BMW M3 (E36) long-term test review

By the CAR road test team

Long Term Tests

15 August 2011 09:30

The end of the M3? – 15 August 2011

As you’ll probably guess from the pics, the race didn’t go so well – my M3 came home from the Team Trophy at Donington yesterday on a breakdown truck. In fact, I didn’t even race – I just managed to scrape through the qualifying session before it all went wrong.

Shame, because I was really looking forward to it. The alarm rang at 5.30am and, when I got on the road at 6am, the M3 felt great. I unloaded all my tools and bits and pieces in the pits by 7.30am, breezed through scrutineering, then queued up for qualifying.

Now, I’d never driven Donington before and I had the added unknown of having fitted worn Kumho tyres on the back, and new red-smoke Kumho drift tyres on the front. I didn’t have any other tyres lying around, so I took a gamble. I hoped that the red smoke was just a novelty thing, and that they’d still grip fine. They didn’t. As soon as I turned into Donington’s first corner, I knew something was seriously amiss – the car just understeered past the apex where it’s usually quite pointy. The balance through the faster stuff was fine though, and it was amazing to charge into the Craner Curves in third gear, then upshift and keep the throttle pinned. Sadly the understeer returned for the next tighter right-hander, and it was a similar story around the circuit – the flowing stuff was fine, but as soon as I demanded anything of the front end, it just washed away. It killed my confidence. Still, I pushed on and eventually got a feel for what was going on, worked myself into some space and began to hone a reasonable lap. What a great track! After a few more laps I caught some slower cars and, wow, when someone understeers into the gravel in front of you and the car behind that spins to avoid it and you’re already in full-on, maximum understeer attack mode yourself, well, it really gets the old ticker going.

So, I was having fun. Then, right at the end of the 30-minute session, I felt a sudden loss of power and looked down to see my oil temp gauge swinging over to the right and reading 300degF. It usually sits in the middle at 200degF when I’m on track. Seeing the needle so far from home completely disoriented me for a second – the very second I was passing the pits. So I had to do another full lap to get back.

When I came to a stop, I could hear a very light clatter from the bottom end. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to race, but I hung around for the qualifying results – I’d placed 19th out of 29 cars. I don’t think that was particularly to do with the engine problem, but I do think the daft tyres hindered me. The quality of the cars – and drivers, I think – was a step up from the Trackday Trophy I raced in last year, and there were some well-prepared cars out there. To get a feel for how much the tyres had hurt my lap times, I scanned the list for McHugh/McHugh, a father/son team in a quick Porsche 944 who’d done well in the Trackday Trophy, often winning it. They’d placed 11th, and I was losing about half a second more to them than I had last year. It felt like the understeer was costing me more time than that, but who knows.

Anyway, I had more pressing matters at hand: breakdown services don’t usually like collecting race cars from race tracks, so I elected to get the car on the road. I headed out of the circuit, headed south down the M1 for a junction, then cut through Loughborough towards the A6. At this point the sound of Christmas tree baubles in a washing machine began to ricochet off the nearby buildings; people a good 150 yards away we’re turning around to catch a glimpse of what could only have been a steamroller travelling at 50mph. On the outskirts of Loughborough I pulled over in a quite layby, gave my beloved M3 a pat on the steering wheel and turned her off. The odometer read 216,383.

I called the RAC, who said they’d be there in 45 minutes – but that they’d try to fix the car first, before calling a breakdown truck if necessary, which would take lots more hours. I wasn’t very hopeful that RAC man would be carrying a 3.0-litre M3 bottom end around in his Transit, so I called my wife and got her to come over and meet me with the kids so we could go for lunch and at least salvage something of the day. And, oh yes, I’d get a lift home too.

Forty five minutes later and the RAC man arrived. ‘Just so you know,’ he said, ‘We won’t take the car unless it has a valid tax disc.’ I looked at my car. The tax disc ran out at the end of March. ‘It is taxed!’ I said, ‘I’m sure it is. I must have just forgot to put it in because it’s always in the garage.’ I then went on the DVLA website using my phone and checked it was taxed. ‘It is taxed! It’s taxed!’ RAC man confirmed my car was beyond roadside repair, but said he couldn’t call up the breakdown truck until I had the physical tax disc. So he left. It was like a ship sailing past your desert island and failing to notice the blaze you had going.

So, the family and I made the 45-minute trip back home, whereupon I dug out the tax disc, then called the RAC, then headed back out to meet the truck. Everything went much more smoothly from that point on – in fact, the breakdown chappie even helped me push the M3 right into my garage, so I could tuck it up and pretend everything was still okay.

What to do now? I’m not sure. A mechanic friend reckons my M3’s bodyshell is too crusty to merit an engine rebuild, and suggests transferring the bits into a new car. Thing is, even the cheapest 3.0-litre M3s are £3k, and I’d guess most of those are rusty too – and you’d be looking at about £4k including labour to swap the parts. Mmm, wonder if our friends at Car Mechanics need an engine rebuild feature.

By Ben Barry 


Racing again – 12 August 2011

I haven’t raced for a year, but on Sunday I’m back on track at Donington in my E36 BMW M3, racing in Motorsport Vision’s Team Trophy. The Team Trophy is much like the Trackday Trophy I twice raced in during 2010 – there are four classes, and the spirit of the rules make for cheap, fun, safe racing. The grid’s decided by a 30-minute qualifying session, then the race is held over 45 minutes. There’s also a compulsory pit stop – this allows for two drivers to team up in one car. You don’t have to team up – and I’m not – but it’s great way to reduce costs. Pretty much anything is eligible – last year I raced against a Ginetta, a Nova, a Jag XJS, as well as the usual Clios, Golfs and 3-series.

So far so similar, but the key difference between the two race series is that the Trackday Trophy is for novices, while the Team Trophy is open to more experienced racers too.

To be honest, I’m not quite sure what to expect, either in terms of how good the drivers are or how well-prepped their cars are. And I’ve never driven the full Donington track – I’ll be learning via onboard YouTube footage beforehand – so I’ll have to get up to speed quickly during the 30-minute qualifying session.

The M3 is now at a local garage having its oil, oil filter, air filter and spark plugs replaced, plus four ‘new’ tyres put on. Now, technically speaking I’ve actually run out of tyres, but I had a scratch around my garage and found some. I have a pair of brand new Kumho red-smoke drift tyres to go on the front. Hopefully these grip as well as regular tyres. Then I’ve got a pair of worn Kumhos to go on the back – I don’t actually mind a slightly slidey rear end, so long as I have a pointy front. If I’m not happy with qualifying – or if the Kumhos don’t look like they’ll last the race – I have a plan B: I’m also taking a pair of almost new but badly flat-spotted Uniroyals along that are already fitted to two rims. I know, I’m like a proper race team.

In other news, the 216,000-mile M3 has also been burning oil under hard cornering on track – it’ll lose about half-a-litre in a couple of very hard hours. I went on an E36 forum and asked about this, and they said it was all doom and gloom and that my engine was already ruined. However, I have been keeping the levels topped, and Barney Halse from Classic Heroes is ready to send me an oil restrictor to fit should the car not expire this weekend. Barney knows his stuff and he doesn’t think my car will die but, in his defense, he hasn’t actually seen it, so I won’t blame him if it does.

I’ll be up early on Sunday and racing in the early afternoon after a mid-morning qualifying session. I’ll let you know how I get on.

By Ben Barry 


Testing out the new Snetterton circuit – 24 May 2011

If you’ve been to Snetterton race track in Norfolk over the last year or so, you’ll have probably noticed a lot of heavy plant machinery milling about. It’s all been part of a multi-million pound development by circuit owners Motorsport Vision to create the Snetterton 300 – essentially an extra infield section to add an extra mile to the circuit’s length, making it 2.99 miles long.

In doing so, MSV has also created three configurations: you can drive the old circuit pretty much as it was (Snetterton 200); you can drive the new section of the circuit on its own (100); or you can combine the pair of them (300).

The new layout is now open, so I took my E36 M3 along to a trackday to give the 300 layout a try. You drive down the long start-finish straight (Senna) as normal, then turn right at high speed through the adrenaline rush that is Riches. So far, so similar.

But to link onto the new track, the next right-hander becomes a hairpin (Montreal). It’s not as satisfying as the old layout, simply because it’s a much sharper turn, so on your first visit you’re likely to go in too fast and scrub off your speed with frustrating understeer. The satisfaction comes in mastering this tricky corner, rather than any kind of thrill.

Then you’re into the new layout, and you notice that the track width shrinks and the barriers loom larger. The next left-hander (Palmer) is a good one – a little dab on the brakes, then early commitment to carry your speed and place yourself on the kerbing at the exit. The kerbs, incidentally, required a rethink for MSV – they were too short when the layout first opened, and that had just been remedied for our visit.

Then you’re onto a fast, long straight, and seeing how long you dare hold the throttle flat before jumping on the brakes for the tight left-hander (Agostini) that follows is quite a thrill – especially in an ABS-free car like mine! Agostini isn’t quite as frustrating as the hairpin that takes you into the new layout, but it’s still a bit of a trudge and, again, is a question of mastering the technique to get round it as cleanly and quickly as possible rather than deriving any real pleasure from driving it.

From here on in is where the new layout gets interactive for me. A decent straight, a dab on the brakes, then it’s a fast left-hander (Hamilton), one that takes a while to build up the confidence to exit it on the right-hand kerbing – you’ll typically go in at what you feel is a fast lick, but find yourself with a few feet in reserve and curse your pansy lack of commitment. I did, anyway.

Then it’s a fast stop into a slowish right (Oggies), but it’s a far better slow corner than the other two, simply because it opens out after the apex, so you can get back fully on the power as you run to the outside edge of the track to keep the car as straight as possible for the best traction. Then it’s a little dab on the brakes to get the nose hooked in to the fairly fast right-hander (Williams) that takes you back onto the old Bentley Straight.

From here it’s back into the familiar: a long straight into a fairly fast left (Brundle) that tries to trick you into going too fast into the flick right (Nelson) that follows. Keep it neat, then there’s the compression of the fast right (Bomb Hole) that feels great, a short straight and then the tricky and fast Coram. The first section of this corner is the same, but the end has been re-modelled, so instead of feeding into a chicance, it banks round harder to the right, before turning left at the last minute. This new end of Coram is tricky to get right because if you go in too hot, the car – with physics pulling it to the left – wants to fall into oversteer when you jump on the brakes. It’s also very easy to lock the unloaded right-front tyre (well, it was on my road-spec tyres). And when you oversteer or lock your brakes or both, you’ll be in a bit of a flap when you try to make the tight left (Murrays) that follows.

The best, most satisfying bits of Snett are still the bits that were there before, and a couple of the new corners introduce an element of frustration that wasn’t there before, but overall the track mods have introduced a new level of variety, and it’s well worth checking out.

By Ben Barry


More racing action – 2 August 2010

The second round of the Trackday Trophy took me and the M3 to Mallory Park with 18 other competitors. I’d never been to the Leicestershire circuit before, so the 30-minute qualifying session was my first taste. I decided to put the first four laps down to learning the place, then push as hard as I could.

It’s a fast place, Mallory, and the run off is quite minimal in places. It’s also quite slippery. Getting a banker lap in the bag proved harder than I imagined, what with traffic, spinners, geese – there’s a lake in the middle of the track – and someone’s bonnet flying off, but finally I found some clean space and put in a 57.43sec – good enough for fifth on the grid, and better than I expected given the competition, the fastest of which was a Ginetta G20 with a 55.6sec.

I got a solid start off the grid, getting the jump on a quick Mk2 Golf, but with a quicker Clio bounding ahead of me, I remained in fifth. The next few laps were incredibly intense, the six of us running in very close formation. The Golf behind me was obviously faster too, and despite my best efforts early on – I posted my day’s fastest lap time of 57.38 on the fourth lap – he eventually got past. I was in sixth, but as the pack pulled ahead of me, I also found myself in some clean air. Time to get down to business and punch in some solid laps before the mandatory three-minute pit stop.

The pit-board came out after 15 minutes of the 45-minute race, but I was still running on my own and the pits looked busy, so I decided to hold out for as much as the 15-minute window as I could, trying to count the laps as minutes to ensure I didn’t stay out too long – amazing how difficult keeping track of that is when things are so intense. In the event I started to catch up to some slower cars after 10 minutes and so pulled in. Now, Mallory’s pit entrance and exit is a little bonkers – you effectively drive straight into the pits with no real room to scrub off the speed, so I braked heavily from race speed (very fast in third gear) and came to a stop, whereupon my hard-worked brakes started to pour with smoke. People took pictures. A man stood next to me with a fire extinguisher. Three minutes felt like a long time, and someone helpfully pointed out that I should move slightly back and forth to stop the pads overheating the discs in just one spot.

Three minutes later I dived out of the (blind) pit exit and found another BM right behind me. Not knowing what state my brakes were in – and knowing that my tyres had lost temperature – I elected to give in at the first corner. This is where it gets confusing – the BM was actually a lap down, and there were no blue flags when I came to re-take the position a few corners later. No blue flags either with the – also a lap down – Mini and Porsche I ended up duelling with. It’s understandably confusing for the marshals I suppose. I locked up a couple of times taking the Mini, never did get the Porsche and, in the closing stages, the Mk2 Golf that’d overtaken me near the start retired, gifting me a place, but a quick 306 Rallye that’d had a poor qualifying came through the ranks to take it back.

Result? Fifth of 18 overall, and second in class. I’m pretty pleased with that. I was beaten to fourth by under 2sec, and I reckon I made more than 2sec worth of errors, so fourth could have been mine, but the first three places were always going to be out of my reach bar retirements from the others.

Most important for me, though, is that I’ve got over that initial fear of being really rubbish at racing. In two races I’ve proved to myself I can do it, so I now feel like I can take a bad result in my stride, rather than it being the end of the world. And I absolutely love racing!

thanks whoever put this up!) is from the end of the day – when I totally nailed that tricky gate/hump/gate transition and my tyres were on canvas.

If you fancy a go, visit mazdaontrack.co.uk or call 01295 771831. Prices vary depending on location, but the Finmere days cost from £65.
 
By Ben Barry


Second-round race – 30 July 2010
                    

I’m just about to get the M3 ready for round two of the Trackday Trophy at Mallory Park this weekend. Thankfully all the hard work seems to have been done ahead of the first round, so I’ll just have to get the BM out of the garage, clean it, empty it – the bottle of champagne from last time is still in there! – get all my gear together for the race, then fill it with fuel and oil, and check the tyre pressures.

The Trackday Trophy is the brainchild of Motorsport Vision, but, because Mallory isn’t an MSV circuit, round two is being run by the BARC, the British Automobile Racing Club who organise race meetings throughout the UK. The rest is business as usual: a 45-minute race with an enforced three-minute pitstop to allow for a driver change, a boon should competitors want to split costs.

I’m not expecting quite as good a result as last time out at Snetterton (I won Class D and came sixth overall) simply because I’ve never driven Mallory and the qualifying session will be my first taste of it. It’s a 45-minute long session, though, so I plan to spend the first few laps learning the track, the next few setting some conservative banker times, and the rest of the session pushing as hard as I’m able.

The very hot weather also caused a couple of faster cars to retire last time, so the top 10 will likely be more fiercely contested. Still, it’s motorsport, anything can happen, so we’ll see what happens when I cross the finish line on Sunday. I’ll be sure to file a race report come Monday.

By Ben Barry


Track Day Trophy at Snetterton – 28 June 2010

With less than a week to go before round two of the Trackday Trophy (see previous update for a more detailed description of the series) and the M3’s first race, things were feeling just a bit too organised. My harnesses had passed their five-year expiry date, but I’d got some new four-point replacements on order from Sabelt; I’d flat-spotted the tyres during a lock-up on track the week before, but I had it booked into Richard Naylor’s in Stamford to swap the rubber, and I’d also asked him to slacken off the rear anti-roll bar because the car felt excessively oversteery. It also wandered a lot under acceleration. Richard couldn’t get to the car until Thursday, but that still gave three full days before I was due to race. Easy.
 
Sadly not. While I was busy on a photo shoot, Richard called to say that the handling problems might be due to the broken KW Suspension spring on the rear (kindly, he resisted the words ‘you idiot’). And, oh, he said, you’ve probably not got enough meat on your brake pads to last the duration of a race at a fast place like Snetterton (I think he may have muttered something at this point). Cue frantic phone calls to Germany for a pair of replacement springs, and more calls to AP Racing for some new pads.
 
The springs arrived in just over 24 hours (from Germany!) and proved an easy job for the garage; the pads arrived on Saturday morning, just before it closed. It gave me an afternoon in the sweltering sun to bolt in the harnesses and – for the first time in my life, embarrassingly – change a set of brake pads.
Nevermind the Trackday Trophy, by the time I’d done the jobs I felt like I’d won something.
 
5.30am the next morning and my alarm rang. The M3 felt solid on the drive down the A1, and I was at Snetterton just after 7am, whereupon I discovered lots of cars sporting semi-slick tryres and riding on trailers. Some people had pit boards, and pondered track temperatures. This made me feel nervous.
I felt nervous in the driver’s briefing too, but it felt good to be driving on such a hot, dry day, and better to have Jonny Smith in the race too. I just wanted to get out and learn the track (I’d driven a quarter of it on a drift day, which gave me a slightly odd take on the layout and the speeds involved), so I was relieved when the practice session arrived at 9.30am and I didn’t seem to be the slowest person out there. In fact, a 1min 30sec put me in ninth out of 20-odd cars, and I was pretty sure a large number of those were uncatchable – they were just faster cars in higher classes.
 
Come qualifying I improved my lap time by 1sec, but everyone else had upped their game. I’d dropped to 11th. I still felt good, just not quite so good.
There then followed an intimidating-sounding four-hour break, so I decided to fill the car and take a two-mile walk in Thetford Forest, whereupon I decided on a Jenson Button-esque strategy. It would be a long 45-minute race, so I’d drive just within my limits and try to punch in consistently fast lap times while conserving my tyres and brakes and waiting for the others to make mistakes.
 
Of course, this all went out of the window when the lights went out on the starting grid, and, at the second corner, I found myself locking up while sliding through a pack of cars at a large sideways angle in third gear. Not nice, but I held the slide (thank you drifting practice!) and had a quick word with myself about being conservative and consistent. It did the trick and I dispatched a few cars and found some space – dropping the rest of the pack, while watching the faster cars – including one J Smith – disappear on Snetterton’s long back straight. From there I just punched in those lap times and, somewhere along the line, improved my qualifying time by another sec. I was getting in a groove.
 
Now, a cool part of the Trackday Trophy is the fact that you can opt for a two-driver line-up, halving the costs for all involved. I was going solo, but the regulations stipulate that all cars must come in for a three-minute pitstop, one that’s timed from the moment you cross into the 60kph speed-limited area. You also have to get out of the car, close the door, then get back in. How exactly I could time this with complete precision eluded me, but I think it was pretty accurate, and I was soon feeding back out in with some faster cars.
 
One included a very quick Clio on semi-slicks that was clearly faster through the corners, but a little slower on the straights. He had to get me in a corner, but when he dived inside at the chicane I heard his brakes lock and glanced over to see him sliding at me, so I took the executive decision to cut over the grass and give him some space.
 
As the race drew to a close I got in a fairly epic battle with a Peugeot 306 Rallye, which, like me, was in Class D. Again he had the edge in the corners – the M3 just got to its limit and wanted to oversteer – and the 306 would pull past through a sequence of corners while I’d pull past on the straights. Ultimately he got me into the final chicane, but while he pushed into the corner, I held back, then gave it full beans when I’d got the car straight. This just edged me past the 306 as we ran to the finish line. I shouted ‘YES!’ with every last ounce of strength I had.
 
What an experience. My arms were heavy, my mouth felt like sandpaper, but I’d won Class D and clinched sixth overall. Then I drove home with the windows open, Pavement and Interpol blaring from the stereo (I know, I should strip the sound system out, really) and a trophy and and an empty bottle of champagne (I’d sprayed it over Jonny Smith who’d driven an excellent race to finish fourth overall and gain a third place in class B) in the passenger footwell.
 
What an absolutely incredible day.
 
For more info on the Trackday Trophy visit www.trackdaytrophy.co.uk
 
By Ben Barry 
 

 

Pre Track Day Trophy at Snetterton – 25 June 2010

This weekend, on Sunday June 27, my BMW M3 will make its race debut at Snetterton. The series is perfect for me. It’s called the Trackday Trophy, and it’s run by MotorSport Vision (owners of Brands Hatch, Snetterton, Cadwell Park and more), and is designed for people who are pretty serious about trackdays and who want to race, but who have only a basic race licence, little or no experience of racing and a limited budget. There are five rounds for 2010, with Brands Hatch, Snetterton and Mallory Park confirmed so far. It costs £50 to register, and £299 buys entry to Snetterton’s 30-minute practice and qualifying sessions, plus the 45-minute race. The idea is that two drivers share a car, but you don’t have to, and I won’t. An obligatory three-minute pitstop for all cars neutralises any unfairness this may cause.

I heard about the Trackday Trophy a week before the first round at Brands, but just failed to get the M3 up to spec in time. Now, I hope, it’s ready. I’ve had it weighed at a local weighbridge (1500kg with me in it), and rolling roaded at local VW Group specialists Jabbasport where three runs averaged around 255bhp at the flywheel, or 186bhp at the wheels. The standard car weighs around 1460kg without a driver and I weigh 77kg, which means that stripping the interior (but adding the Rollcentre Racing rollcage, plus larger AP brakes and the BBS wheels to fit around them) has saved approximately 40kg. The standard bhp figure should be around 284bhp, so mine is a little disappointing, if entirely understandable for an engine with 214,000 miles on the clock.

All in, it means my power-to-weight ratio is 124bhp-per-tonne, just within the lowest Class D category. I think that’s good news, because instead of worrying about trying to win the race, I’ll be able to focus on getting comfortable with the idea of competing.

Why wasn’t it ready last time? Well, the main job was to properly plumb in the existing fire extinguisher, and to add an external electrical cut-off switch. This involved the fairly painful process of cutting a hole in the front wing, a job that I left to Richard Naylor in Stamford. I actually met Richard when we were trying to source a Mk2 Escort RS1800 to play second-fiddle to the Focus RS on our September 2008 cover. After a nationwide search, it turned out Richard had one within 10 minutes of my front door. When I went along to have a chat with him, I discovered that his garage and tyre-fitting business also did a sideline in immaculately prepped rally cars. So, when I needed the M3 race-prepped, I didn’t hesitate to drop it down there. I think the job is incredibly neat and good value too at under £200.

With race-day looming, I decided a shakedown was in order. This revealed that the rear anti-roll bar – set to its hardest setting for sideways amusement – was much too stiff, eliminating understeer (excellent), but encouraging the car to fall into oversteer through really fast corners (not so excellent). I’m hopefully having it softened off before race day, while I’ll need four new Uniroyal Rainsports after a, ahem, 140mph lock-up that flat-spotted the ones I’d fitted and carefully conserved for the race. Curses!

I’m also discovering the joy of expiry dates, which, it seems, are not just limited to dairy products and foodstuffs. Instead they extend to helmets, race suits and harnesses, and it just so happens that my 2004 Sabelt harness expired, as far as the FIA is concerned, last year. A replacement should be with me later this week, but there’s still a risk that my first scrutineering session will turn up something illegal. Let’s hope not.

So, Sunday, then. Wish me luck!

For more info on the Trackday Trophy visit www.trackdaytrophy.co.uk

By Ben Barry

 

Video of Ben Barry taking his E36 M3 drifting  8 January 2010


I’d managed just three track outings in the M3 from January to November 2009, so I promised myself December would yield a fourth. And then I got busy and forgot. Luckily, on 23 December, I got back in touch with Al Clark. Al’s previously done video work for CAR (we teamed up to film the Ferrari Scuderia 16M), but he’s also part of Mazda On Track, a trackday company that targets Mazda fans but will also welcome other marques if you ask nicely. ‘Would I like to come along to a car control day on 30 December?’ asked Al. What a brilliant way to finish the year!

The day was held at an old airfield near Silverstone called Finmere. It was billed as an opportunity for beginners to explore the basics of car control with coned courses and lots of run off, but Al promised there’d be a faster course for those with a little more experience, and so it turned out.

It rained all day, which was good for driftability and good too for tyre life on the coarse surface, but a little mucky when I swapped round the new road tyres and worn track tyres at the start and end of the day – have you ever tried to retighten wheel studs with freezing cold hands?!

It had been a shamefully long time since I’d gone out to play on my favourite sequence of roundabouts, so I had a quick squirt on the beginner’s course to warm up – perfect for grasping the basics of oversteer and understeer – before progressing to the big stuff. This course consisted of a brief straight, a tight right, and a very long left that narrowed into a very tight and tricky autocross-style coned ‘gate’. Immediately after the gate came a bump that unsettled the car, then the left-hander briefly opened up again before a series of cones funnelled into a finish filter lane.

At first I’d been over to the left on the approach to the first gate, meaning that to hold the drift I needed to pin the throttle and tweak the angle just before I entered it. Problem was, that worked badly with the hump that followed, sometimes making me spin, sometimes pushing the car into understeer. The solution was to go wide and approach the gate further to the right, then tweak the angle and add speed well before it. That meant I could maintain the angle under braking, then slow the car down to deal with the hump before accelerating and drifting towards the finish gate.

If that doesn’t make much sense, you’ll be glad to know that Racelogic was also on hand and fixed up a DriftBox and two cameras in my car. Essentially the DriftBox is a very clever GPS-based lap timer with a function that also allows you to record the speed and angle of your drift – it’s sometimes used to back up the judges at pro drift competitions.

You’ll see the video – complete with data and in-car and forward-facing views – here. It was recorded at the start of the day, while this YouTube link /http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q9iqEiBTVao/ (thanks whoever put this up!) is from the end of the day – when I totally nailed that tricky gate/hump/gate transition and my tyres were on canvas.

If you fancy a go, visit mazdaontrack.co.uk or call 01295 771831. Prices vary depending on location, but the Finmere days cost from £65.
 
By Ben Barry


Family lunch outing – 29 November 2009

Mother-in-law Mara was over from the US, both the wife and I had taken holiday, and when the talk turned to a nice rural English pub, I was quick to suggest a nice little spot in a place called Bruntingthorpe. Turns out said place was right next door to Bruntingthorpe Proving Ground! And as it was just days until my MoT expired, it seemed remiss not to drop by in the M3 before perusing the menu.

I knew I’d get the wife out for a few laps. She absolutely loves the race track, often goads me into going faster (‘that guy just did that faster than you’) and tells me not to worry if I crash. But the mother-in-law? That was a whole new challenge.

I arrived on my own, keen to see how much faster I could go than the 1:25.6 I’d last achieved on a very-damp-but-drying track a few months back, pleased to see a dry track and cool temperatures for ideal conditions. The tyres were the same as last time, so it was all pretty comparable. Only problem was the 14 to 17-year-olds who were being given a first taste of motorsport in tweaked-up Saxos. They added a chicane to the long straight that I avoided – making my closing speed dangerously high – so I promised to back off and give them a wide berth, making consistent lap timing harder. Still, among the aborted laps I scored a cluster of high 1:19s, and one freakishly quick 1:18.3 – probably a result of an over-eager finger on the stopwatch. So, six seconds quicker. Quite a big difference, but I didn’t feel like I was slacking in the damp. Mmm, must work on my wet set-up.

The family turned up half an hour before lunch, mother-in-law initially refusing to clamber over the rollcage. So wife went first, screaming in delight as the then cold tyres generated easy slides, and hanging in her harness under heavy braking before finally feeling a little sick. Amazingly, sixty-something Mara agreed to go next after witnessing her daughter’s safe return.

The process of initiating the uninitiated to a track car is always fun, the extra tension generated by the awkward rollcage, the inevitable tumble into solid bucket seats, the adjusting of the harnesses and the claustrophobia of a race helmet. Mara was clearly nervous, so I agreed to do one lap at 80%, then a second at 90% if she hadn’t already told me to stop.

First lap went well and I couldn’t see her knuckles whitening, so with one lap to go and the best corner approaching there was nothing else for it – late on the brakes, little flick left then big flick right for a fast third-gear drift. Screeching tyres, spiralling revs – there’s a lot of noise when this kind of thing happens, but I did hear a scream and Mara’s hands went to grab something she never quite found. Lucky she couldn’t hear me laughing.

‘I don’t understand why the car didn’t tip over,’ she said afterwards. Still, she seemed to thoroughly enjoy the experience, so hats off to grandma. Wonder if she’s interested in a meal at the Pistenklause, Nürburg?

By Ben Barry


Surrounded by pushchairs - 27 November 2009  

My poor M3. Just two outings this year, and I’m in danger of losing it under a pile of kiddy accessories. Seems I’ve got less time and cash to lavish on it than in my pre-dad days. Fear not, though, a plan is forming that involves wife, mother-in-law and an empty airfield. Should be fun.

By Ben Barry


Oulton Park’s rally stages -21 July 2009

A couple of big outings for the M3 recently. First came a trip to Oulton Park’s rally stages. There are two of these small circuits, both surfaced with a strange-sounding mix of tarmac and crushed glass to create an incredibly fun, low-grip surface. The nearest equivalent I can think of is driving on ice with spiked tyres. The days are run by Drift One and usually cost £120-140. If you’ve never been sideways but have always wanted to, or if you’ve ever wanted to experience what rallying on ice feels like, the Oulton Park stages are the way to go. Second gear is all you need, you’ll never, ever wear through your tyres and there’s loads of run-off to help minimise any panel-bending incidents. There’s a surprising mix of cars too – everything from Porsche 911s to Mitsi Evos joining the usual mix of MX-5s, BMWs and rear-drive Nissans when I was there. As usual, I got so addicted that I had to force myself to stop just so the poor, overworked M3 could cool off. Sliding around is all very good, but I’ve really been wanting to work on consistent lap times. So, one recent Saturday I headed down to Bruntingthorpe Proving Ground, a World War II airfield with a runway that’s now pounded by more cars than planes. Happily, it was a damp day, meaning I had to put extra effort into nailing those consistent laps. I started off with a couple of errors, generally because I was braking too late and tipping the car into oversteer on the greasy surface. But I experimented, and kept timing myself on my iPhone, pressing the lap timer at the first marker cone on the longest straight. The first laps played out like this: 1:27.8, 1:29.3; 1:27.8; 1:27.1; 1:26.5; 1:27.2; 1:28.0. I wasn’t happy with that, and reckoned I could do better. With the sun taking the edge off the damp, I headed out again with the following results: 1:27.7; 1:27.7; 1:27.1; 1: 26.4; 1:26.4; 1:26.3, 1:25.9, 1:25.9; 1:25.6. I was particularly happy that the times fell in line with the drying track and over the moon that my six-pot AP brakes refused to fade, even with repeated stops down from Bruntingthorpe’s lengthy straights. Next stop has to be a proper track day on a proper track to see if I can still be as consistent.

By Ben Barry


Zandvoort video - 14 April 2009

Here it is, the often-promised, long-delayed Zandvoort video. I should point out that this isn’t really a CAR Online thing, it’s something I do in my own spare time for kicks – and the video has been put together entirely by friends and family.


My long-suffering wife got thrown around in the car and stood in the cold to shoot it, Simon Ingram (deputy editor of Trail magazine down the corridor from us and singer in my band) spliced it all together and our lead guitarist Keith Moody (editor on some classic car rag or other) came up with the suitably gnarly soundtrack.

Essentially you’re watching a kind of best of compilation of my four visits to Zandvoort. On each occasion I’ve driven the car there from Peterborough (about 750 miles round trip) and taken part in the drift club morning session that runs on a lot of Saturdays through the winter. Great fun, great for learning car control. Enjoy.

By Ben Barry

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The M3 returns – 31 March 2009

I’ll have had my E36 for nine years this year, but this weekend I fell in love with it all over again. And to think I’d thought about selling it as a damaged/repairable after my shunt at Zandvoort. The man called Vanny I wrote about in an earlier update has sprayed the new right wing plus the new front panel, and he’s also re-aligned the front bumper – from the comfort of a small shed. While he was at it, he also removed the rear bumper and took out every bit of rust from the start of the rear arches and back to the rear valance. I asked for a five-yard job (ie it looks okay so long as you’re no closer than... yes, you get the idea), but I can’t spot the new paint with a magnifying glass – well, the bumper isn’t perfect, but that’s because I chose to bodge the damaged one rather than spend hundreds of pounds replacing it. So, how much for all that work? £350 – result! I was so excited to get it back that I instantly washed it (it’s spent its first winter outdoors in years) and applied a loving layer of wax.

To celebrate the return of my beloved M3, I took it straight to Oulton Park for a track day, therefore risking smashing it all up again. Thankfully I didn’t. I’ll post the write-up shortly.

By Ben Barry


Ouch - 12 March 2009

Work is progressing nicely on the E36 with all the panels now fitted, along with my spare headlights and orange – I’d upgraded to clears – indicators. The oil cooler has taken a little longer to source, however, and it’s looking like £200 plus for that part alone. Ouch!

Once the oil cooler is replaced, I’ll be driving the M3 back to Cumbria – where I grew up – where a man in a shed that I know only as Vanny will paint the new bits Avus Blue. He’s previously done work on my family’s cars at a very low cost and high standard, so it’s worth the 400-mile round trip for the hundreds it will save me. And who cares if a track rat isn’t perfect?

Oh, and that Zandvoort video I promised is still almost finished. Due any time now, I’m told.

By Ben Barry 


 

Woops - 28 January 2009

Uh-oh. I recently limped my car back to Kent from Zandvoort after a light interaction with a barrier at the Dutch circuit. I’ll do a full report soon, but it was a stressful trip. My baby daughter and wife followed in our family E46 and the weather was terrible: hail, snow, very heavy rain. We even got delayed by a day in Bruges on the way back when I felt uncomfortable making the family trawl through snow.

As for the accident? Well, I’d gone to Zandvoort for a drift day and had spent three hours sliding about in hail and rain when it all went wrong. I ended up following a car that was being very tentative. I should have simply backed off and let him get on with it, but instead I committed to a corner too slowly (slowly at Zandvoort is a relative term, mind), got it wrong and slid into the barrier at about 5mph. I smashed a headlight and indicator, damaged the kidney grille and moved the entire front bumper a couple of inches to the left.

The guys from Koopman Racing kindly performed a make-do repair (I didn’t mention I was from CAR until they’d helped me out and refused to accept payment). Unfortunately the shunt had damaged the oil cooler. We stayed on for a couple of days (couldn’t drag the family all that way just for a track day) and all seemed to be well, but I noticed a large pool of oil under the car when we got the P&O ferry back from Calais. The oil light flickered on when I set off, so I pulled over and called the AA.

I hitched a lift back in the E46 and dispatched the M3 to my mate Julian at Garage D in Watford. I’ll need a new oil cooler and grille section, and I want to replace the rotten front wing while we’re at it, but luckily I have spare headlights and indicators which should keep costs down. Julian also reckons the bumper might bodge back into place.

It’s going to be a costly weekend, but at least I’ve got a cool video that a friend is currently editing. The crash isn’t included sadly, but I’ll upload it as soon as I can.

By Ben Barry 


 

Long-term test hello - 1 January 2009

We get a lot of nice cars to drive here at CAR, yet still I hold onto to my ageing, slightly battle-scarred E36 BMW M3. Seems there’s no substitute for being able to thrash your own car absolutely senseless. And this car does love to be thrashed.

I bought it back in 2001 with a healthy 157,000 miles on the clock and a full BMW service history. It’s now done 213,000 on the same engine and ’box, neither of which have been opened. That’s even more surprising given that, at just under 190k, I transformed it into a trackday warrior. More on that later.

My car is the early 3.0-litre model. A few years back I bought the later 3.2-litre version and ran the pair back-to-back for six months, the idea being that I’d sell the 3.0-litre when I ran out of cash. I never did (sell the 3.0-litre, that is).

Why? The 3.0-litre engine is smoother, only marginally less powerful (286bhp plays a claimed 321bhp, though dyno tests apparently rarely back up the later car’s claimed bhp), and much stronger – thanks partly to the early car’s single VANOS (variable valve timing system on the inlet cam only) as opposed to the later car’s troublesome double VANOS. The five-speed gearbox is also smoother than the later six, while the early cars are obviously cheaper too.

So I kept the 3.0-litre. But it wasn’t perfect. The suspension was quite soft – good for ride quality, bad for ultimate poise. In fact, I found the car very tricky on the limit, offering masses of grip before letting go a bit too suddenly. What’s more, the brakes were mushy, and the steering was awful.

I set out to gradually improve these flaws, then, with predictable inevitability, got carried away. My first visit was to Birds UK, based in Uxbridge. They swapped the standard suspension for KW Variant 3 coilovers, and also fitted Hartge anti-roll bars and a Hartge strut brace. Naturally, the ride is a lot firmer now, but it’s not quite the compromise you’d expect: it’s still got an acceptable amount of compliance, while body roll is largely eliminated and – when tweaked to my spec – the threshold of grip is lowered to make breakaway more progressive, controllable and, well, enjoyable. The adjustable bump and rebound settings mean I could dial in more compliance if I used the car on road more.

The next step was to ditch the brakes. I went for – again via Birds – a six-piston AP set-up that is nothing short of phenomenal – my favourite mod on the entire car. Pedal feel is reassuringly solid and these brakes withstand lap after lap of huge stops from the fastest straights. Brilliant. Unfortunately, they also necessitated a switch to the rather tasty 18in BBS RX alloys, which I wrapped in 225/45 ZR18 Uniroyal Rainsport rubber – a very durable tyre that really does cut through standing water while also offering good traction in the dry.

And that’s when I started to get carried away. The black leather interior was all very well, but it was too slippery for track work, and it was heavy too. I stripped it out and sold it for £600 on eBay back in 2006. I also stripped all the boot and all the trim from the rear seat area. Then in went a pair of lightweight fixed Recaro buckets, followed by a bolt-in rollcage from Rollcentre Racing. Rollcentre hadn’t done an E36 before, but they took my car in, measured it up and bent the tubing to suit. From there I went to Julian Smith – a good friend and an extremely resourceful mechanic who runs Garage D in Watford. I got a call at 5am one Saturday morning saying the cage was in – he’d worked through the night to get it ready for a trackday that I thought I’d missed. My wife was delighted.

Since then I’ve been slowly trying to perfect the package. Birds junked the standard limited slip diff (25 percent lock-up), and upgraded it with a 45 percent job instead – purely because I enjoy doing smoky skids. When the clutch gave up I replaced it with an uprated item from AP, while Garage D had an ingenious solution to the steering. During my time with the 3.2-litre car I’d noticed its steering felt more positive. This was largely thanks to its altered – as standard – front suspension geometry. Garage D somehow knew that swapping the 3.0-litre strut tops for 3.2-litre items (but installed so the right one went where the left one should be, and vice versa) would give much the same effect. It does, though the steering is still a weak link.

And that’s how things stand for now. Seven years on and I still love climbing in this car. It’s been to trackdays in Britain (Snetterton, Silverstone, Rockingham), Ireland (Mondello), Germany (the Nurburgring) and Holland (Zandvoort). Yes, it’s slightly ratty, but my M3’s got character and it’s full of memories too – in the rare moments I clear it out I find A-Z maps of Amsterdam, passes for the Nordschleife, parking fines from Bruges.

I have another trip planned to Zandvoort soon, so I’ll give you a full update when I’m back.

By Ben Barry