Motorsport

24 hours of adrenaline: The BMW M6 GT3 at Spa

The new BMW M6 GT3 won the legendary 24 Hours of Spa 2016 in its first season of racing. A triumphant drive reconstructed.

By
Jan Wilms
Photos
Stefan Bogner und Group C

The 24 Hours of Spa has always been fertile hunting ground for BMW, with no fewer than 22 victories to its name at the world’s most competitive GT race – 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 third-ever 24-hour event. There was more than a hint of adventure about this 23rd BMW victory at Spa, achieved after 531 laps, with much of it in drenching Ardennes conditions. But in addition to the sensational debut 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 set to replace 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 rear-view mirror is enough to strike fear into the competition.

Weighing in at around 2,866 lbs., the lightweight BMW M6 GT3 possesses the technology to translate its aggressively sporty appearance into performance on the track. Under the carbon hood lurks the 4.4-liter V-8 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, with the installation of a dry sump lubrication unit specially developed by BMW Motorsport, and charge air cooling. These features combined to produce an output of up to 585 hp.

For Hans-Peter Naundorf, Team Leader and Technical Director of ROWE RACING, some things were obvious from the start. “The BMW M6 GT3 has established a foundation for a new generation of GT3 cars. Packed full of state-of-the-art technology borrowed from production design and DTM, it almost comes close to a Formula car. For one thing, the BMW engineers have developed the complex turbo engine to perfection. Not many manufacturers would even attempt, let alone achieve that.”

Bigger, broader, brawnier – the aggressive silhouette of the new BMW M6 GT3 looming in the rear-view mirror is enough to strike fear into the competition.

Even the best-laid plans are no substitute for a 24-hour baptism by fire. So the car’s first European long-distance test was the 24 Hours Race at the Nürburgring. “That’s where I discovered that the M6 GT3 is not only incredibly reliable, it is also capable of exceptionally high cornering speeds,” said BMW works driver Maxime Martin.

II. General rehearsals
Nürburgring, 24 Hours Race, May 29, 2016/Le Castellet, Six Hours Race, June 25, 2016

After months spent tuning the two ROWE RACING BMW M6 GT3 cars to the team’s requirements, the drivers were finally announced: 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 liked the look of the M6 GT3 right away,” 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 BMW M6 Coupe, a vehicle already honed for use on the racetrack, the BMW M6 GT3 additionally featured a transaxle design for equal weight distribution between front and rear axles, six-speed sequential racing transmission, and advanced racecar electronics. These modifications, together with a low-mounted power train, further lowered the center of gravity and improved the performance of the M6 GT3. Finally, with its outer skin made entirely of carbon, the chassis underwent aerodynamic optimization in the BMW wind tunnel.

But even the best-laid plans are no substitute for a 24-hour baptism by fire. So the car’s first European long-distance test was the ADAC 24 Hours of 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. In January, long-time US BMW racing team Turner Motorsport had been the first to successfully test the new car twice around the clock at Daytona, proving that the car was well developed. Back in Europe, the M6 GT3’s competitiveness at an early stage meant that ROWE could devise a plan to tailor the rest of the season to achieving victory at Spa. The team’s new 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.

Rush hour in the pit lane: no GT race in the world attracts a more competitive field than the 24 Hours of Spa. This is a pure GT master class, featuring over 60 similarly powerful machines and 180 of the world’s top drivers.

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 passing. Since the toll on drivers is significantly greater than in other races, rotations are necessary at least every two hours.

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 passing. Since the toll on drivers is significantly greater than in other races, rotations are necessary at least every two hours.

III. The triumph
24 Hours Race, Spa-Francorchamps, July 31, 2016

Few GT races in the world attract a more competitive field than the 24 Hours of Spa. This is a pure GT master class, 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 turns in racing. Here, both driver and car are subject to such extreme centrifugal and compression forces that the M6 GT3 chassis required additional reinforcement.

The 24 Hours of Spa 2016 began on Saturday, July 31 at 4:30 pm. The two ROWE BMW M6 GT3 cars would be protagonists in a race of sublimely structured drama and suspense. Following an incident in the first hour, the race was quickly interrupted by 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 passing. Endurance racing takes a toll on the drivers, so much so that rotations are necessary every couple hours.

It would be awhile 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 center stage, shining brighter with every lap. As night 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 getting any penalty points,” explained Maxime Martin.

Then, just as things were going perfectly according to plan, race control signaled another yellow flag phase. So the tacticians decided to do the mandatory five-minute pit stop earlier than planned. It would prove a strategic masterstroke: at the halfway mark, the #99 M6 GT3 was in fourth place, 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 just half an hour before the end of the race. For finishing driver Alexander Sims, it meant another period of total concentration. Team leader Naundorf worked frantically via radio with the team’s meteorologist to transmit precise rain forecasts for the individual corners to Sims. Meanwhile, the M6’s traction control performed magnificently. “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, 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 cheers from the ROWE pits and the grandstands. It was a win 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 track, 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 remarkable,” 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 the racing and production perspectives, than to be crowned champion at the 24 Hours of Spa the first time around.

Tension behind the scenes: “That last lap was textbook stuff,” says Hans-Peter Naundorf, Team Lead and Technical Director of ROWE RACING, recalling the last few minutes before the biggest win of his team’s career.

02/20/17