I Drove The Big M8 Race Car

By automotive-mag.com 16 Min Read

Normal people aren’t allowed to drive cars like this. The teams and owners of modern, top-level race cars, under most conditions, would never consider letting someone without years of training and proven skill drive their seven-figure cars flat-out. It just doesn’t happen.

Yet here I am, a lowly car writer, strapping into a real, actual BMW M8 GTE, about to be sent out onto the road course of Homestead-Miami Speedway. It’s moments like these, when fantasy and reality intersect. 

The big takeaway, apart from a life-affirming memory, is a sense for how much pro drivers lean on technology to set lap times. 

The M8 GTE is relatively famous, as far as race cars go. Early on it earned the nickname “big M8” thanks to its size, spawning memes which emphasized the car’s massive footprint on track relative to its competitors. 

Beyond the memes, the M8 was also successful, taking five wins in IMSA’s GTLM class over four years in competition, including two marquee victories at the 24 Hours of Daytona.

BMW retired the M8 GTE from competition at the end of the 2021 season. Of the five chassis owned by BMW North America, the company plans to keep two for display and historical racing purposes, including the #25 car that won Daytona in 2019. The #24 Daytona winner has already been sold, while the remaining two cars will be sold at auction. The M8 I drove, chassis 1810, is one of those cars.

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BMW M8 GTE Race Car At Homestead-Miami Speedway-1

Chassis 1810 raced as the #25 car for the 2021 season with drivers Connor De Phillippi, Philipp Eng, and Bruno Spengler at the wheel. It only competed in three events: Sebring, where it finished 2nd, Watkins Glen, where it finished 3rd, and Road Atlanta, where it finished 5th. The car still wears its bright red Motul livery, and though it’s been cleaned up and mechanically refreshed, still shows a fair number of battle scars.

Before it can be auctioned, BMW needs to make sure chassis 1810 works correctly. And a quick drive around the office parking lot won’t cut it. Every February the company and its motorsport partners at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing bring a collection of historic race cars to Homestead-Miami for a yearly shakedown, prepping the cars for an upcoming year of various events, such as the Monterey Motorsports Reunion. It joins powerhouses like the Revs Institute at the Brian Redman Targa 66 track day event, the perfect place to suss out issues and get real, uninterrupted seat time amongst similarly desirable metal.

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BMW M8 GTE Race Car At Homestead-Miami Speedway-28

BMW invited a select few journalists to get some time behind the wheel of a big M8 during this test weekend before both chassis are sold off. Race suit on and helmet in hand, I was ready for the challenge, seeing as how I drove the company’s M3 GT ALMS car exactly one year prior. But modern race cars are more computer than car, so I couldn’t just hop in and go. What follows is what BMW describes as an “abridged” version of the M8 GTE’s lengthy startup procedure:

Step 1: Raise the car on its integrated air jack system, remove the wheels, and install rear wheel spacers.

Step 2: Pressurize the cooling system and connect it to a heater unit.

Step 3: Connect a laptop to monitor drivetrain vitals.

Step 4: Once the coolant is warm, crank the engine several times for a few seconds without ignition to build oil pressure.

Step 5: Fire the engine. The computer will run the engine on a specific map to warm internal components appropriately.

Step 6. Once the engine is warm, the car must be run through each gear to warm the gearbox. The rear wheel spacers are fitted so the brake rotors stay in place during this procedure. 

Step 7: Place the gearbox in neutral, turn off the engine, install the wheels, and lower the car from its air jack system.

Only after this roughly 30-minute set of instructions is completed, is the M8 GTE ready to drive under its own power. Then there’s the act of actually getting inside. Squeezing through the hole in the roll cage won’t be as difficult as wedging your way into the particularly narrow racing bucket, which only fit my hips after I was strapped down by the six-point harnesses. From there, you’ll need to flip the two buttons controlling main power and ignition before punching the start button. After that, you’re finally good to go. It’s highly recommended you switch on the fan and air conditioning buttons, godsends in the Florida sun.

BMW M8 GTE Race Car At Homestead-Miami Speedway-7

The two only look similar until you put them next to each other.

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BMW M8 GTE Race Car At Homestead-Miami Speedway-50

Setting off in the big M8 is the most daunting part of the process. The clutch’s bite point is razor thin and impossible to smoothly engage; you have to ride the throttle hard to get going. I suggested to the engineers I side-step the third pedal instead and light up the tires to get away, hot-pit style. They very kindly told me not to do that. 

On my first time out I immediately stalled the M8 no less than three times. But once I finally got the car to move, the driving experience became strangely straightforward. Unlike the M8 street car, which uses a torque-converter automatic and a trick all-wheel drive system, the M8 GTE sends its power to the rear wheels via a six-speed sequential, controlled via paddles on the steering wheel. The only time you need to use the clutch is from a stop. Going from gear to gear requires nothing more than a pull of the up or down paddles. The only other things you have to worry about are steering, throttle, and braking.

Until you want to go fast.

Approaching the limits of a modern GTLM race car requires an understanding of how downforce and tire wear affect things like braking capability and lateral grip. It also requires you to know how to lean on its various electronics to draw the most out of each lap. And there are a lot of electronics to lean on. 

Per the GTLM rule set, permissible driver aids are limited to a traction control system. That means no anti-lock brakes or stability control. But The big M8’s traction control system is as far from an on/off switch as you can imagine. 

The traction system is so quick and seamless that all you have to do as a driver is point the car and mat the throttle pedal.

There are two adjustable aspects to the system: How aggressively you’d like the traction control to kick in, and how much wheelslip you’d like to allow before the system intervenes. Each aspect has 12 levels of adjustability, controlled via two scroll wheels mounted to the steering wheel. Level 12 is the most aggressive traction and the least amount of wheelslip, while level 1 has no traction control and the most amount of wheelslip.

I started out on level 9 for both traction settings, and quickly learned just how smooth and usable a system like this can be, even for an amateur like myself. Slowly feeding in and feathering the throttle on corner exit to hold traction, something I’ve trained myself to do over years of driving high-performance street cars, is a useless skill here. The traction system is so quick and seamless that all you have to do as a driver is point the car and mat the throttle pedal. The traction system sorts out the rest, cutting in just enough so it feels like you’re not losing any time at all. It’s a jarring sensation that took a few laps to acclimate to.

BMW M8 GTE Race Car At Homestead-Miami Speedway-8

The M8 GTE’s cockpit is as much control center as it is driver’s seat.

You see the traction control working as much as you feel it, courtesy of two vertically mounted light bars, similar to a set of horizontally mounted shift lights, mounted on either side of the digital gauge cluster pod. As the traction control works, the arrays will light up in white, each corresponding to each rear wheel. The car is telling you when the traction control activates in real time, and just how much work the system is doing. The more the lights flare up, the more the system is working to keep the wheels from ripping your rear tires to shreds. 

After my drive, one of BMW M’s race engineers, Colin Harmer, brought up the data for my laps and lectured me on my throttle inputs, explaining how the M8 doesn’t respond well to that sort of feathering and lack of sure-footedness. The car wants you to go flat-out and trust it to sort out what’s happening at the tires. The traction system only activates when the throttle pedal is more than 75-percent depressed, so you have to commit to make it all work together. Great advice for my nonexistent sports car career, and an eye-opening realization of just how much BMW’s pro drivers must’ve leaned on this system to go quickly.

Keep your hands smooth and your eyes up, and dare I say it, the M8 was easy to push hard.

The traction control wasn’t the only piece of tech helping me to go quicker. While there is no ABS, those light stacks for the traction also work under braking, lighting up progressively as you get closer and closer to locking up the front wheels. So while there isn’t any tech that’ll step in and save you from locking up, you have all the info you need to avoid flat-spotting your tires. 

Once you get used to all of the flashing lights and crazy traction control wizardry, it’s easy to enjoy the gargantuan speed available to you in the big M8. The shifts are as quick as anything I’ve ever driven, and the steering is so fast that you’re only ever crossing your arms if you send the steering full-lock. 

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BMW M8 GTE Race Car At Homestead-Miami Speedway-66

Downforce is the star though. There’s a lot more of it here than in the ALMS M3 I drove last year. Feeling it come on gives the sensation that grip has essentially doubled. Parts of Homestead-Miami’s road course that were previously scary and nearly flat out, like turns 1 and 7, could be taken totally flat in the M8. Go any slower and the car seems to dislike it. Keep your hands smooth and your eyes up, and dare I say it, the M8 was easy to push hard.

The engine fades into the background when you’re pushing more than 2 gs through corners, but it’s a masterpiece of engineering. Based loosely on the 4.4-liter twin-turbo S63 V8 found in the M8 street car, it uses just 4.0 liters of displacement (the limit for GTLM rules), but 985 unique parts. Wearing the codename P63/1, it’s strapped with a flat-plane crankshaft, different turbochargers, redesigned intakes and exhaust manifolds, and much more. Right now there are two states of tune available: Map 4, which makes around 550 horsepower, and Map 1, which makes 600 horsepower. 

While the motor isn’t as sonorous as the naturally aspirated, 9500-rpm engine from the M3 I mentioned earlier, you can’t fault its effectiveness. There’s an anti-lag system that keeps the turbos spooled under braking to eliminate lag once you hop back to the go pedal. There’s the tiniest hint of hesitation down low before the boost fully envelops the motor, but once it does, the torque curve plateaus into a sea of constant thrust until redline, without any pause from gear to gear.

 

The big M8 is proof of how much technology exists at the very top levels of motorsport, and how much drivers have to use it to go fast. That’s not terribly surprising. It’s the accessibility of that speed which amazed me. 

I’m not a pro race car driver. I’ve driven just three “real” race cars in my entire life, topped off with about a couple dozen stints in a Champcar Miata. Yet I was able to push the M8 and make the most of what it had to offer, leaning on the traction tech to improve my laps. More tech in cars isn’t always a good thing. But here, it’s a godsend capable of making even the most amateur track rat look like a hero.

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