Palm Springs, California is a long way from Munich, Germany.
The distance might be measured in miles but the path for one new arrival at BMW’s Performance Center in Thermal can be measured in years. The M4 GT4 is a pure-bred race car and traces its lineage directly to the founding of BMW “M” performance brand in 1972.
The M4 GT4 is not just a M4 from the new car showroom sprinkled with a little more power and fancy bodywork. Originally announced in July 2016, the M4 GT4 was tailored for BMW’s racing customers. The GT4 comes from the same family tree, but sets a separate course from BMW cars destined for the street.
In December 2020, the BMW Performance Center added a small fleet of M4 GT4 race cars to their road car fleet at the Thermal Club. While the Performance Center has always maintained a full range of options from the BMW line-up, adding pure race cars into the mix makes for a spicy day in the desert. Where else can an enthusiast get a taste of a factory race car?
Intrigued, resident Speed Journal driver Jeff Francis made a return visit to Thermal to check out the M4 GT4 experience first hand. Established in 2012, the Thermal Club is a private country club built around a race track rather than a golf course. BMW selected Thermal for its Performance Center in 2015. The west coast Thermal Club location complements BMW’s Performance Center on the east coast at Greenville-Spartanburg, South Carolina.
On his prior visit to the BMW Performance Center in 2020, Francis enjoyed a day at the M school. He put the M2, M4 and M5 through a variety of exercises and lead-follow laps around the Thermal race course and skidpad. The experience was compelling and it wouldn’t be a long wait before he’d be back. Click here to read more about the 2020 visit.
Francis arrived for his one-day M4 GT4 experience and immediately found a white race car trimmed with traditional red, dark blue and light blue accents. The contrast to road cars scattered nearby was striking. Black carbon fiber dive planes on each front corner, a deep black splitter beneath an aerodynamically sculpted nose, lightweight Lexan polycarbonate windows, quick fill fuel port, an airjack port nestled in the rear bodywork beneath the adjustable rear wing, and slick Continental Tires cut a purposeful profile. The M4 GT4 is based on the M4, but has no need to remain legal for the road. It is a pure race car.
Regulations governing sportscar racing are notoriously tight. To prevent costs from spiraling out of control, offerings from different manufacturers are kept within a narrow performance window. Throwing money at the car will not make it go faster – and going faster would be counterproductive if the regulations adjust to bring your car’s performance back to the rest of the field. The idea is to honor different marques, but let drivers and strategy make the difference rather than technology and cubic dollars. The GT4 is designed specifically for this type of racing.
As tempting as the M4 GT4 was, it would wait. The small group of six guests met their experienced BMW instructors who briefed them on the schedule for the day. Instructors Case Montgomery and Robert Stout got things started before turning over to Christopher Hill for classroom instruction. A chalk talk on driving technique established driving fundamentals and refreshed lessons for those who had prior school experience. The fundamentals laid the groundwork to understand how the day would unfold.
Braking technique received special attention. The race car features unassisted brakes requiring more force than the road car. The payoff is braking points far deeper into the corner. Managing speed into, through and out of the corners extends the length of the straights – and the time at full throttle – which leads to lower lap times.
Thinking ahead to the M4 GT4, Hill talked about managing the sticky Continental racing tires. Steering and hard braking at the same time or accelerating hard and sliding the tires may be exciting, but forces the tires to multi-task and reduces their effectiveness.
Managing weight transfer is critical to get the most out of the tires. Hard braking transfers weight forward and reduces the contact patch of the rear tires and the grip available to chart a course into a corner towards the apex. Hard acceleration, on the other hand, transfers weight to the rear and reduces the contact patch of the front tires and the grip available beneath the nose at corner exit. The concepts are the same for both road car and race car but everything happens faster in the race car.
Hill encouraged his students to use all of the track on entry and exit, quipping “no partial refunds for track not used.” The briefing was concise and efficient. The group was next treated to a guided tour of the M4 GT4 from Dusty Renteria, an engineer who supports BMW’s racing customers.
The lightweight doors displayed beautiful bare black carbon fiber weave on the inside, enhanced by a BMW Motorsport colored door pull. Likewise, the roof of the interior exhibited its carbon fiber weave. In fact, the generous use of carbon fiber for the doors, roof and hood (bonnet for those in Europe) reduces the weight to 3150 pounds – over 700 pounds lighter than the road going M4 counterpart.
Subtle badges signaled racing intent. “BMW Customer Racing” plates adorned the bodywork just behind each front wheel. A GT4 logo garnished the door sill plate. Each guest took a turn to climb over the bars of the white racing roll cage and slip into the race-spec driver seat. The roll cage was serious business. It even had its own numbered plate, just like the car had its own chassis number.
The roll cage required an entry technique of putting one leg in first, pivoting across to sit down into the seat, and then pulling the remaining leg over the door bar and into the footwell. The adjustable racing pedal box and detachable steering wheel with paddle shifters were pure race car. Designed to accommodate drivers of different proportions, the steering column moved up and down and in and out as needed.
The seating position for the M4 GT4 was materially different compared to the road car. In the cause of optimizing weight distribution, the molded carbon fiber racing seat was mounted on the floor and pushed back toward the rear bulkhead. The six-point racing harness secured the driver firmly in place. The driver doesn’t so much get into the car as strap it on around them.
The M4 GT4 is equipped with air conditioning as standard equipment, delivering air through the perforated seat material to driver’s back and an air vent on the center console. The AC only activates upon braking, this ensures that full power is available when coming off the brakes and back on the throttle. Race cars generate heat and run in all weather, so controlling the climate inside the cockpit reduces driver fatigue. A feature especially appreciated by students driving in the Palm Springs desert heat.
Design cues were familiar BMW. A key fob with a familiar BMW shape sat in a molded inset in the carbon fiber paneling surrounding the gearshift. One of the students fired up the car with a touch of the starter button and the engine roared to life. The sensitive throttle took only a little touch to rev the engine.
To accommodate rules packages in different series, BMW equips the GT4 with “power sticks” inserted in the control panel to the driver’s right. Different color sticks release more power and torque. The car will run without a stick, but colors step up the power – red, silver, gold, blue and black. The GT4 featured a silver power stick on the day Francis visited.
Preview done, the group grabbed their helmets and jumped into a nearby fleet of waiting M2 road cars for a warm-up. They headed to the tight north circuit and followed instructors in a single file line. Students acclimated to the driving line and focused on fundamentals – maintaining line of sight through the corner, braking point, turn-in, apex, corner exit, and acceleration. Soon, the instructors pulled off and let the students run their own pace. No passing but slower cars drove through the staging lane to allow faster cars to run freely without delays.
The next step on the path towards the M4 GT4 was time with the M4 road car counterpart. The M4 is a performance step above the M2. The group moved to the longer South Palm Circuit to run the M4 at speed on the same course they would later navigate the M4 GT4 on. Instructors led single file laps, showing the racing line and calling out tips over the radio. They focused on deep braking points, and maximizing corner exit and speed down the straights. Instructors took turns at the point, each showing the ideal racing line while sprinkling in variations at times.
Lunch afforded time for a break atop an outdoor balcony. Good food and perfect weather made a nice setting to get to know fellow guests. Refreshed, the group took their M4 road cars back to the South Palm Circuit to put lessons of the morning to work in preparation for laps in the race car.
Prepared by the M2 and M4 and now fitted with BMW motorsport driver suits and helmets, it was now time for the main event, the M4 GT4. Part of the group took M2 cars to the handling track for time attack competition while the other part of the group, including Francis, got their GT4 experience underway.
Even knowing it was coming, the transition from high performance road car to race car was stark. Luxury trimmings of the road car were left behind for function. The carbon fiber steering wheel was the most visible sign of the new order. It looked and felt like a racing wheel. It wasn’t even a complete round wheel, with the top squared off to ease visibility to the instruments and bottom flattened to avoid brushing the driver’s legs.
The wheel grips at nine and three felt instantly comfortable and the shift paddles were at easy reach hidden just behind. The right paddle shifted up and the left paddle shifted down (indicated by plus and minus labels). Functional buttons on the wheel allowed the driver to signal left and right, engage the windscreen wipers, radio to the crew (or instructor in this case), toggle high-beam headlights, cycle through dashboard displays, and get fluid from the onboard drink system. The bright yellow pit speed limiter button artificially holds down the revs to comply with pit lane speed limits. Buttons are positioned to allow easy access. The driver can operate most with agile thumbs and the rest minimize time necessary to let one hand release its grasp to activate a button.
With BMW Motorsport suit, gloves and helmet on and belts tightened, the group left pitlane and the fun began. Each student had their own personal M4 GT4 and the group danced in a lead follow line behind an instructor. The GT4 itself provided instruction of its own. Shift lights atop the dashboard display changed from green to yellow and finally to flashing red as the revs rose.
The 3.0 liter in-line six-cylinder engine pulled hard. The Continental racing slicks held tight to the pavement through the corners. After moving the gearshift out of its automatic mode, the paddle shift quickly ran up and down through the gears. While seven gears were available, the South Palm Thermal circuit straights weren’t quite long enough to use the top two gears.
With a very responsive throttle, the lightweight car accelerated quickly. The wail of the engine as it surged into its power band was visceral. This was a driving experience rather than a race, but the car felt like an animal that wanted to run.
The reason for the braking lessons became instantly clear. No soft pedal or braking subtlety found in the road version of the M4. The racing GT4 demanded intentional pressure to engage the AP braking system. With six piston AP calipers up front and four pistons in the rear, braking points in the GT4 were far deeper than in the M4 road car.
The group took turns in their line behind the instructor, picking up pace as they got more comfortable. The M4 GT4 quickly confirmed that it was not a thinly disguised M4 with colorful stickers. At roughly three times the price of the road car, it is easy to see where the BMW Motorsports team spends the extra money on the race car.
From apex to corner exit, the goal was to position the GT4 straight ahead as quickly as possible and release the powerful engine. Lengthening the straights into and out of corners shaved seconds from lap times. At one point, the instrument cluster flickered 134mph at the end of the longest straight, yet the car still had plenty of power and two gears left. It was easy to imagine the experience on tracks with more room to run.
The tightest turns straddled second and third gear. The GT4 stretched down to second gear while the road going M4 made best use of third. Second gear in the GT4 produced high revs in the power band, requiring a delicate touch to avoid wheelspin that would overwhelm the tires and rob momentum. Instructors helped guests with shift points and technique to optimize corner exits.
Many performance cars are fast in a straight line. However, agility, eye popping brakes, precision steering, perfectly balanced handling, and consistency lap after lap makes the GT4 a customer racing favorite from the high banks of Daytona to the windy wine country course at Sonoma to the forests of the Nürburgring. The GT4 is every bit a race car, but does not make the driver wrestle the beast or struggle to find a narrow performance envelope.
Open track was a major benefit of running with only an instructor and three guests. Students ran as fast as they were comfortable and instructors gave them the space to stretch their legs in the lead follow. This was a GT4 experience rather than a racing event, so no competitive passing or getting into the minutia of lap times. However, the BMW team offers separate packages of 125 and 250 miles of private coaching in the GT4 (and likely would be happy to accommodate as much time behind the wheel as your wallet can handle). In all cases, guests walk away with video and telemetry from their driving time.
The small groups switched places. The trio who had been running against the clock in the M2 now got their chance to drive the M4 GT4. Francis and his group moved from the GT4 to enjoy throwing the M2 around the tight handling course. It was another reminder of the difference between a spritely road car and a purpose-built race car. It took some adjustment but the adrenalin flowed and all enjoyed sampling the range of M cars.
The day wasn’t quite done. Three guests each jumped into a four-door M5 for an instructor drive on Thermal’s South Palm circuit anticipating a qualifying lap demonstration. Approaching the first turn at mind numbing speed, it was clear that the M5 would be sideways more often than not for a hot lap. Darting to the left and then whipping back to the right, the instructor began a drifting exhibition from turn to turn through the entire course. Smoke billowed from the Continental tires as the laws of physics and the muscle from Munich overwhelmed their ability to regain traction. The three guests mixed screams with laughter and a bit of fright as the drifting exhibition continued through the full lap until they exited the track. The BMW Performance Center delivered an experience worthy of its Bavarian origins – the sights, sounds and smells planted an explanation mark on the end of a very memorable day.
BMW wisely weaves time in the street versions of the M2 and M4 together with time driving the M4 GT4. Aside from being fun, the program helps students to crawl before they walk and walk before they run. Getting considerable seat time in a small group and being able to compare and contrast the cars was an added bonus. The day’s efficient agenda moved right along with little down time.
The M4 GT4 experience is a very rare opportunity to sample a race car with a price tag of around $200,000 that is being actively raced. Being able to get a glimpse into what makes the BMW Motorsport pedigree special and sense what it might be like to race a factory-supported BMW in competition is a compelling experience.
Some guests may not be content with a day in Thermal. Some may want to springboard into racing as a BMW customer. The BMW Sports Trophy honors private drivers and teams that race BMW cars in series around the world. Every top 10 finish in selected events around the globe earns points. It brings the wide reach of BMW customer racing together and offers recognition and financial prize money to the top drivers and teams.
Most guests, however, will go home with their memories and video footage and a better appreciation for what happens when they see a private team like Turner Motorsport, Classic BMW or Bimmerworld racing for glory on the road courses. Even big kids like to imagine what being a racing driver is like – and the BMW M4 GT4 experience is a cost-effective way to pretend for a day.
The Speed Journal would like to thank the BMW Performance Center and the instructors and staff for a great day with the M4 GT4 and its M siblings.
The Driver’s Series scours the world to find and explore compelling driving experiences for anyone with a driver’s license and passion for speed. We send our resident driver Jeff Francis to get behind the wheel and report back to Speed Journal readers to ride along virtually or become inspired to take on the driving experiences themselves. Are you involved with a driving experience that should be featured on The Speed Journal? Do you have a driving experience suggestion for The Speed Journal to investigate? Please contact us.