential’s performance must improve. The 3.7-second sprint to 60 mph that is rumored would match the 503-hp Mercedes-AMG GT S but wouldn’t be good enough to beat the 475-hp Porsche 911 GT3. Though the M4 CSL’s top speed will be limited to 156 mph, the optional Driver’s Package will extend the potential to 175 mph (or even 181 mph).

Pricing? Well, the 2010 BMW M3 GTS offered a power boost to 450 hp in exchange for a check written for $145,000, double the outlay for the standard 420-hp M3. Of course, it went down that way partly because only 150 examples of that car were built, while 750 units of the 2016 BMW M4 CSL appear to be planned.

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Worth it or not? To find out, I wrangled 10 more minutes out of the increasingly nervous MotoGP Safety squad. This time, no photography; just driving. And, voila, I had my answer. At last, it is back — the enticing mix of sharpness and compliance, agility and smoothness, instant intuition and enduring poise. What makes the cheeks glow, the heart thump, and the mind somersault are the long cornering arcs in third gear. The adjustable coil-over suspension unique to the MotoGP Safety Car keeps body roll, pitch, and squat in check. With a less firm calibration, this setup should be fine for normal road driving. The carbon-ceramic brakes are strong and full of stamina. Alas, when MotoGP race control switched on the red lights and our friend from Catalonia started jumping up and down next to the race-control tower, our driving experience was over.

While the BMW M4 MotoGP Safety Car might be a prototype, it still has the traditional personality passed down through generations of the BMW M3. This car is not merely about grunt and oomph. Fact is, the stopwatch barely matters. What gets you hooked are the intensity and intimacy that define the adventure of taking this car to the limit. Everything is familiar, yet most things are different. It is the unique combination of driving position, overall agility and precision, the sharpness of the handling, and the sweetness of the feedback that gets you. It is the delightful steering, neatly balanced chassis and, of course, the ready-for-action attitude. This combination of qualities is, and must always remain, a forte of every BMW M car.

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Once the sweat had dried and I was back in the privacy of my hotel room, out came the laptop, and I started scanning the Web for affordable used M3s. Isn’t it amazing what rear-wheel drive can do to you, even at the ripe old age of 63?

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