We’re all familiar with the old slogan, "Win on Sunday, sell on Monday," but much of the racing world operates on the opposite system, "Buy on Monday, (try to) win on Sunday." The ecosystem known as FIA GT4 is the newest and most interesting example of this. GT4 cars are produced by various manufacturers to comply with a rough standard of performance set out by everybody’s favorite international sanctioning body, and you can race them in a variety of sanctions across the globe. It’s then up to those sanctions to do specific "performance balancing," depending on how well each car does in their events.
Here in the United States, there are two popular entry-level pro series that use GT4 cars. The IMSA Continental Tire events use them for a two-driver endurance format in the GS class, while the Pirelli World Challenge uses them for short sprint races in the GTS class. The vast majority of the teams in both sanctions are self-funded by owners and/or drivers, with external sponsorship ranging from modest to nonexistent, so it’s actually a bit of a buyer’s market as to which car each team runs. Some teams, like Automatic and Compass, switch brands to whichever platform seems most competitive. Others, like Motorsports In Action, have close personal ties to their chosen marque.
Then you have James Clay’s company, Bimmerworld, which sells parts for BMWs. It seems fairly obvious that he’s not going to run a McLaren 570GT4 or a Mustang GT4 in the Continental Tire series. Luckily for him, BMW has a brand-new GT4 offering that has proven to be extraordinarily competitive so far.
In fact, the M4 GT4 is in such high demand across the globe, Bimmerworld’s second car didn’t arrive until the middle of the season. When Clay offered me the chance to drive his zero-competition-miles baby, he very gently reminds me that there’s only a few days’ worth of space between my test day at VIR and the car’s first IMSA race. In other words, if I crash it he will be extraordinarily angry. I’m not too worried, because the M4 GT4 is specifically designed for customer racing classes—which is another way of saying that it’s about as idiot-proof as any 400--horsepower race car can be.
Just to make sure I’m up to speed, however, the team arranges for me to drive a brand-new M4 Competition Package production car around VIR’s North Course prior to my time in the GT4. I’ll confess that I’ve been more than a little ambivalent about the current-generation M3 and M4 ever since their debut. Someone once called this car’s E46 predecessor “the German Trans Am” and while I never particularly liked that description of what was fundamentally a high-strung throughbred coupe, it fits the current twin-turbo model pretty well. The M4 looks vicious and goes like hell, but it casts a pretty big pavement shadow and its moves tend to be blunted a bit by the weight and power involved.
This M4 Competition is sort of like a Trans Am WS6: You get sharper responses and a smidgen more power to go with the additional street cred. It just never feels completely happy to be on track. Furthermore, as with its megabuck M4 GTS sibling, the traction control is overactive in even the most permissive settings. You have to turn it all the way off to make real time, which also burdens you with the responsibility of continuously monitoring the interaction between boost curve and rear-tire grip. On the positive side, no BMW in the company’s rose-tinted past has ever had this kind of connection between brake pedal and front wheels—with no fade whatsoever. Carbon-ceramics on a car of this type might be considered overkill, but if you track your M4, you'll want them.
During the majority of my 15 or so laps in the street-legal BMW, I’m behind a Corvette Grand Sport. The driver is clearly having more fun than I am. During a cross-country Autobahn blast, however, the tables would certainly turn. Few cars are as effortless at high speed as the M4.
While the M4 Competition Package and the M4 GT4 both start their lives on the standard BMW assembly line, and both are supplied with the same combination of S55 twin-turbo inline-six and seven-speed DCT, their paths diverge shortly afterwards. The BMW M team hand-assembles the GT4, which accounts for its late arrival to Bimmerworld’s shop. There’s eye candy everywhere you look: The hood and doors are pure carbon fiber inside and out, with fixed Lexan windows. As you’d suspect, this make the car hotter than hell whenever the sun is even vaguely visible, but not to worry: There’s an extremely powerful A/C system that blows directly into the driver’s face and cools the seat with hurricane force.
There’s more carbon fiber to be found in the spoilers, canards, and front splitter, which can reportedly hold the weight of a fully-grown James Clay. And that's good news: Off-track excursions that do more than a Clay’s worth of impact will result in a $7000- replacement bill. The brakes are motorsports jewelry at its finest: Six-piston AP calipers in front gripping 390mm steel rotors, and four pistons and 355mm steel rotors out back, on Motorsport-specific axles that connect to a Drexler limited-slip diff with a separate radiator. Brake bias is adjustable in the cockpit.
The suspension of the GT4 bears little resemblance to that of the street car. Both the front and rear feature spherical bearings and adjustable arms, while the entire front hub assembly is tucked inward to accommodate the 18-by-11-inch front wheel and its 305-mm tire. Damping duties are handled by Ohlins coilovers, adjustable three ways with remote reservoirs.
While some FIA GT4 cars, such as the McLaren and AMG, suffer with significant power restrictions, the M4 is pretty close to the FIA’s ideal power-to-weight ratio as-built. To fine-tune that ratio for different series, the car uses "Power Sticks," USB thumb drives that plug into the car to provide five different power levels depending on series rules and regulations. The car is quoted at "above 431 hp" using the red power stick, which is both the lowest level available and the one used for IMSA Continental events. The silver stick, which is next up, is currently used in Pirelli World Challenge. I’ll be driving the car with the gold stick, which is the Goldilocks choice. Move all the way up to the top-flight black stick, and you’re probably illegal in any series anywhere—but you’re also close to 500 horses.
After the Bimmerworld team briefs me on how not to wreck the car and also the importance of not doing so, I pop open that super-trick carbon-fiber door and settle into the driver’s seat. This is what a street M4 owner will recognize about the GT4 interior: The standard keyless remote. This what a street M4 owner will not recognize: Everything else.
Start with the seating position. It’s NASCAR low, set several inches back from stock, and moved towards the centerline. Each M4 GT4 is supplied with a very expensive stock seat. There is a larger alternative available, which has to be purchased additionally and which costs about as much as a Rolex Submariner. It’s still not that large, but it fits your six-two, 241-pound author with a few millimeters to spare.
The seat doesn’t move; instead, there is a sliding carbon-fiber box with two big and very bespoke pedals that moves to meet your feet. The dashboard, too, is carbon-fiber, molded in a fashion to suggest a production piece. A center console, predictably also made of carbon-fiber, holds a few big buttons to control the A/C and various other non-critical functions. Everything else is handled via the ultra-trick, prototype-style miniature steering wheel, which rests almost in the driver’s lap and which contains all relevant buttons. A single LCD screen directly ahead of the driver conveys everything from gear position to laptime. Outward vision is better than it is in the equivalent McLaren but much worse than in the relatively panoramic roadgoing model.
In other words: If the ground-hugging stance and big wings didn’t let you know that the M4 GT4 was a purpose-built racer, three seconds in the driver’s seat would convince you beyond the shadow of a doubt. Compared to my Pirelli-World-Challenge-spec Accord coupe, which is basically a street car with a rollcage and a Motec color TFT dashboard, this might as well be an M1 Procar.
Yet the way the GT4 idles and nonchalantly rolls towards pitlane would shame pretty much every club-race car ever built. Other than the complete lack of any kind of cushion between road and driver backside, this is an astoundingly well-behaved and unfussy vehicle. For this drive, the crew engaged the middle settings for both transmission behavior and DSC. On the road car, that would be a recipe for frustration, but the aggressive way the back end steps out coming out of Turn 1 lets me know that this is not your average stability control. Think of it more as a high-speed safety net for last-minute swerves around spinning competitors at the top of fifth gear.
To my delight, the M4 is not particularly loud, which is good because I don’t have earplugs. Credit the turbochargers, which absorb much of the sound, and the functioning catalytic converters, which eat the rest while making me feel good about my impact on the environment. My impact on my fellow "black group" trackday participants, on the other hand, is nothing short of catastrophic. In my first few laps, a boost hose wanders off, making me a sitting duck for various BMWCCA racers and even a well-piloted street M4. Once the hose is reattached? Whoa Nelly.
This is a nontrivially fast car. My vaguely-calibrated tailfeather dyno tells me that it is significantly stronger than the GT4-class McLarens and right up there with the GT3 cars. On VIR’s front straight, the speedometer flickers past 270km/h before I haul it down on the unassissted but relatively light-effort stoppers. I’m in sixth gear at that point, at what equates to nearly 170mph. The last race car I drove here was my SCCA Neon, which was doing, oh, let’s say 120 at the same point. So this is faster, and better.
I’m on what the team charitably calls "roller" tires—rubber that has been worn out on the track and is mostly used to keep the car off the ground between races. Yet there’s still a magnificent amount of grip on offer, thanks to the aero package and the tidy dry weight of around 3100 pounds. Nothing else out here can stand in my way. Rarely have I won a trackday this convincingly—and all it took was a $200,000 purpose-built racecar. There’s an old Spec E30 ahead of me, lollygagging on the entrance to the steeply uphill Turn 7. I crank the steering hard, brush my left foot on the brake pedal, and charitably pass him on the inside without affecting his line. My closing speed is perhaps 40mph. Where’s that Corvette that was giving me such a hard time before? I’ll clip his wings and then some.
In the interest of journalistic integrity, I try mis-driving the GT4 even more than I normally would in the course of just being myself, turning the wheel in ragged and exaggerated fashion. The response is always the same: A tidy slide that is easily caught with a mild motion of the two-pronged steering wheel. When I really screw up, there’s an arrestor-hook jerk from the back end and I’m back in line courtesy of DSC. I’m not saying that this car is uncrashable, but you won’t do it without some genuine effort.
While the M4 shows me a balance that is tilted ever so slightly towards understeer, I think that’s probably due to some prophylactic suspension setup by the Bimmerworld team. I bet they dial that back out for Mr. Clay when it’s his turn in the car. Not that you can’t instantly erase understeer with the right pedal, but that’s a bit crass and it’s also a bit rough on the tires when you’re trying to make it through an enduro.
Over the past decade and a half, I've driven race cars that were boring, race cars that were a bit terrifying and race cars that seemed designed to challenge the driver for no purpose other than to put some mustard on the experience. The M4 GT4 is none of those things. It’s simply a delight to operate; fast, stable, forgiving. The fact that it does all that while blowing cold air in your face and without making your ears ring? It’s worth every penny. Even if you don’t race it.
I’m enjoying myself so much that I drive down to four percent fuel remaining. "Can I get a refill?" I ask.
"That’s all we’ve got," is the answer. And just like that, my time on the roller coaster is over. (Literally: the descending series of turns toward VIR’s front straight is called the Roller Coaster.) So let me tell you something. If you can afford to buy one of these, you should buy it. If you can afford to race it, which as always is considerably more expensive than buying it, then you should also do that. There are cheaper ways to go this fast or faster, most of which are shaped like a Radical sports racer. But if you love touring-car racing and your dreams all involve driving a sedan-shaped missile at 170 mph, then this is absolutely your jam.
The Bimmerworld people are already starting their end-of-day trackday party by the time I back the GT4 into its display space in front of their trailer. Dozens of people are there to have a beer and offer me their opinion about the car and whatever they saw of my performance on track. The atmosphere is very far from the snobbish and standoffish attitudes that are occasionally associated with the BMWCCA and its members. It’s a good time and I’m glad to be a part of it.
Given the choice, though, I’d be back out there in the M4 GT4, driving until the sun drops behind the place where the oak tree once stood. This is truly a car that you could buy on Monday and race on Sunday. Maybe even win with it. In exchange for letting me drive their car, the Bimmerworld team would like you to know that they use their experience with it to develop various tuning and performance packages that will make your street M4 even faster and more exciting. They have one tune that will add 84 horsepower to an F8x-platform M3 or M4. That’s all very nice, but the most exciting thing they could possibly sell you would be a day in the Continental Tire series, racing this very car. Give them a call, and ask for Mr. Clay. I don’t think you’ll regret it.