Racing at The Thermal Club


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Bill Auberlen has raced four times in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, more than 25 times at the Daytona 24 Hours, more than 400 race starts overall, and once against me.

Well, against me, it wasn’t really a race — it was more a series of lead-follow exercises. And he was leading. But we were both evenly matched in BMW M5s. Though come to think of it, he may have been in an M3, so it was like a Balance of Performance thing, with his talent matched by my hackdom and the greater horsepower of the M5.

Anyway, the main point is the M5. Auberlen has done most of his racing in BMWs. So when BMW needs to have a real racer to entertain the media, it’s often Auberlen who gets the call. A couple years ago, I got to chase him around Laguna Seca in an M3. That’s still one of the best times I’ve ever had on a racetrack. This time, as I said, I was in an M5, the new M5 that just came out and isn’t even on sale yet.

 




The sixth-generation M5 will start arriving in showrooms and in owners’ garages later this month. BMW says the M5 with M xDrive all-wheel drive is “the quickest and most technologically advanced M-vehicle of any kind it has ever made.” Its 600-hp 4.4-liter twin-turbo V8 launches the 4,370-pound sedan-dart to 60 mph in just 3.2 seconds — I know, I verified this by having a friend hold an iPhone and hit the stopwatch function at exactly the point when I yelled “NOW!” On the way to 60, all four tires were grabbing pavement at the same time, perhaps 20 percent to the front wheels, 80 percent to the rears. You can set it up to send all power to the rears if you like, but you have to disable DSC, something maybe only Auberlen should try on a racetrack. Or you, you know what you’re doing. Me? Eeeerrrrp…

BMW invited me and about 4 million other car writers to the Thermal Club way out east of Palm Springs for a day of fun and frolic in various BMW products. My first choice among all of the cars available was the M5 and my first choice of drivers to follow was Auberlen. First, just to make small talk and to let him know that, you know, we were both track veterans and all, I made the mistake of asking how things had gone at Daytona this year.

“We were down 65 hp the whole race!” he whined, his ruggedly handsome face suddenly contorted in pain. “After awhile, we were just gathering data and doing R&D.”

BMW is yelling at working closely with IMSA to come up with a better interpretation of the Balance of Performance so it can maybe see the fabulous new M8 Auberlen drove at Daytona on a podium or two this year. So if you see Auberlen, don’t ask about Daytona. Maybe ask about the M5!

“Oh, it’s a ton of fun,” he said.




Indeed, the new M5 is actually 2 tons of fun. And a little more. When my Autoweek colleague, the racer/engineer Robin Warner, first drove it in December at Estoril, the curb weight was listed at 4,090 pounds, but that might have been European specs or without fluids or something. The latest spec sheet lists U.S. M5s at 4,370 pounds. Regardless, they have 600 hp to get that mass moving (though it was listed at 591 hp in December, suggesting that BMW is happy to use metric hp instead of the SAE hp we use here in America because 600 sounds better than 591). (Whatever, we’ll say 591 from here on since this is America, after all.)

The other thing about the new M5, apart from it having all that power, is the many nuanced layers of electronic controls it uses to make the most out of those 591 ponies. You can configure M xDrive to suit your needs, whether those needs are on a racetrack or on the way to the grocery store. BMW says that even in the default setting with both DSC and 4WD activated, you’ll get a little slip. If you switch to M Dynamic mode (MDM 4WD Sport), more torque is sent to the rear axle and more wheelslip is allowed.

Manipulating these layers doesn’t really take a Ph.D. in electrical engineering, though a bachelor’s might help. You can adjust the throttle, suspension, steering and probably the hair dryer and coffee machine back in your hotel room through your choice of buttons on the console or menus on the dashboard screen. Lucky for me, BMW had politely programmed the M5s with their own set of parameters aimed at keeping their $103,595 M5s on the track and out of Thermal’s many gravel traps.

 




So thus configured, we set off, we three car writer dopes following Auberlen. These exercises are sometimes thrilling, but more often than not, you spend them trailing behind some guy who is either about to crash or who couldn’t find an apex if it was stapled to his “Mad Max” T-shirt. On my first outing, I got one of those.

Just as well, always good to learn the track. Our first laps were to be in the default driving mode with all the restrictions and safety functions in full force. Then, on the second lap, we just hit the red tab on the steering wheel twice and voila — we were in sport plus, better than comfort or mere sport.

How was it? The M5 has plenty of power, when DSC and MDM decide to release it. Unless you’re really progressive and gentle on the throttle pedal, which I tend not to be, that power comes on only on the straights. The exhaust note, even before you hit the little exhaust button on the console, is a delightful burbling roar. An output of 600 hp, or rather 591 hp, means each hp has only 7.4 pounds of M5 to haul around. That’s near-supercar territory.

The new eight-speed M Steptronic transmission seemed to want to be paddle-shifted up and down on the track instead of operating in automatic, so that’s what I did. The HUD display featured a very handy tachometer that let you know when to shift by displaying a series of orange vertical lines that would go red just before fuel cutoff. This was easy. I didn’t hear or feel very much slip at all from the Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tires, 275/35 ZR20s front and 285/35 ZR20s rear. They seemed to stick well and not make any noise doing it.




When the first session was over, I immediately went back out on track and did a few more, also trailing the great Auberlin. These were faster each time since I got a little better about positioning myself in the number 2 car behind Auberlen, where I could go the fastest. A few things I noticed: the monster-big inner-ventilated six-piston 15.74-inch front and single rear 14.96-inch rear carbon-ceramic discs actually felt like they were fading a little at the end of Thermal’s long, sixth-gear back straight. I didn’t expect that. If they weren’t fading maybe they just weren’t as effective as I’d expected them to be at hauling the big 2-plus-ton beast down from speed. Also: these new BMWs, even the performance-king M5, are getting a little too digital for my tastes, with electronic controls taking at least some of the fun away.

“Well why didn’t ya’ turn off the dang DSC all the way,” you ask, with just a hint of a sneer.

I wanted to, and was about to go out on track thus stripped of all electronic nannies. But a BMW executive, perhaps wanting to save paperwork with the insurance people said, “Oh no, you don’t want to do that.” So I didn’t.

In my long and storied career, I was lucky enough to have driven the first-generation M3, way back at about the dawn of time. I drove it around the Nurburgring. It was a magnificent car, among the top two or three things I’ve ever driven. I drove the second- and third-generation M3s, also at the Nurburgring. They, too, were magnificent. But lately, BMWs — and AMGs, Audi RS’s, and all the rest — are getting less and less analog and more and more digital. “Vee haff all zeez electronics, vy not use zem?” engineers seem to be saying. Indeed, Warner noted that this is the car modern buyers want. “Nostalgic types and purists may sulk,” Warner said at the car’s introduction. If they built an M5 that was pure performance, something like that first M3 I drove about a hundred years ago, maybe no one would buy it. It’s a pity. But it’s better to have this M5, with its faults, than no M5 at all. So in that regard, we must praise BMW. You will still have a good time driving this sports sedan, but you may have a better time in your memory, thinking of great Bimmers past. Your choice.

 











On Sale: Late March


Base Price: $103,595


Powertrain: 4.4-liter twin-turbocharged V8, AWD, eight-speed automatic


Output: 591 hp @ 5,600-6,700 rpm; 553 lb-ft of torque @ 1,800-5,600 rpm Read more: http://autoweek.com/article/car-reviews/2018-bmw-m5-first-drive-all-wheel-drive-not-all-time#ixzz58SqN4B31


Curb Weight: 4370 pounds (mfg.)


0-60 MPH: 3.2 seconds (mfg. and AW)


Pros: Fastest, most powerful M-Anything ever


Cons: May be too digital for your tastes (may not be)




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