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BMW's M4 GT4 School Puts You In a Real-Deal Race Car

2024-02-18 18:03:11

It seems crazy. It’s actually very clever.

It seems like a crazy idea, letting anyone off the street sign up to drive a real-deal, factory-built race car. For the sum of $2,795, you can go to BMW’s Performance Center West at the Thermal Club race track near Palm Springs, and run laps in an M4 GT4. The craziest thing? It makes perfect sense.

This isn’t simply an open lapping day. It’s really a one-day driving school, spent mostly in street cars with the aim of not only bolstering your skills, but getting you ready to drive the GT4 car safely. As far as I’m aware, it’s something no other automaker offers.

The day starts with a classroom briefing, which notes the differing approaches to driving a roadgoing M4 and its GT4 counterpart. An M4 GT4 isn’t radically different from the road car in some ways, but in others, it's alien. We’re driving the previous-gen F82 GT4, which shares the road car’s twin-turbo straight-six and seven-speed dual-clutch transmission. (The school just took delivery of new G82-generation M4 GT4s, and they’ll join the program in the coming months.) The chassis is where things really differ.

For starters, the GT4 sits around 600 pounds lighter than the road car, and its suspension setup is totally reworked. Naturally, the race car runs slick tires, too, and for better weight distribution, the driver’s seat is moved further back, about in line with the rear quarter window. There’s no seat adjustment, but the steering wheel and pedal box move toward you. A big rear wing, splitter, and front dive planes give you a tiny bit of downforce, but more important are the AP Racing brakes.

It’s all enough that your lines through corners are often quite different than they would be in the street car. In the street car, lap time comes from getting the car pointed in a straight line as quickly as possible to allow the 503-hp straight-six to do its thing. The race car isn’t quite as fast in a straight line, but its brakes are far more powerful, and the slicks provide so much more grip in all phases of cornering, so you take a very different approach to the track.

To work up to the M4 GT4’s pace, we started the day in M2s, circling an autocross course to warm up in a tight, but low-risk environment. It’s also an opportunity for the instructors to watch, coaching us on the best lines through the course and giving us what we need to ascend to the GT4. (Earlier in the week, I did another school with BMW, and one of the instructors, Rick Porter, took to ribbing me. He just says “oops” when I blow a corner he just showed me how to take. It did the job.)

Then it’s on to Thermal’s South Palm circuit for lead-follow laps in M4 street cars. Instructors show us both the way to lap the track best in the street car, and some lines that work better in the race car. The school had three fellow students, so we were grouped in pairs behind an instructor. South Palm is a fairly simple track, no real huge challenges, with big runoffs right where you want them. A perfect teaching course. My only struggle was with the two hairpins, which always felt awkward in the street car.

Before lunch, we meet the GT4 car, learning how to get in and out, and what all the buttons do. It’s beautifully built, as you’d expect from a factory race car, with everything installed neatly and ergonomically. There’s even an air-conditioning system that ducts directly to the back of the seat. It is, without exaggeration, one of the greatest things I’ve ever experienced.

After lunch, it’s more timed runs on the autocross course, another lead-follow session on the track, and then the moment we’ve all been waiting for. You get suited and booted, so to speak, and then it’s into the race car.

The most intimidating thing at first is the seating position. In the M4 road car, you can see the leading edge of the hood even if you’re short. In the race car, I can see barely beyond the cowl. But, the mirrors are good, and that at least gives you the sense of where the sides of the car are. Then there’s the enormous frisson of excitement that comes with firing up the unmuffled straight-six.

BMW m4 GT4 (F82)

Being based on a road car unit, it’s a very friendly engine, content to idle without overheating, and smooth in power delivery. Unlike race cars that use true sequential gearboxes – really just manuals with pneumatically actuated shifting – the M4 GT4 uses a road car transmission, so there’s no clutch pedal, and shifts are perfectly smooth. The steering is also incredibly light too, almost to a spooky degree, so getting the car moving down the pits is very easy.

What’s immediately tricky is the brakes. They’re unassisted, which provides much better pedal feel, but you’ve got to stomp on them to use them to their full potential. BMW actually programmed the digital dash to show brake pressure. You need to put in around 80 bar of force to get to the threshold of locking, and that is so much more than you think it is. Sitting stationary, I had to put all my might into the pedal to get just 70 bar.

I’d heard before that the biggest adjustment with a real-deal race car was the braking. It’s so true with the M4 GT4, both in how hard you hit the pedal, and how quickly the car stops. Without even trying, I was lapping the GT4 about as quickly as the new M4 road car, and I bet a lot of that time came in the braking zones. You just casually roll past your braking markers in the street car, take a nice long breath, and hit the left pedal with all your might. Even hitting it as hard as I could, I only got the ABS to trigger briefly once. It just shows how much more braking there is in the car.

An instructor tells me that the GT4 car is around seven seconds faster a lap than the street car on this circuit. What’s more remarkable is that all this time comes from braking and cornering speed. In a straight line, the GT4 isn’t much quicker than the road car, if at all. It was eye opening to see the extreme differences between road and race car.

The new M4 street car is a remarkably grippy thing, especially on turn-in, but there’s no comparing it to the GT4 car on its wide Continental slicks. You turn in at a similar speed as the road car as first, then realize that the race car has way more to give. I’m not sure I ever even got close to what it could offer.

I wouldn’t say it was a hard car to drive. BMW has students leave ESC on, which really doesn’t like any amount of throttle when you have steering dialed in, so it seems a bit slow on corner exit, especially in the slow stuff. It can be a bit frustrating, but it’s also totally understandable, when you consider that these GT4 cars cost around $200,000 new and BMW’s not making them by the thousands.

It’s an interesting thing, an approachable race car. You expect them all to be tricky, recalcitrant things, at any speed. But the M4 GT4 isn’t. You could get out of a street car and into this, and after you get over the “oh my god I’m in a race car” thing, you can drive it.

Yet getting the most out of it is an entirely different matter. I get the hang of driving it around the track at a moderate pace pretty quickly, but I think it would take hours and hours to start setting good lap times. And the thought of one at the Nurburgring 24 Hours, having to hit the brakes that hard over and over again, being fully committed everywhere, is mind-blowing.

These realizations don’t come cheap. Not many of us have nearly $3,000 to spend on an experience like this – let alone the cost of getting to Palm Springs and staying there – yet there isn’t a more affordable way to experience a factory race car, if only for a little more than a dozen laps. Hell, you can easily spend $1,500 renting a Spec Miata for a track day. And as lovely as a good Spec Miata is, an M4 GT4 is a different beast.

After a taste, I wanted more. BMW, naturally, offers it in the form of half- and full-day private coaching sessions with the GT4 car. So BMW’s not crazy – it’s savvy.