Thursday, February 07, 2008

The M3 returns!

Yesterday's announcement of BMW returning to the ALMS with the M3 is possibly the best racing news I've heard this year. I'm a huge fan of the iconic M-car, having always lusted after an original E30 since I was a teenager. I would still love one, but these days they're firmly in "classic" territory e.g. slow for the price, difficult to find parts for and starting to need significant TLC from their owners just to stay on the road.

The E36 is getting very affordable these days and I also hold it dear since it's the first M-car I ever drove. The smooth, turbine-like rush of power is a party trick I don't think you can tire of.

Moving onto the E46, the car got bigger, faster and much more expensive, going for more than $60,000 when it first came out in 2001. Thankfully depreciation has now put it within reach of my own non-profit derived income and next month I'm going to test-drive one or two, something I'm very much looking forward to.

And finally today's E92 M3, which brings the concept bang up to date. It's received the usual raft of rave reviews but a return to racing has to be its most significant characteristic.

Racing was the very raison d'etre of the M3: a desire to race in the European Touring Car Championship demanded a number of big changes to the standard 3-series platform, resulting in a car different enough that BMW needed to homologate a new model. This dispatched thousands of street-legal M3s onto the roads of Europe and a legend was born. Meanwhile on the track M3s won touring car championships in Italy, Germany, the UK and Australia as well as European and World titles, and even made an impression in tarmac rallying.

The E36 never had a significant presence in racing, so it wasn't until 2001 that a factory-backed M3 was raced again. By now, the car had grown in size and performance enough (and rules packages evolved away from the M3 platform) that it found a new home in sportscar racing. BMW developed a V8-engined version of the standard 6-cylinder car and named it the M3GTR. In 2001 it was the car to beat in its class in the ALMS, but it was only through taking advantage of a rules loophole. That was closed before the 2002 season and BMW, facing potentially crippling weight penalties, pulled out of the ALMS. Their presence there was predicated on some questionable rules interpretation and I always thought an 8-cylinder M3, a car not available for purchase, was a bit unfair. It was damn exciting to watch though!

Happily the magnificent GTRs lived on in the hands of Schnitzer Motorsport, winning the Nurburgring 24 Hours in 2004 and 2005. Meanwhile, PTG chose to run 6-cylinder M3s for one more year, and then again in 2006.

Given the somewhat abortive ALMS campaign in 2001, it could be argued that the M3's return to the ALMS later this year, in the hands of Bobby Rahal's team, is the first proper factory-backed effort for a production-derived M3 since the days of the E30.

And that's why this is such exciting news...

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