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      11-07-2018, 10:18 PM   #1
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The legendary E46 M3 GTR tested by Road & Track

My favourite M3 Ever...

Enjoy the read!



The BMW M3 GTR Bent the Rules to Beat Everyone

BMW was tired of Porsche winning everything. This car changed that. Nearly 20 years later, we get behind the wheel of the GTR to see just how it works.

By Travis Okulskioct, pics by Todd King, Oct 17, 2018

They're all laughing.

I can't hear what they're saying as I strap into the snug cockpit of the M3 GTR, but I can see that the crew, mechanics, coworkers, and even BMW factory driver Bill Auberlen are standing on Mid Ohio's pit lane cracking up. I assume it's about me.

I open the door to ask. I was right. Auberlen says "we're betting on how many times you'll stall it. The over/under is at five." Thanks Bill.

It's not like I didn't think it was a possibility. Carbon clutches are notoriously touchy, and this, the only factory M3 GTR still running, has one. That the M3 GTR existed at all is a miracle.

In 2000, the American LeMans Series’s GT class had 17 cars, 16 of which were Porsche 911s. Eleven out of 12 races were won by 911s, with the lone E46 M3 winning at Laguna Seca. Seeing a Porsche endlessly win gets boring real quick. Porsches always win.

BMW introduced a new E46 M3-based race car for 2001. Instead of a version of the S54B32 straight-six, this M3 GTR ran a different engine, the P60B40, a 4.0 liter V8 with a flat-plane crank. A dedicated race motor. It makes sense, except that the M3 GTR was for production-based racing, and that engine that wasn't in any production version of the M3. There were raised eyebrows throughout the paddock. How could these be legal?

Porsche complained. The V8 M3 wasn't a production car, it was a prototype. And they had a point. The ALMS required a company to offer a minimum of 10 examples of the car for sale in at least two continents within 12 months of its debut. There wasn't a road-legal M3 GTR.

In a move to make the car unimpeachably legal–and to shut Porsche up–BMW offered to sell 10 road cars. They had the dry-sumped P60B40 rated at 380 horsepower and manual gearboxes. The price? €250,000 (nearly $400,000 in 2018 dollars). It was exorbitant on purpose: BMW didn't really want to sell the cars. For a time, the gambit worked. The ALMS allowed the GTRs to race.

BMW Motorsport and the Prototype Technology Group (PTG) teams won seven of 10 races and finished first and third in the ALMS championship. BMW was thrilled. Guess who wasn’t?

Perhaps because of Porsche's complaint, rules defining what constitutes a production car changed for 2002. At least 100 of the cars had to exist, but, and this was the real problem, the automaker had to build 1000 engines. The P60B40 was hugely expensive. BMW barely wanted to build 10, let alone 1000. The road car program was immediately scrapped, and while the M3 GTR continued to be legal in Europe, it was done in the ALMS.

A heartbreaking moment for your author. I’ve been enamored with the M3 GTR since its debut. I loved it for how in-your-face it was, and how brazen BMW was for just throwing a V8 in an M3, a V8 the company knew shouldn’t have been there. But in the years since, I’ve come to appreciate it as the car that broke Porsche’s stranglehold on the GT class. The M3 GTR showed that Porsche was beatable, and in subsequent years cars from Ferrari, Aston Martin, Panoz and more entered.

This car, one of PTG's entrants in 2001, was converted back to a straight-six, its gonzo V8 left in a corner of PTG’s shop like an old rag, and the six-speed dog box replaced with a sequential unit.

Years later, BMW PR guys and motorsport nuts Matt Russell and Tom Plucinsky found out that the engine from PTG's E46 was sitting in a shop along with everything it needed to get running. There are V8-powered tributes, but none run the infamous P60. The only other true E46 GTR sits in a German museum. It's claimed that it runs, but the exhaust is also rumored to be squeaky clean, like it hasn’t been started in years.

Plucinsky and Russell cobbled together the funding and restored the E46 GTR to how it ran at the end of the 2001 season. The engine is slightly detuned for longevity; everything else is as you'd hope.

It gets you on first glance. The GTR is sitting in the garage at Mid Ohio when we pull up, and my first reaction is disbelief. I start repeating "it's really here." For a car that only raced one season, the M3 GTR has a presence that other race cars don't have. Everything about it is special. The fenders make it appear twice as wide. The roof has a vent to keep you from baking inside. It has a giant wing. The stance is perfect.

And that’s with the engine off.

You can hear it for miles. The P60B40 is always screaming, Axl Rose with side pipes. It’s an H-pattern gearbox, but shifts take a fraction of a second, an abrupt interruption. Downshifts sound like an explosion and are accompanied by fire.

Fire. Auberlen is warming up the car when I get my first glimpse of it in motion. It's blasting flames out of the side exhaust. And not little ones. They're long and lingering, you could roast marshmallows.

While Bill is lapping, I'm running from corner to corner at Mid-Ohio to catch a glimpse of the GTR. I also make it a point to shout about every flame it throws. I'm doing this to the point of being insufferable. And I haven't even driven yet.

Auberlen pits in and we start chatting. For someone who has achieved success at the highest level of motorsport with BMW over the last 20 years and more than 400 races, it doesn't impact his personality. He's friendly, approachable, and supremely chill, California in human form. His parents may as well be a surfboard and a redwood.

He starts to give me the rundown on the GTR's foibles. It all focuses on the gearbox. The six-speed has straight cut gears and a carbon clutch. Getting off the line will be tough. Upshifts and downshifts just need a blip of the throttle to slip into gear, no clutch. That sounds easy, but there's another thing, one that could make this session go not as well. Auberlen says that some of the gates aren't very defined and it's easy to miss a shift. There are no springs to center the shifter. If you aim for an upshift to third and hit first instead, you'll have a very big, very expensive problem.

It reminds me of something I heard before heading to the track. Russell, now with Cadillac, passed on a stern warning to "not ruin his car." While I'm getting my belts on, Plucinsky pops his head in to say essentially the same thing, just in a more friendly way, probably because he's Canadian.

Sitting in the car feels surreal. Like you're trespassing in the space shuttle. That feeling has more to do with what you’re sitting in than the interior itself. For all the specialness outside, it’s shockingly benign inside. The digital dash is basic. But it retains a lot of what’s great about the roadgoing E46. A wide and airy cockpit that doesn’t make you feel cramped or confined. It even smells right, that oddly familiar mix of sweat, Nomex, metal and rubber that populates every good race car.

Thumbing the button that sparks the P60 is a moment to include on my resume, to tell my disinterested grandkids about. It springs to life with a manic, authoritative bark. The clutch is solid, heavy, and there's an audible thunk when you put the car into first. The crowd is standing around the car as it sits there idling, waiting for it to stall a baker's dozen times. I've never concentrated so hard on pulling away. It was worth it. I let the crowd down: I don’t stall once.

Once moving, that specialness becomes real. This has run–and won–at some of the biggest races in the world. It has actual provenance. A larger-than-life race car that exists only because a company decided rules need not apply. And BMW let a jamoke from New Jersey drive it.

But the most incredible part of this car isn't that it skirted the rules or that it dominated its only season of racing. For all the angry noises it makes from the outside, it's a sweetheart to drive. Earlier warnings seem to be in jest.

My right foot is literally shaking as I make my first full-throttle run down Mid-Ohio’s back straight, a cocktail of nerves and disbelief making my muscles question my brain. There’s no need to. It doesn't take more than a lap to get comfortable and understand what the car likes. If you've ever driven another BMW race car, even an E36 built for Chump Car, you can drive the GTR.

The relatively long wheelbase makes it stable. The weight distribution makes it agile. Don't let the wings fool you, this car is more about mechanical grip than aero. You don't have to drive around any quirks to get the best out of it. Unlike a 911 that requires you to be well-versed in rear-engine dynamics, the GTR only needs you to have an understanding of weight transfer and to not be a total yutz.

Each shift feels uncannily satisfying, like you’re doing something actually important. And you are. In the 17 years since the GTR raced, we’ve seen a seismic shift in motorsports. Proficiency with a manual, a skill that was once required, has been stricken from the syllabus. Hell, we’ve worked with Formula One drivers who can’t drive stick.

Traction control isn't working. You don't need it. There's enough grip that it'd only interfere if you were monumentally, catastrophically stupid. You can stand on the brakes without risk of locking them up, the ABS works just fine. I start to pop it up on curbs to help it turn. The engine sounds just as outlandish from the inside, with the free added bonus of gear whine.

The first session passes way too quickly, and I pit in, once again surrounded by the group of people who were betting against me.

"I didn't stall," I say to Auberlen, an attempt to get him to eat crow.

"Yeah, but you had an army pushing," he laughs. Damn. I didn’t even look in my mirrors.

We debrief, and find that we have similar notes on the track. One difference: Auberlen was downshifting in a few key places to keep the revs up. The P60, for all of its brilliance, isn't torquey.

That means, certain corners where I thought I had enough momentum in a taller gear, I should have coupled a dab of brake with a quick downshift to stay in that sweet spot. Likewise, I can be a bit more patient in some corners, let the front end take a solid set before jumping back to power.

I'm told there's only enough fuel for six more laps. Whether that's true or a ruse to keep me from getting too much time in the car, I don't know. I don't care. I intend to use anything they'll give me. I go back out, without stalling and without anyone pushing, keeping Auberlen's notes in mind. I want to make the most of this.

In the past I've found it counterintuitive to downshift when a taller gear can carry a corner. Why waste time on the shift if I don't need it? Well, that was me being dumb. It’s not a waste of time if the engine demands it. I was taking turn one, a fast left, in fourth, and thought I was getting a good run out. Then I tried it in third.

Why didn't I do this the entire time? Entry speed and mid-corner speed remain the same, but the exit is transformed. The P60 eats revs. Loves revs. R is for revs, and that's good enough for P60. What was quick before is now urgent.

And now that I trust the chassis and the grip, I start pushing the GTR deeper into braking zones and build mid-corner speeds. Through Mid Ohio's Thunder Valley, a section of fast blind corners and crests, the GTR gets light and loose, moving around under you. Communication comes in from the tires in a constant stream, consistently informing you of where you can lean on them more and where you might want to take a step back. It has a great base in the E46 M3, and a lot of what makes the street car so revered, like the compliant chassis and predictability at speed, are directly reflected in the race car.

The GTR is your partner in speed. You want to go fast, it wants to go fast. A perfect match.

Today, automakers are barely able to skirt the rules. They have no choice. In an age of data for all and balance of performance, it's nigh on impossible to find an area open to interpretation. And when it is found, developments that get around the regs are banned for the next year, if not the next race.

Very few modern race cars are memorable beyond the years they competed. The M3 GTR is one exception, and not only because of how unbelievable it is to drive or the results it racked up.

BMW didn't exploit a small loophole. The brand showed up with a car for a production-based series with an engine that it never intended to put into production–and acted like it was no big deal. That's brilliant. It's delightfully brash and unabashedly joyous, and proof that Germans aren't only genius engineers, but masters of comedy.

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1981 323i, 143 Kashmir-Metallic, 0094 Pergament, Sports M5, LSD.
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      11-09-2018, 02:58 PM   #2
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2011 E92 335is, Space Grey/Coral Red, 6MT.
Mod list for diagnostic purposes: JB4+MHD BEF, 17psi. BMS DCI, VRSF 7" Street FMIC, VRSF CP, VRSF DPs. NGK plugs gapped 0.022", Delphi S55 coils. 93 octane unless noted otherwise.
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      11-09-2018, 04:25 PM   #3
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Could this have been the moment (the 2001 American LeMans Series’s GT class) when BMW realized that a V8 for the 2007 E90/92/93 M3 must be 'made to happen' no matter what the bean counters have to say? IF we build it they will come.
'08 E92 M3 DCT Melbourne Red/Bamboo Beige Leather/EDC/HARROP Supercharger/SSP Spec-R clutch discs/Quaife LSD/3:45 Final Drive by Diffs Online/M3 World HFC X-Pipe/Pipercross Air Filter/LUX H8 180/NGK Racing Iridium R2556B-9/BPM Sport Stage II/BPM Sport DCT/PFC Z-Rated Pads/ECS Brass Guide Brake Caliper Bushings/Alex Shop Solid Sub-frame Bushings/ Motul 600/Tint/APEX SM-10 18X11 ET44 + 12mm Spacers/APEX 75mm Stud Kit/
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      11-09-2018, 05:17 PM   #4
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Originally Posted by M3Post View Post
Could this have been the moment (the 2001 American LeMans Series’s GT class) when BMW realized that a V8 for the 2007 E90/92/93 M3 must be 'made to happen' no matter what the bean counters have to say? IF we build it they will come.

And I trust that the subsequent development of the S85 was what gave the M Engineers a bargaining chip to reason/negotiate with the bean counters.

The result?
M Engineers got their production V8 M3 with S65, a basis for a racing platform, resolving the homologation issues that the M3 GTR had, and the bean counters got their cost effectiveness since the bottom end of the S65 was basically identical to the S85, sharing/saving some development and production costs.
2011.5 E90 ///M3 | 6-Speed Manual | Jerez Black | Fox Red |

| E9x M3 Press/Media Archives Thread | S65-based Racing Engines Thread |
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      11-09-2018, 05:33 PM   #5
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      11-10-2018, 05:28 AM   #6
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What a great read, I love the e46 chassis and the s65
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      11-11-2018, 04:30 PM   #7
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Childhood dream stuff.. Thank you for sharing!
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      11-17-2018, 08:24 AM   #8
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I'm thinking the air box in the OP's second photo is a Krabonius prototype.
'08 E92 M3 DCT Melbourne Red/Bamboo Beige Leather/EDC/HARROP Supercharger/SSP Spec-R clutch discs/Quaife LSD/3:45 Final Drive by Diffs Online/M3 World HFC X-Pipe/Pipercross Air Filter/LUX H8 180/NGK Racing Iridium R2556B-9/BPM Sport Stage II/BPM Sport DCT/PFC Z-Rated Pads/ECS Brass Guide Brake Caliper Bushings/Alex Shop Solid Sub-frame Bushings/ Motul 600/Tint/APEX SM-10 18X11 ET44 + 12mm Spacers/APEX 75mm Stud Kit/
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      11-23-2018, 01:51 AM   #9
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Great one, thanks
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