The new BMW M6 GT3 won the legendary 24 Hours of Spa 2016 in its first season of racing. A triumphant drive reconstructed.
- Jan Wilms
- Stefan Bogner and Group C
The 24 Hours of Spa has always been a fertile hunting ground for BMW, with no fewer than 22 victories in the world’s most competitive GT race to its name between 1965, when Pascal Ickx and Gérard Langlois powered their BMW 1800 TI/SA to victory through the night, and 2015, when Nick Catsburg, Lucas Luhr and Markus Palttala claimed the top step of the podium in their BMW Z4 GT3. What elevated BMW’s most recent victory from simple routine to genuine sensation, however, was the winning car: the new BMW M6 GT3, the vehicle with the start number 99, competing in its first season of racing and only its second ever 24-hour event. There was more than a whiff of adventure about this 23rd BMW victory at Spa, achieved after 531 laps with much of it in drenching Ardennes conditions. But as well as the sensational début of the new M6 GT3, the team’s commitment to sensitive technology and a carefully calculated strategy would all have a role to play. We reconstruct the key moments of their triumph.
I. The new BMW M6 GT3
St. Ingbert, ROWE RACING Team compound, February 2016
Preparations for the GT3 season began in early 2016 in a rather unassuming production shop at the ROWE RACING facility in St. Ingbert, Saarland, Germany. The team had just switched to its new partner, BMW Motorsport, where the company’s new top GT racing model, the BMW M6 GT3, was about to supersede the BMW Z4 GT3, which had been in service since 2010. The M6 GT3 brought an entirely new presence to GT competition: bigger, broader, brawnier – the aggressive silhouette of the new BMW M6 GT3 looming in the rearview is enough to strike fear into the competition.
Weighing in at less than 2,866 lbs (1,300 kilograms), the lightweight BMW M6 GT3 boasts the technology to translate its aggressively sporty appearance into performance on the track: beneath the carbon bonnet lurks the 4.4-liter V8 engine with M Performance TwinPower Turbo technology from the BMW M6 Coupe production model. The only modifications for racing use were to the oil supply and charge air cooling, together with the installation of a dry sump lubrication unit specially developed by BMW Motorsport. These features combined to develop output of up to 585 hp.
For Hans-Peter Naundorf, team principal and technical director of ROWE RACING, some things were obvious from the start: “The BMW M6 GT3 has established the basis for a new generation of GT3 cars. Packed full of state-of-the-art technology borrowed from production design and DTM, it almost looks like a Formula One car. For one thing, the BMW engineers have developed the complex turbo engine to perfection. Not many manufacturers would even attempt, far less achieve that.”
Bigger, broader, brawnier – the aggressive silhouette of the new BMW M6 GT3 looming in the rearview is enough to strike fear into the competition.
II. General rehearsals
Nürburgring, 24 Hours Race, 29 May 2016/Le Castellet, Six Hours Race, 25 June 2016
After months spent tuning the two ROWE RACING BMW M6 GT3 cars to the team’s requirements, the drivers were finally named: ROWE’s long-distance crew for the first M6 comprised Nick Catsburg, Stef Dusseldorp (both from the Netherlands) and BMW works driver Dirk Werner (Germany); the second would be piloted by BMW works drivers Philipp Eng (Austria), Alexander Sims (United Kingdom) and Maxime Martin (Belgium).
“A solid look, long wheelbase, big engine and even more competitive than its predecessor – I immediately liked the look of the M6 GT3,” said Martin, recalling his first encounter with the new model. In developing the BMW M6 GT3, BMW Motorsport had used all the experience and expertise gathered since 2010 with the successful predecessor model, the BMW Z4 GT3. Based on the production BMW M6 Coupe, a vehicle already honed for use on the race track, the BMW M6 GT3 additionally featured a transaxle design for equal weight distribution between front and rear axles, six-speed sequential racing transmission and powerful motor sport electronics. These modifications, together with a low-mounted power train, further lowered the centre of gravity and improved performance of the M6 GT3. Finally, with its outer skin made entirely of carbon, the chassis underwent aerodynamic optimisation in the BMW wind tunnel.
But even the best-laid plans are no substitute for a 24-hour baptism of fire. So the car’s first long-distance test was the 24 Hours Race on the Nürburgring. “That’s where I discovered that the M6 GT3 is not only incredibly reliable but also capable of exceptionally high cornering speeds,” says Maxime Martin. “But I never thought that just eight weeks later I’d be winning at Spa.”
For Hans-Peter Naundorf, too, the BMW M6 GT3’s trial run in the Eifel was less problematic than expected. Its competitiveness at an early stage meant the team boss could devise a plan to tailor the rest of the season to achieving victory at Spa. The new ROWE strategy was in evidence a month later at the Six Hours of Le Castellet: Naundorf withdrew the BMW M6 GT3 from the race after just two hours in order to replace and try out various components that would play a role at Spa. What looked to spectators like a series of technical problems would prove the key to victory at Spa.
III. The triumph
24 Hours Race, Spa-Francorchamps, 31 July 2016
No GT race in the world attracts a more competitive field than the 24 Hours of Spa. This is a pure GT masterclass, featuring over 60 similarly powerful machines and 180 of the world’s top drivers. And in Eau Rouge, the course boasts one of the most dangerous corners in motorsport. Here both driver and car are subject to such extreme centrifugal and compression forces that the M6 GT3 chassis required additional strengthening.
The 24 Hours of Spa 2016 began on Saturday, 31 July, at 4.30 pm. The two ROWE BMW M6 GT3 cars would be protagonists in a race of sublimely structured drama and suspense. Following problems in qualifying, the race started with a yellow flag phase and overtaking restriction, an hour-long safety car phase that resulted in rush hour along the pit lane. Only in its latter stages did the race on the “Ardennes rollercoaster” turn into a genuine Spa classic, full of high-speed cornering, lateral acceleration and tight overtaking. Since the toll on drivers was significantly greater than in other races, rotations were necessary every two hours at the latest.
It would be a while before spectators were able to make out the white BMW M6 GT3 with the start number 99 among the leading 30 cars. But as the sun began to set, the new star gradually took centre stage, shining brighter with every lap. As night then fell over the Belgian Ardennes, Maxime Martin piloted the BMW through the field towards the leading group. “Our strategy really paid off: we maintained a really good race speed in the M6 GT3 and with a zero-error strategy avoided collecting any penalty points,” explained Maxime Martin.
Then just as things were running perfectly to plan, race control signalled another yellow flag phase. So the tacticians decided to bring forward the mandatory five-minute pit stop. It would prove a strategic masterstroke: at the halfway mark, the #99 M6 GT3 was placed fourth and by dawn had clawed its way through the field to take the lead – what a race, with half of it still to go. But the team still had to defend its position until the afternoon, by which time the only competitor in close contention was the Bentley M Sport team. In Spa, however, it’s never just your opponents that you have to race: throughout the night, rain showers had come with varying intensity and duration, with the last downpour arriving only half an hour before the end of the race. For finishing driver Alexander Sims, it meant another period of total concentration. Team boss Naundorf worked frantically via radio with the team’s own meteorologist to transmit precise rain forecasts for the individual corners to Sims’ BMW. Meanwhile, the M6’s traction control performed sterling service. “That last lap was textbook stuff,” says Naundorf, recalling the last few minutes before the biggest win of his team’s career.
Then came the moment of relief: after 2,311 miles (exactly 3,719.124 kilometres), the #99 BMW M6 GT3, piloted by Martin/Sims/Eng, finally crossed the finish line at Spa-Francorchamps. The win was met by a chorus of jubilation from the ROWE pits and the grandstands. It was a triumph that proved quite emotional for Maxime Martin in particular: “It was a hard race, but we kept our cool and I achieved the most wonderful and most important win of my career. My father won four times at Spa. Now I’ve conquered my home circuit as well,” he rejoiced. The victory also stirred emotions for BMW: “Last year we said farewell to the BMW Z4 GT3 with a win at Spa-Francorchamps. The fact that its successor, the BMW M6 GT3, has been able to achieve this amazing back-to-back victory in its first season in action is truly fantastic,” said BMW Director of Motorsport Jens Marquardt. And what better proof can there be of the sporting prowess – honed to the nth degree – that is inherent in the DNA of BMW models from both motor sport and production, than to be crowned champion at the 24 Hours of Spa at the first time of asking.