Sometimes being a guinea pig can be fun. BMW Canada invited a handful of lucky automotive media folks to do just that, giving us a sneak preview of the M Festival at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park (CTMP).
Generally associated with the 24 Hours of Nürburgring, BMW’s event of all things M has previously migrated to Japan and South Africa. But the inaugural North American M Festival was held right here in the Great White North, not the United States.
It’s understandable too, since the Canadian market is the fourth strongest in the world for M-car sales, and with the fanatical support of the M brand here, it’s not surprising BMW had sold out the entire online ticket allotment – more than 3,500 – before the event even began.
With so much on the line, it was a smart idea for BMW to open the gates a day ahead of the crowds and give all the attractions a dry run with a bunch of eager auto journalists, like yours truly.
Speaking of the event’s purpose, BMW Canada’s Director, Brand Management, Sebastian Beuchel said, “We want to build an experience that a lot of different audiences can enjoy and indulge in: families, M fans, M owners. The BMW M Festival is a way for all of these people to enjoy the pure driving pleasure of our performance division, BMW M. And it gives us the chance to celebrate them, as well.”
While BMW did have several historic machines on site, the motorsport highlights for me were a race-spec M1, and a contemporary M8 GTE car currently being campaigned in the GTLM sports car racing series.
But being a company known for its drivers’ cars, BMW wanted the focus of visitors to this M Festival to be on experiencing the cars, and set up several driving experiences that ranged from a children’s zone with push-cars and radio control cars, to sizzling hot laps on the Grand Prix track driven by BMW’s hot-shoe drivers.
Following are some highlights I experienced that were available to visitors of the event.
Off-road Course: BMW X4 M40i
Last year I was given an opportunity to drive BMW’s then-new X3 M40i on a California race track. I was absolutely blown away at how capable a performer the SUV was, and how easy it was to drive fast – so much so, that I managed to catch up to the M2s that were lapping the track ahead of me at the same time.
That kind of on-pavement prowess typically comes at the expense of any sort of off-road functionality, but the X4 M40i I drove (a mechanical twin to the X3) was bone-stock, short of the grippier winter tires it wore, and it handled everything thrown at it on the course.
Admittedly, there was nothing on the course that would challenge most SUVs, but it did enable BMW to show off how well its all-wheel-drive xDrive system apportions power in low-traction settings, and its descent speed control system. It’s unlikely many BMW X3 and X4 drivers will find themselves crawling over sandy moguls like those on the off-road course, so this experience was sure to be an eye-opener for many.
Autocross Course: BMW X2 M35i, BMW M340i, BMW Z4 M40i
Autocross – or auto slalom – is a great way to experience safe, affordable automotive competition, and BMW offered up three distinctly different vehicles for enthusiastic drivers to thrash around a coned road course.
Unsurprisingly, the X2, with its taller centre of gravity, rolled around more than the other two, more sporting cars, and succumbed to understeer sooner with its less sporty tires.
What was surprising was how large and heavy the M340i felt in this setting. For the past few generations of 3 Series, the media have griped that it’s growing ever larger and heavier, and never have I noticed it more than on this tight, little course.
The Z4, on the other hand, was an absolute revelation. Being the smallest, lowest, and quickest car of the trio, it was clearly most in its element on the autocross course. The immediacy and precision of the steering made it feel completely at home being hustled around slaloms and hairpin curves. One-by-one each of my peers exited the Z4 beaming ear-to-ear absolutely thrilled with the little roadster’s handling, and dispelling any concerns that the new Z4 isn’t a true sports car – it is!
Drag Racing: BMW M850i xDrive
Intended to demonstrate the acceleration and braking capabilities of BMW’s grandest of touring coupes, visitors were permitted to strap into the sleek two-door and put the pedal to the metal– er… plush, carpeted floor mat.
The big Bimmer’s 523 twin-turbo horsepower is impressive, but when rocketing away from a standstill, it’s the 553 lb-ft of torque that blurs the driver’s vision from such awesome forward thrust. The braking power is equally astonishing.
Drag racing two identical cars with as much traction as the M850i has may be a silly thing to do, but it’s undeniably fun.
Track Lapping: BMW M2 Competition
A case could be made for the M2 Competition being the purest sporting M car currently offered. Its tidy dimensions make it feel quick on its feet, but its powerful, turbocharged inline-six-cylinder engine make it actually quick. Once the turbo is fully spooled up, the M2 Comp could rocket from corner to corner with impressive speed.
It’s the aggressively tuned suspension, grippy tires, and overkill brakes that made the little BMW both thrilling and yet manageable on CTMP’s Driver Development Track.
With a four-car follow-the-leader session, and the lead car driven by a pro driver, the on-track experience allowed drivers to get a true sense of what it’s like to push the M2 Competition in a safe setting, while also working on their own driving skills.
Grand Prix Track Hot Laps: BMW M5 Competition
The BMW M5 Competition is a serious piece of sport sedan machinery, and frankly, an absolute monster. Having driven a “run-of-the-mill” M5 on a track before, it became clear that a car with that much power and handling capability deserves a big and fast track to really show what it can do.
The Grand Prix track at CTMP is just that – big and fast. After warming up on the big track just days before in the Mobil 1 Sports Car Grand Prix, BMW factory drivers Jesse Krohn and Tom Blomqvist put the M5 Competition’s 617 hp to good effect, thrilling passengers lap after lap.
For those guys, seeing around 250 km/h on the back straight is nothing new, but to do so safely and consistently lap after lap after lap with three other adults on board and in a comfortable, air conditioned, four-door sedan speaks to just how much of a hyper sedan the M5 Competition has become.
A Huge Success
The final numbers for the first Canadian BMW M Festival were impressive. Over 4,300 tickets were sold with visitors coming from as far away as Vancouver. 1,200 hot laps were completed (and 186 tires used up), with nearly 400 customer M cars participating in the parade laps over the two days. Besides the opportunities to get behind the wheel, attendees were also exposed to stunning art car exhibits, drifting displays, a BMW Motorrad display and of course the chance to continue showing support for the M brand with a host of paraphernalia for purchase, too.
If the BMW M fans at this year’s BMW M Festival had even half as much fun as we did as guinea pigs, they’ll be fondly remembering their experiences for a long time.