All of us racing fans can thank Martin Birkmann, former head of BMW Product Planning and Strategy as well as BMWNA Motorsport, for giving us the E92 M3 GT(2) and subsequently all of its success. Martin ‘s a special guy and has great ambitions for racing, he believed in the M3 GT(2) project and fought tooth an nail for it. He never was able to really enjoy the success the cars have had as his title changed and he was back in Germany when the team began to truly ring in the wins. Getting the money to re-establish BMWNA racing after the years of layoff from the E46 M3 GTR era was not easy. Martin was persistent- establish a fund and the project was green-lighted.
Two chassis were initially only built for ALMS racing in the US under then team Rahal Letterman Racing (now Rahal Letterman Lanigan), led by Bobby Rahal. After that first season, it was apparent that endurance racing and ALMS had a market for BMW on the grid. At this point in time (2009) BMW was closing the doors on many racing series (including F1), but BMW Motorsport developed the M3 GT(2) further in no small part to BMWNA being its customer and Martin being Martin. If you look at the initial livery you will notice that the car was very US specific- I wonder who was footing the bill. There is no Martin Birkmann or even an approximation of his personality at BMWNA these days- there is no one there to fight for racing and that is just one part of the larger issue at hand for BMW racing and the M3 in ALMS.
BMW Motorsport began entering the M3 GT in other endurance races once the team had racked up enough wins to get automatic bids- including Le Mans and other races as part of the Intercontintal Le Mans Cup in 2010 and 2011. The cars were very competitive, winning the full sweep of awards in 2011 was the car driven by Joey Hand and Dirk Müller. Success continues on in 2012 as Joey and Dirk repeated their win at Sebring, the first race of the season.
Fast forward to today. The BMW M3 GT remains competitive in a class of outstanding cars but this will be the final season for BMW in ALMS- the writing is on the wall. BMW Motorsport will not be entering the cars in Le Mans this year, even though they have an automatic birth as a manufacturer. There are no entries planned for the 24hrs of Spa or any racing of the M3s in Asia- eliminating the M3 GT from contending in the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup. When a car is at the top of its game, like the M3 GTs are now, it is a bit surprising for them to not be competing at these events. That is until the politics of racing get involved.
What goes on behind the scenes in the political space of racing is sometimes more stop and go than a race in down pouring rain. BMW Motorsport has developed the Z4 GT3 extensively for endurance racing in Europe, Asia and the Middle East where the cars are competing under FIA rules for GT3 classification as customer racing cars- ALMS has barred the Z4 GT3 from competing at this point even with chassis changes to be classified as a GT and it does not seem like they are changing their tune (the homologation rules were changed for ALMS several times thanks in no small part to the E46 M3 GTR).
With the recent announcement of Dr. Nitscke, president of BMW M GmbH stating there will be no Z4 ///M version for this current E89 chassis it has sealed the deal that BMW will not have a product to race in ALMS. There will be no ability to homologate the fabulous and still ultra competitive S65 V8 (P65 in race trim) to a already fully developed race car at this point in time. No car means no racing. We had heard the original plan was to bring a limited edition V8 powered Z4 M to market for homologation purposes, that just went up in smoke. The next generation F82 M3 coupe has not begun development for the serial car let alone the race car- it would be a minimum of three years before such a product would be ready. With the next generation M3 street car being forced induction there would be some difficulty with homologation. Three years of “dead ” air for a racing program is not a good thing and more than likely signal the end especially when there is no one in the company currently fighting for a team.
An official announcement about DTM crossing the pond and to begin stateside is expected in the not so distant future. With US based DTM finally coming to fruition there will be little reason for BMW Motorsport to develop a future ALMS race car. DTM will have the money of NASCAR behind it, the TV support of SPEED and the three top European brands of BMW, Audi and Mercedes all competing in a product that is more reliable and consistent (not to pick on Jaguar in ALMS but have they finished a race yet after all these “development years “). That alone is significantly better than abbreviated and tape delayed showings we currently are presented. Will it be true endurance racing? Of course not but it will be fun to watch and keep BMW in some form of racing for at least the next 5 or so years.
Endurance racing as a whole is not dead for BMW (yet). BMW Motorsport will continue to race in the VLN series in Europe and compete at the ‘Ring but the days of seeing the “works ” BMW Motorsport M3 in various endurance races and series around the world will come to an abrupt end at the end of this ALMS season. BMW will continue to compete in racing and offer customer cars but not for GT competition. The M3 GT4 should live on in FIA sanctioned events until its granted homologation status has run its course. There will also be cars racing in various Series (Gran Am/Continental/Rolex- others) but none factory backed.
If you can catch a race this year, do it. You will not regret it and that race may be the last time you ever see a factory backed M3 GT on the track- rumors of the E82 being called the M4 doesn ‘t help the M3 in racing either. I was lucky enough to attend most races on the east coast before we moved to Germany and I am glad for the memories and the experience covering the team through the ups-and-downs they faced in those first few seasons.