BMW M4 GT4 Experience

BMW M4 GT4 Experience

This is a sponsored post on behalf of BMW, I was invited out for this event as media, however, all opinions are my own. 

by Michael Satterfield  - 05/16/2021

I was at the Circuit of the Americas standing outside one of the suits on the front straightaway watching a practice session for the GT4 America as the rain rolled in. The BMW M4 GT4 of Stephen Cameron Racing set the fastest lap of the session lapping the 3.4-mile track in just 2:19.360 on a damp track, the next session the BimmerWorld Racing team would put down a 2:17.383 in the dry. The speed, sound, and excitement are why we love motorsports, but like most automotive enthusiasts, I have always wondered what it would be like to drive these cars on the track. 

As I was watching the professional drivers make their laps in Austin, I had no idea that I would be invited to take part in the BMW M and M4 GT4 Experience, at the BMW Performance Center at The Thermal Club in Thermal, CA (near Palm Springs) just a few weeks later. While I have driven a lot of cars on a lot of tracks, this experience would be putting me behind the wheel of the exact same cars that are driven in professional racing series around the world. This wasn't a track day or a street car driving school, this was the real deal, without an instructor in the right seat. 

Flying into Palm Springs, the BMW Performance Center West is about 45 minutes down Interstate 10 in the heart of the Coachella Valley, if you happen to be flying private, the Jacqueline Cochran Regional Airport is right next door and the Palm Springs area is the perfect home of the BMW Performance Center, offering guests access to world-class hotels, dining, golf courses, and an average of 350 sunny days a year. 

BMW M4 GT4 Experience

The BMW M4 and M4 GT4 Experience starts in the classroom, after an introduction of the instructors and a basic program outline, we start by learning about the basics of seat and steering wheel positioning, tire dynamics, and all of the basics we need to know on the track. The experience is limited to just 15 people per class and each class is broken into smaller groups to maximize track time and personal interaction with the instructors. Our class was divided into two groups, Blue and Green, and each member was given a number that would correspond with their car on the track. 

The first thing we would do is head outside to learn more about the BMW M4 GT4 race car, with instructors answering questions and showing us how the racing steering wheel, pedal box, and shifter systems work. They also highlight many of the special race-only features on the GT4 and but also how similar the GT4 race car is to the factory street BMW M4. The BMW M4 GT4 uses the same engine and transmission, including control electronics as the BMW M4 street car with only some slight gearing changes. The M4 GT4 also uses an innovative tuning software, "power sticks" (USB drives) that give race teams the ability to make pre-approved software changes to meet the balance of performance for different racing series. 

BMW M4 GT4 Experience

Before heading out to our group session, we were shown to another room in the BMW building, where we would pick out our race suits, gloves, Nomex socks, and racing shoes. All in the red, white, and blue that matches the famous BMW M livery on the GT4 cars. Once fitted for our safety each group is directed to one of two tracks. 

Blue Group would head over to the 2 miles long South Palm track where they would be driving the BMW M4 street car, in a series of lead-follow laps, our group would be headed to the handling course on the BMW campus to get some laps done in the BMW M2. Eventually, we would be going up against the clock and our fellow classmates to see who could set the fastest time on the course in the M2. 

The handling course starts with a few slow lead-follow laps where the instructor guides the group around the course to learn the optimal line. Then we are let loose behind the wheel of a BMW M2 to try to set the best time we can. While we made our laps, instructors coach us via radio, with tips on braking points and lines, thanks to their instructions, I was able to shave seconds off my laps times and started consistently putting in some of the faster times for our group. We would have to wait until the afternoon session to find out who would set the official fastest time. 

BMW M4 GT4 Experience

After some practice in the M2, we swap courses with the other group and it is time to drive the BMW M4, on the South Palm track. These M4s are standard cars just like you would buy off the dealer lot, on performance street tires. The point of this exercise is to familiarize yourself with the track layout as well as the rotation procedure when on track. The instructor has everyone set the car in M1 mode and has us follow behind his lead car spaced out about two-to-three car lengths apart. After a few slower warm-up laps, we start picking up the speed and are quickly hitting triple digits on the straightaways. The M4 is good, so the M4 GT4 should be even better, after wrapping up on track we head back to the BMW Performance Center building for a lunch break. 

Lunch is served in the BMW cafĂ© which overlooks the track and provides a great vantage point to watch the private jets land at the airport next door. An assortment of gourmet salads and sandwiches and a number of drink options are available. It is a good time to meet your fellow classmates, from a father/son who was taking part in a two-day course to improve their racing skills to a young woman who had never been behind the wheel of a race car, this course is designed to accommodate any skill level. 

Once lunch is over our group headed back to the M2 course to set our official lap times while Blue Group would head over to take on the M4 GT4. Unlike on the first round on the handling course, our official time required that we also bring the car to a full stop in the "stop box" stopping before or after the box netted a two-second penalty. My first lap time was just over 49 seconds but as the laps went on, I was able to get that number down to around 46 seconds. The other group would also run through the same course and all of our times would be compared at the end of the day. Wrapping up at the M2 handling course, we head inside to suit up in our BMW racing suits, climb aboard a few BMW X7s and head back to South Palm this time to pilot the M4 GT4 car. 

BMW M4 GT4 Experience

After getting fitted with a HANS device and helmet, our instructors help us into the car, making sure our belts are tight and our pedals and steering wheel are in the right position. Unlike the M4 street car, the seat is fixed in the M4 GT4, and the pedals and steering wheel move, you also immediately notice that the seating position is several inches further back than a standard street car, shifting your line of sight out the side windows dramatically. After a quick radio check, we fire up the cars and fall into line on the pit road behind the instructor. 

We roll onto the track and just like with the M4, we roll through a few slow laps to familiarize ourselves with this very different car. The M4 GT4 was designed by BMW for customer racing, so it is one of the most user-friendly race cars to drive, with simple controls so by the second lap it feels like I have been driving it for years. The electronic instrument cluster shows far more information than you would have time to look at on the technical South Palm track, the only thing you need to look for is the shift light. As you make your way through the gears and hit triple digits on the straights it is hard to not feel like a hero, the sound, sensation of speed, and the thrill of chasing down your classmates on the straightaway is hard to describe until you experience it yourself. 

BMW M4 GT4 Experience

The M4 GT4 has an incredible amount of grip, thanks to the sticky tires and aero package, it does take a few laps to understand just how hard it can go into a corner, how much later it can brake, and how much sooner it can accelerate, even with the instructor walking you through it via radio, it is something you just have to feel through the seat of your pants. Having driven a number of race cars over the years, the M4 GT4 is by far one of the most composed and easy to drive, plus the fact that it can do this while still having A/C keeping me cool and comfortable while racing in the California desert is amazing. 

After our final lap, we pull back into the pits, leaving the cars running to help cool them down. As we pull off our helmets everyone is smiling ear to ear and talking about how awesome the drive was. We pile back into the X7s and head back to the BMW Performance Center to change and to hear our final results from the M2 handling course. Back in the classroom, our instructors hand out our completion certificates, USB drives with our on-track video, and the top three times from the handling course. I am proud to say I brought in 3rd place, beat out only by a few milliseconds by my friend Manual, we both however were almost two seconds behind Dave who obviously spends more time on the track than we do.

BMW M4 GT4 Experience

The BMW M4 GT4 Experience is by far one of the best one-day courses I have ever taken part in, the fact that can take almost anyone and by the end of the day have them lapping a GT4 race car on a track is incredible. The fact that they can do this comes down to their talented team of instructors that include men and women who are champion racing drivers, stunt drivers, professional drifters, and most importantly automotive enthusiasts. For those who want more than just the single-day experience, the BMW Performance Center also offers two additional M4 GT4 packages with private coaching, ideal for those who are wanting to get make the jump into amateur racing.  

For more information or book your own experience visits BMWPerformanceCenter.com.