Big and very brash, the 6-series is back as a factory-developed race car. To discover why it’s such a successful GT3 racer, we drive it

by JETHRO BOVINGDON
PHOTOGRAPHY by ASTON PARROTT

’ve always been a sucker for a big bruiser of a race car. Be it a Ford Galaxy hoovering up Mini Coopers at Goodwood, Volvo’s Flying Brick bouncing off kerbs on two wheels or the Broadspeed Jaguar XJ12C cooking its water-cooled brakes, there’s just something irresistible about these massive, incongruous machines. So the BMW M6 GT3 had me from the moment it was launched. When I saw it up close at the Nürburgring earlier this year, the effect multiplied. The sheer scale of it, the side-exit exhausts, the almost rudimentary-looking straight-edged rear diffuser that’s so at odds with the smooth, super-inflated shape. It doesn’t have the intricate aerodynamic artistry of the Audi R8s against which it competes, but for sheer impact it’s unbeatable. I can also tell you that when it’s filling your mirrors on the Nordschleife, they’re really full.

The presence of the M6 GT3 hits even harder when you know you’ll get a chance to drive it. When I arrive at the Bilster Berg circuit in Germany there are two M6 GT3s waiting and one of them has my name on it. Well, sort of. The rear quarter window has a Union Jack and ‘JET’ written beside it, with ‘Jethro’ just below. I wonder if the new nickname will be quickly revoked after my stints in the M6 GT3. Probably.

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So why are we driving it at all? And why is the M6 the chosen model for BMW’s international sportscar racing activity? The first question is pretty easy to answer: because they asked us to and any chance to experience a top-flight factory race car should never be passed up. Aside from the sheer fun they provide, it’s fascinating to chart the speed with which their electronics systems evolve and to experience the aerodynamic development, too. The cornering speeds, stability and driveability of these remarkable machines appears to take a great leap with each generation, and as supercars and sports cars slipstream behind on the same rapid path, the GT3 racers give a glimpse of what lies ahead.

But why the M6 when the M3/M4 sells in higher quantities and has a rich motorsport pedigree? Even more tantalising, why not an i8 with a V8? After all, the old Z4 GT3 car used a normally aspirated 4.4-litre V8 derived from the E92 M3 rather than anything seen in the road car.

Well, partly it’s because the M4 is already utilised in DTM and the whole BMW i/motorsport relationship is still being thought through, but mostly it’s because the M6 is a very good fit for endurance racing. The ‘P63’ twin-turbo V8 offers strong torque, good efficiency and is very much within its comfort zone in circa-585bhp tune. The long wheelbase ensures predictable handling – crucial for customer racing – and the dimensions also offer a superb platform for aerodynamic development.

It’s also quite a nice reminder that the M6 actually exists. The almost forgotten road car is an impressive machine, too. Whenever anyone asks me if they should buy an M4 or Mercedes-AMG C63 Coupe, I always suggest a nearly new M6 is a hell of an alternative.

The M6 GT3 debuted earlier this year and so far the results vindicate the decision to go with the big, unloved coupe. It scored a 1-2-3 at the Nürburgring in VLN 3 and the no. 18 Schubert car led the 24-hour race in the early stages before a spectacular engine failure. Its sister car was taken out on the Sunday morning while in third place. The pain of these incidents was eased by victory at the 24 Hours of Spa for the no. 99 ROWE Racing M6 GT3 of Maxime Martin, Alexander Sims and Philipp Eng. The M6 GT3 had some highly publicised problems during its development (cooling was an issue and BMW had more than one expensive bonfire), but the result is a car the drivers love and that gets results.

The format for today is simple. Do two stints in an M235i Racing to get a feel for the circuit, then hop in the M6 GT3 for half a dozen laps or so, take a quick peek at the data and then go again for a final stint. I’m relieved to be able to refamiliarise myself with Bilster Berg in the relative sanity of BMW’s smaller endurance racer. It’s an undulating and unforgiving place, and although somewhat emasculated because we’re only running half the circuit, it’s still not the place where you’d want to jump blind into an M6 GT3. But after half an hour howling around in the M235i Racing, I feel as confident as is possible when surrounded by race engineers and factory race drivers. Let’s put it this way… I don’t want to hide in the loo.

If the exterior is pure brutalism then the inside of the M6 GT3 is strangely beautiful. Open the flyweight carbonfibre door and the roll-cage’s tentacles extend almost everywhere, but somehow the sense you get is one of space. There’s the most gorgeous carbonfibre steering wheel, a bank of buttons set into a carbon panel to the right of the driver, a deep, high-winged seat and little else. The pedalbox is carbon and looks tiny in the vast footwell, but actually it feels perfectly generous. When you fold yourself behind the wheel and then relax, it’s unbelievably comfortable, intuitive and even visibility is decent. You could sit here for a long time without stressing your body at all. It’s all strangely becalming.

Flick the ignition switch down on that control panel and then press the standard-issue BMW start/stop button and instantly the calm becomes chaos. The M6 GT3 might have a mighty great 4395cc V8, but with modern race cars the noise on the inside rarely matches the engine configuration. Instead of a bassy, uneven idle, a cacophony of whines and whirs drill into the cabin as diff coolers, fuel pumps and the Ricardo six-speed sequential transaxle compete for the ugliest-noise prize. Give it plenty of revs to avoid the embarrassing stall and then roll away. The almost painful whining increases with speed, but listen carefully and you can just about hear the V8’s smooth, deep voice.

It takes less than a lap to realise that the engine’s response and linear delivery aids you in so many ways and is a part of a package that feels incredibly natural. But despite pushing out over 500bhp and weighing just 1300kg, the car’s straight-line performance is a sideshow to the main event. In fact, such is the traction, grip and braking performance that the power output seems almost disappointing. That’s the wrong word because you can’t be disappointed when driving this car, but the raw horsepower is certainly put in the shade by the steering response, agility, mid-corner grip and exit traction. And by the braking. The M6 GT3 has incredible stability on the brakes and perfectly tuned ABS, so the way you can drive deep into corners on the brakes, front tyres locked on-line and the rears just starting to push wide but never snapping away, is quite incredible.

Only once do I feel like I’ve outbraked myself, into the tight, uphill Turn 1 hairpin. I get that heart-thumping ‘oh shit, this will be embarrassing’ feeling as soon as I hit the brakes at 135mph. The M6, for the first time, starts to move nervously from left to right and the drivetrain chunters as I furiously downshift. I make the turn. Easily, actually, and looking at the data, I could have braked a few metres later and still got the thing slowed down. It’s a small but telling insight into getting the very best from a GT3 car at every corner of every stint. The M6 GT3 is an incredibly friendly car, but to extract all of its performance remains a massive leap and the thought of nailing every braking zone at Spa or the Ring is sobering.

Turns 5 and 6 ram home the point and show off one of the M6’s real strengths – high-speed stability. You approach Turn 5 along an undulating straight at 140mph at the top of fourth gear. As the track starts to bend to the left and drop away, you need a sharp stab of brakes and then you roll the car into the turn at what feels like near-suicidal speed. Of course, it snaps onto line without understeer and you’re forced against the side bolster of the seat. Hold the throttle steady for a moment and then start to pour all that torque onto the surface as you spot the exit and ride out onto the kerbs. Keep it pinned, upshift to fifth as a blind crest approaches, then brake, turn right and fall into the fast chicane of Turn 6, the track catching you as you do so and allowing full throttle once again. It’s a sensational feeling and a demonstration of stability, braking power and aerodynamic balance that’s completely addictive and pretty awe-inspiring.

It’s difficult to put the M6 GT3’s capabilities into perspective, but perhaps a comparison with the P1 GTR does it best. The McLaren has far more power (986bhp) and weighs just 140kg more, yet over the course of a lap on most tracks their performance is almost exactly the same. Just imagine the ground the P1 makes up on the straights (it’s also considerably more aerodynamically efficient than a GT3 car) and then contemplate the M6 GT3 eating it up under braking and carrying so much more speed in the corners that it relentlessly makes up that deficit. And the P1 GTR has slick tyres too, don’t forget, and produces 660kg of downforce at 150mph. These new GT3 racers really are amazing machines and the M6 GT3 is definitely the most comfortable, polished and easiest to drive of the ones I’ve been lucky enough to experience. It also makes me think that an M6 GTS road car could be very, very exciting. And another great reminder that the M6 exists at all.

BMW M6 GT3
Engine V8, 4395cc, twin-turbo
Power 585bhp
Transmission Six-speed sequential transaxle, adjustable differential, ESP  
Weight 1300kg
Power-to-weight 457bhp/ton
0-60mph 4.0sec (estimated)
Top speed 185mph (estimated)
Price€379,000
evo rating: ★★★★

‘it’s an incredibly friendly car, but to extract all of its performance remains a massive leap’