Friday, September 30, 2011

1-Mazing Ride at Watkins Glen (UPDATED)

A few weeks back I posted a couple of innocent blurbs on driving the 1M for the first time here and many readers liked it. But a few weren't satisfied and demanded I take it to the track for some real testing. Not one to upset our readership here on OneHotLap, I did just that at a recent BMW CCA driving event at Watkins Glen International. My friend John C. was brave enough to graciously offer his barely broken-in Valencia Orange 1M for a fast session in the instructor group. The car was bone stock. In other words, no grabby track pads or tweaked alignment specs here to conflate my take on how this rare BMW handles the track in factory trim. Though it was fitted with Michelin PS2 tires from the factory and if you're a BMW enthusiast, you know that BMW's tire selection can sometimes be haphazard.

The video captures my first laps ever in the 1M. It starts out at 8/10ths during the warm-up lap and speeds up from there. It was far easier to drive the first time out on track when compared to my Z4 M Coupe and, unlike that car, after a lap or two I was confident the 1M would not do anything wicked like launch me into the wall. It felt very planted and stable at any speed. Top speed indicated on the speedometer was a respectable 137 mph on the back straight. Note, in my experience all recent BMW models have the speedo overstated by 5% so actual GPS-verified speed may be lower. Nonetheless, the key takeaway is that I was comfortable putting the power down through the Esses, which allowed me to exit onto the straight at a good clip.

The M button was engaged for the entire session. I did not feel any electronics interfere with my chosen trajectory and the limited slip differential did a commendable job pulling the car up through the Toe of the Boot. The brakes held up reasonably well for the session, however, they do not pull the skin off your cheeks under threshold braking. There was slight brake pad fade over a 15-minutes session, however, and the brake pedal felt a bit soft from the get-go. In general, I like a firm brake pedal.

The best part about the car was that, as mentioned, it felt very predictable at any speed. You can throttle steer it, you can trail brake, you can power out of turns easily, and it does not dance under heavy braking. The turbo lag was not a factor for the track; however, you have be judicious with the throttle because the power comes rushing in so fast with the twin turbo engine. The car exhibited moderate understeer throughout and you can really hear the front tires working hard in the later laps of the video.

In stock trim and without modifications, I think the 1M is the best BMW I have driven at the track. It does not need significant modifications but that's not to say I could resist temptation to perform a few tweaks. One “mod” I would absolutely do is swapping in a set of race pads like the Hawk DTC-60 or DTC-70. Doing so may cut at least 2 seconds a lap and give you a much more consistent brake feel through a session. Beyond this must-do mod, I would look for ways to get more negative camber up front. If the strut tower pins can be pulled out, and most are, that should be good for half a degree. I'm sure tuners will soon have camber plates for the car if the offerings for the 128i and 135i are not compatible and that route will obviously give you much more adjustability. Lowering it by an inch would also give you quarter degree or more extra camber. While the Michelin PS2's are the best tire option BMWs roll off the factory floor with, I would consider better tires as the PS2's technology is somewhat dated. The Dunlop Star Spec Z1 Direzza's have been the best street tires for the past few years. Nitto NT-01's would also work well for a more focused track approach. And with a rear seat and respectable trunk, you can certainly fit a set of r-comp tires for even more on-track fun. I think the simple combination of pads, camber, and tires will be good for 5-6 seconds around the Glen and make the car one of the fastest BMW's around a racetrack that’s also a pleasure to live with every day.

10/4/ UPDATE: Adding comparable footage from a prepared 135i, same track, same weekend: