By Jesse Adams
My heart is pounding. I hate to sound so cliché, but I mean it’s really pounding. The BMW Motorsport logo embroidered onto the front of my racing suit is literally twitching with each pump of type A-negative inside my chest.
I’ll admit I’m nervous. BMW has entrusted me with what it refers to simply as “Car 20”, the actual Z4 GT3 that contested this year’s Nurburgring 24 Hour with famous racing driver Martin Tomczyk (among others) at the wheel. I’m about to take this carbonfibre-bodied, V8-powered hell machine out for three timed practice sessions at a private race track in the middle of nowhere in Spain, with no nanny, no limitations, no holds barred. The only problem is, I’m not Martin Tomczyk.
The intimidating nature of the cockpit isn’t helping much either. What parts of the steely, stripped-out interior that aren’t covered in carbon panels are painted cold white. There’s a suede steering wheel in front of me, its centre bedazzled with all sorts of coloured buttons and knobs. I know what a few of them do. Most of them I don’t.
Behind the wheel is an LCD display that not only reads speed but also a cornucopia of other data such as gearbox temperature, brake-pedal pressure, remaining fuel and average consumption (remember this is an endurance racing car and petrol consumption is mucho important). I won’t pay much attention to any of this. I’ll be more focused on a string of coloured LEDs at the top of the dash that tell me when to change gear.
Upshifts should happen at exactly the moment four tiny red bulbs illuminate. I won’t find out until I’m on track how quickly and frequently this happens.
What was once a passenger footwell is now a cluttered mess of expensive-looking computer boxes and a tangled loom of wiring harnesses.
There’s also some stuff for putting out fires. I say a silent prayer not to need it today.
There’s an array of toggle switches strewn across the dashboard, cables are zip-tied to almost every length of roll cage, and ducting (aka air-conditioning) is piped into strategic areas (crotch). To the uninitiated the place is a mess. By racing car standards it’s immaculate.
Under my helmet I have radio communication stuffed into my ears, and a race engineer staring at me through the windscreen is about to tell me to fire up the engine. The reality of the situation is hitting home now and I appreciate the balaclava soaking up sweat on my brow. I do have a slight advantage though, because alongside me in the pit box is another identical car with another nervous journalist who’s about to take to the track before me.
I get the added bonus of seeing him stall on pull away, restart, and then clumsily exit the garage like a beginner driver bucking down pit lane with little clutch control. I now know that the clutch action bites aggressively (it’s only needed on pull offs, and then clutch-less paddle shifts takeover from there), and I’ll put extra effort into a smooth start so as not to embarrass myself in front of all the crew, photographers, journos and pretty BMW hostesses hanging around.
I get away without a hitch, which is a huge confidence booster. I tug for second gear before the end of pit lane, and before I know it I’m barrelling into the track’s first hairpin, hard on the anchors, and experiencing the absurd amount of grip four giant gumball slicks provide. Man can this thing stop.
But man can this thing go too. BMW has intentionally set the GT3 up with a little too much understeer so that over-enthusiastic journos like me don’t spin off into oblivion at each corner, but I quickly learn that with (approximately) 385kW available almost instantaneously it’ll still snap the tail out on a whim. The car’s sophisticated traction-control system lends a helping hand more than once as I navigate the eight-turn Monteblanco circuit.
EXPLORING THE LIMITS
I’m getting comfortable now, and I’m exploring the Z4’s limits in each bend. In tight corners the front end washes out with a frustrating push – almost as if it’s reluctant to be going so slowly. But in fast corners that giant surfboard wing affixed to the tail section proves its effectiveness with a very real sense of downforce. The faster you go, the more it sticks, and this is a sensation that takes some getting used to. After eight laps I’m hammering along at full tilt, though Tomczyk might disagree...
Although not all that impressive by some obscene road-car standards, the power on offer from this 4.4-litre V8 is still immense. And, in this racy state of tune with extremely short gear ratios, it revs up in each of its six gears so quickly that paddle pulls are required on almost per-second basis. Any lapse in concentration here results in precious tenths of seconds lost to the rev-limiter gods, and heaven forbid missing a brake marker, turn-in or apex.
Just as I get settled enough to start threatening Tomczyk’s position at BMW, I get a radio signal from my engineer to pit and it’s over all too soon. In just 12 laps I’ve formed a meaningful relationship with “Car 20” and I want just one more lap with her. Still, as I trundle down pit lane in first gear at the 60km/h limit, I’m relieved that I’m returning the roughly R4.5-million Z4 GT3 to its team of mechanics intact and unscathed. -Star Motoring
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