Driving through the learning curves

Chris and the M3 at Bedford. Note the on-brand numberplates!

As the miles go past, Chris is discovering more of the M3's abilities, and his own.

When I was going through my motoring adolescence, I read Max Power. I looked through their featured cars, mixing body kits, wide wheels and exhausts like sewer pipes in my fantasy workshop and began to get a bug for wondering what could be bolted onto a car to make it quicker/lower/louder/more orange. As I grew up I put away childish things and turned my attention to faster cars and seeking theoretical performance. Fibreglass was replaced with carbon fibre, exhaust diameter with weight saving, and Dimma with Michelotto.

Even driving sorted performance cars, including Jack’s Caymonster for a handful of slow laps around Oulton, didn’t quiet those thoughts. It’s a great car, but what about if it had a cage and buckets? GT3 engine? Some aero from a 911 Cup car?

When I picked up the M3 from Marty, that bit of my brain kicked into life again. It’s a daily driver, so no chance of a cage, but a set of AP Racing brakes? New Bilstein dampers all round? Maybe even some of the tasty bits off the CSL...

The M3 is much more car than I’ve had previously, and it was bought as a learning experience. Part of that for me is taking the car to a circuit where I can push it, make mistakes safely and learn, and that’s what lead me first to Blyton Park, then Bedford Autodrome. I’ll be blogging more about those outings in The Garage in the weeks to come, but I learnt a lot about the car and myself in that day and a half.

The first time I took the car out at Blyton Park, I felt like I was being cautious, then when I pushed harder I was pushing against the car, not with it. The slower corners were just bleeding off speed as the front just wasn't where I felt it should be. It felt better at Bedford, but I still felt awkward in places where I couldn’t quite get a feel for what I should be doing. To me I felt like a baby fawn learning to walk, all odd limbs at odd angles trying to understand what’s going on, and falling over.

I had the inevitable spin, my first outside of a skid pan. I made every rookie mistake at once; not building up speed on an unfamiliar track,  but instead going much quickly too soon, taking too much curb, with too much steering lock at the apex, and I’m pretty sure I lifted off too. Annoyed with myself, I came back in, had a quiet minute and then went back out to build up and get some confidence back.

I also learned that reading a circuit guide, and watching a few laps with Roger Green driving teaches you very, very little about the actual circuit. One thing I had at both circuits I’d recommend no end is instruction. Nothing sorts you out quicker.

Brakes aside, the car felt good. It felt like it rolled a lot, and the brakes cooked themselves eventually. I would also love more support from the seat, as I could feel the tension in my wrists and arms in the fast corners which I’m sure does little to help sense what’s going on at the front and correct the steering. But, I was happy enough with my time in the car.

Then one evening I went out for a drive. It’s something I haven’t really done as much as I’d hoped, but it was dry and late enough for the roads to be quiet but still have the summer sun in the sky. Turning off the main road I drove through a puddle and the DSC made the engine stutter until full traction was restored. I pressed the DSC button to turn it off.

To have the ability to get to slowly learn the M3 and discover its abilities is enthralling. The sensory experience is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced, as though the detail has been turned up. The feeling of the car pitching and rolling under power, braking and cornering, and the steering weight changing with all three of those is a real revelation for me. I’ve never had the chance to really push in something focussed on the task of just driving. The aural joy of the motorsport-derived straight six going into a frenzy, then the revs quickly dropping as I rolled on and off the throttle between corners, is something utterly addicting. My eyes were wide open, and every thought was reading the road and trying to take in what the car was doing. I never once thought it rolled too much or that it could do with bucket seats.

Following a picture I posted on Twitter, chassis guru and Drive Cult columnist Dave Pook told me that the car wasn’t rolling that much and to just leave it alone. He has much, much more experience than me in this respect, and looking back now, he’s right. I know it's easy to throw £10k+ at the car and make the car quicker while I slowly progress, but I'd rather optimise what I've got - brakes aside - and work on my skills. I'm feeling more like I can brake, steer and guide the car round a track, but the next step is I want to feel competent and really on top of the car. I want to be able to work the balance of the car, and keep the end loaded that needs it. The instructor at Blyton Park was explaining about steering feel and balance. There's a timing, a knack to quickly getting the load off the steering, get the car level, and then you can give it the beans without fear of spinning the car. Same in the high speed stuff, winding off even a small amount of lock makes the car settle so much, it's amazing.

I don't want to build a racing car with number plates and be personally useless. I want to be a good driver, and ultimately I want to be able to make the car dance. I'm not talking Roser in the Yellowbird or Senna in the Lotus at Adelaide, or even big leery slides, but to be able to drive in that area of slip angle. I want to feel like I was on a trials mountain bike, to be able to blur that point of balance. To feel like I'm driving the car, and it's following my lead.

I also want to continue learning and discovering the depths of the M3 - not as I think it should be, or as Bilstein think it should be, but as it was intended by the folk at BMW’s M Division when it was given its red, purple and blue stripes.