Inside BMW M Division: a guided tour with new boss Markus Flasch

Published: 26 August 2019

► A tour deep inside BMW M Division
► Cuppa with new boss Markus Flasch
► High-performance photos by Sam Chick

Few car brands deploy a single letter with such devastating impact as M. Can you think of a character more laden with meaning to those of a performance-car persuasion? We’re not sure we can. Which is why there’s a palpable excitement as the new head of BMW M GmbH opens a branded shutter to usher CAR deep inside his Munich headquarters, with all the gusto and guile of Willy Wonka throwing open the doors to his inner sweet shop.

We’re standing outside a rainswept, nondescript factory building in the Garching district, north of the city, to meet Markus Flasch for his first major interview since taking over last October. He’s bristling with energy, sharp intellect and power in the way that high-flying board members do, but there’s a frisson of passion too. ‘I knew from a young age that I loved BMWs and especially the fast ones,’ he observes. ‘This was a little tricky since my father was a Mercedes-Benz man, but he’s slowly coming round. He even asked me about the X5 recently…’

Flasch may have his work cut out persuading his dad to swap allegiance from three-pointed star to blue-and-white propeller, but the numbers show that more and more customers around the world are buying into the fast M philosophy. Sales have risen every year for the past decade and 100,000 M cars found buyers in 2018; sales so far this year suggest that figure could inflate by a fifth again. Not shabby when you consider that total worldwide sales for Jaguar came to 181,000 last year.

But it’s not all sales records and tyre-shredding burn-outs. The new boss has a lot of challenges to face, and has inherited some controversy. Those steroidal Porsche-slaying SUVs, for starters. The transition to turbocharging, all-wheel drive, watered-down M Performance models, even – whisper it – electrification… is there no sacred cow that M won’t slay in the name of growth? As the shutter rattles open to reveal M’s deepest secrets within, I realise we’re in for a rather special day.

Markus Flasch guards the gates to BMW M Division

But first to the Tyrolean foothills, 90 minutes south of Munich. A vivid blue saloon squats low as the driver brakes from a big number, eight-speed auto cog-swapping in a frenzy as paddles tap out an automotive Morse code, vast spinning ceramic brake discs grabbed by six pistons to arrest speed, microchips shuttling drive back and forth to the tyres with the most grip. The two-tonne four-door hunkers down as a comically rude exhaust pops and bangs like a farty F-Type’s, its staccato bark scaring blackbirds from their slumber in nearby poppy fields. Then the V8 timbre rises as the M5 rockets down the deserted country lane, a blurry blue smear disappearing into the distance.

We asked the nice Mr Flasch for a go in his latest M5 Competition as a bellweather of modern M before our guided tour. Purely for research, you understand. For here is a car with it all: twin turbos breathing on a 4395cc V8, a monstrous 617bhp and 553lb ft delivered to all four wheels, and enough luxury gadgets to engage teenagers for weeks. It’s a far cry from the very first E28 M5 of 1984, all 278bhp of it, a blueprinted straight-six sending 251lb ft through a simple five-speed manual ’box and just the two driven wheels. Oh halcyon days! The purity of early M cars! And yet the newcomer still thrills with remarkable candour, taking much of the original recipe and fast-forwarding through 35 years of technological catch-up. 

Modern super-saloons pose a dilemma for purists. By adding layer upon layer of tech excess, something of the E28’s purity is surely lost, or so the thinking goes. It’s turned from a lithe, delicate sprinter into a muscle-bound bruiser in a flash suit. Debating whether to blame the engineering department for a just-add-more mentality or the marketing team for chasing executive excess is a moot point, but the M5 has certainly transformed into something bigger, bulkier and more business-like. For some, the power wars have spiralled out of control and the purer pleasures of driving have been cast aside.

BMW M5

Yet for that twisting ribbon of asphalt, in that moment of physics-defying M magic, I’m struck by how wonderfully it all gels. You’re aware of the extra mass, and it never feels light and compact (you’ll need an M2, if that’s your thing), but the M5’s range of abilities is extraordinary nonetheless. It proves as civilised as a limo at an autobahn cruise, M mode swapped for Comfort, the now purring V8 a distant hum, adaptive suspension soaking up the occasional ruts and lumps from carefully manicured Teutonic bitumen. The leather-lined interior is as pampering as you could ever want and yet the saloon’s outer extremities shrink around you when you spear off the motorway into more challenging mountain switchbacks. Outright speed and thump-in-the-back acceleration are a given (0-62mph takes 3.3 seconds), but the degree of handling precision and composure on kinked back roads is impressive.

We turn around and head for Munich to meet the mastermind of modern M, howling V8 baritone still ringing in our ears. The A99 autobahn is behaving as we loop east of the city and return to that remarkably run-of-the-mill business district, chuckling at the headquarters’ Daimlerstraße address name-checking BMW’s greatest rival.

We’re surprised to see Flasch pull up in a shiny new Toyota Supra, co-developed with BMW. ‘Please don’t photograph this,’ he asks before quashing rumours of an M version of its Z4 cousin (‘Have you seen how quick the Z4 40i is? There was no real point in going the extra mile and implementing a new engine in the Z4…’). And with that, he strides purposefully into the M Studio, a warehouse tucked away out the back where he talks us through his vision for the brand.

Flasch, 38, has enjoyed a meteoric rise up the corporate ladder and joins M at a pivotal time in the division’s evolution. ‘If I consider my stint in BMW M to be a four-year term, which is typical of BMW management, it’s all about leading M into the future,’ he says. ‘This means electrification of course, this will be the biggest change. We do not have to be first for the sake of technology, but we have to be very careful to preserve what M stands for.’ Should fans be braced for fully electric M cars? ‘We are working on all types of electrification, whether it’s 48-volt systems, full hybrids or battery-electric vehicles – all of these concepts are on the shelf at the BMW Group. We can grab from this shelf whatever we like.’

Markus Flasch (left), new boss of BMW M, shows Tim Pollard (right) round the M5

The to-do list is long and complex, then, but Flasch is adamant that even an electrified M car must stay true to the brand’s roots. (Our intel suggests a 500kW – 660bhp – electric motor is reserved for M’s use next decade, with plug-in models including the recently shown Vision M Next concept – an M1 successor – boasting up to 60 miles of e-range.) ‘The ultimate driving experience is all about precision, agility and dynamics. None of these have to change, just because there is a battery involved. We know we need to be careful. I will only go to the next step when the technology is ready.’ He acknowledges that outright acceleration is a given in all EVs, and that BMW will have to balance the instant punch of an electric motor with even sharper handling and dynamic prowess. ‘It’s not just longitudinal performance, it’s more than that – it’s about handling and how it makes you feel.’

We stroll into the M Studio and are greeted by a motley collection of combustion-engined cars reflecting the diversity of the business. There are a couple of personalised BMWs from the Individual Manufaktur tailoring service – a reminder that they’ll paint your 7-series in a colour to match your pet tortoise’s underbelly, should you wish. Drawers of paint samples pull out to reveal 600 different shades; off-the-shelf colours can cost £5000, but the wackier hues can reach 10 times that. One customer caught BMW off guard when he asked if they’d trim his X6 M in salmon-skin leather.

BMW Individual paint schemes: a boggling choice

‘It was a bit of a nightmare to develop but we managed to get it right,’ muses Flasch. ‘We had to use 100 salmon skins and once they were tanned they didn’t smell at all.’ But if you thought a salmon-lined SUV was a leap too far, wait until you see what’s tucked away in the corner of the studio: recently deceased design legend Karl Lagerfeld’s own 7-series (badged the L7 in his honour, not the early ’90s grunge band). It’s distended by a 10-inch stretch over the already long-wheelbase L and dripping with yuppy excess, including a built-in fax machine, chauffeur-style glass partition and a built-in tissue dispenser by the back seats. As Flasch and I settle in among the scatter cushions, I can only imagine what this rear bench witnessed in daily use.

Nestling next to the L7 is a rather more brutal kind of M. It’s a one-off experimental E31 M8 from the 1990s reworked with BMW’s Le Mans endurance racing V12 that also powered the fabled McLaren F1, explains Flasch. Stripped out in the name of weight-saving, it sports a pair of rugged carbonfibre race seats, air vents galore and a very serious-looking set of wheels and track rubber. ‘It’s very different from the new M8 [over the page],’ he admits. ‘But there is no contradiction in the performance and luxuriousness that the new M8 will offer. This is something that you will see more of in M. I honestly do not think there is a conflict here: look at the Aston Martin DB11 – it’s a classic GT car.

‘But we will also build more cars with the pure spirit of M, typically the smaller cars that we offer like the M2. You’ve seen our Competition models, our GTS version of the M4, the CS of the M3 and M4; these are what we call Sondermodelle [special editions]. We will do more of these – and we will think about extending it beyond just the coupes, too.’

I ask whether M has stayed true to its roots in recent years. The go-faster SUVs, in particular, have riled enthusiasts, but Flasch fires back that the best-selling M car globally last year was a crossover, the outgoing X3 M40.

The eleventh commandment: BMW M and rear-wheel drive are a marriage made in heaven

‘Look, I am more of a coupe and sports car driver, I never really drove SUVs much before,’ he admits. ‘But the M approach to SUVs is that we are trying to transport the feeling you get in an M3 or M4 to the first floor. It was the goal when we developed the new X3 and X4 M. We didn’t want to do the M version of an X3, we wanted to do an M3 in an SUV appearance. The reason for that is quite logical. Not everyone can drive an M3. If you live in an area with bad roads or if you are a mountain biker or snowboarder or if you need the room and have two or more kids – it would work in an M3, but it’s much easier in an SUV body.’

Purists can rest easy that there remains a long list of fast, familiar M-badged sports saloons and coupes in the pipeline. ‘We have never launched as many new products as we are in 2019: we showed the X3 M and X4 M at April’s Shanghai motor show, later in the year we will launch the M8 in three variants, and at the end of 2019 there will be the X5 and X6 M.’

One of the heartland M cars, the M3, is being prepped for a 2020 launch and Flasch hints it will be zestier than today’s flatulent-sounding model, which has always lived in the shadow of its V8-powered predecessor.

‘The next BMW M3 will have the brand new S58 engine that we’re launching in the X3 M and X4 M,’ he reveals. ‘It will have 480hp in the standard version and 510hp in the Competition version. ‘Drivetrain-wise, think about the M5’s all-wheel-drive system – we are able to put it in the M3 as well. It’ll be very similar. But we will also do rear-wheel drive cars, purer ones too and a manual stick shift.’ 

BMW M5 Competition: cutting-edge current M Division

Don’t go expecting an M3 Touring any time soon, however. ‘Touring estates are not part of our M plan. If I asked customers in Austria, Switzerland or Germany they would probably give it the thumbs-up, but we are a global company and we have so many things to deal with on the powertrain side that we don’t go into products like this. This is what the SUVs are for.’

An earlier rogue M3 Touring built by engineers in their own time is used as a service car to transport tyres around the facility, looking impossibly cool with its wicked wagon stance.

It’s heartening to hear that M’s heroes remain core to the strategy in these carbon-crunched times. Flasch’s engineers have their own CO2 targets to hit and the pressure to reduce emissions is the reason future M cars will soon be electrified in some form. But they know they have to keep a steady supply of drivers’ cars coming, and the boss confirms to CAR that there’ll be a successor to our favourite small sporting Beemer. ‘The M2 is very strong for me – it has a very big fan community, it distils the M genes into the crispest possible package and it works out very well. We will repeat it in the next generation.’ 

It’s late on a Friday and we see some of the 800 staff leaving for the weekend, many wearing M-branded clothing. ‘I lead a team of enthusiasts, of competitive people,’ says Flasch. ‘Every one of them wants to see our cars winning in magazine group tests. It’s different to leading a company that makes fridges.’

Markus Flasch, head of BMW M, and Tim Pollard, photographed by Sam Chick

Do they still have time to muck around and create rogue M2 pick-ups and madcap M5 convertibles? ‘This can still happen today, but the truth is that this type of project is becoming harder and harder to realise. My dream M car is my own Z3 M Coupe. It too was a “submarine” project in BMW. Not everyone wanted it, so it was developed in an unconventional way. I’m friends with one of the previous presidents of engineering, Burkard Goeschel, and he tells me the lengths they had to go to develop that car. It was quite a secret operation!’

I somehow doubt sleeper projects like the Z3 M Coupe would cut it in today’s more corporate environment. BMW has enough work on its hands electrifying, connecting and automating its cars, without being distracted by rogue skunkworks in Garching. Yet as our interview draws to a close and the cleaners move in, I realise that what M really needs is to return to its roots. It needs a successor to the original M1, developed off the grid.

‘There are no supercars that we’re working on right now,’ Flasch retorts. ‘But the idea of a supercar is something of course that sticks in the mind of any BMW engineer, especially M engineers. We are constantly reviewing it. Not working on such a project, but reviewing. I wouldn’t rule it out.’

A proper, out-and-out hero sports car, an M1 reborn? Now that’d be worth burning the midnight oil for. 

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By Tim Pollard

Editorial director of CAR's digital publishing arm. Motoring news magnet

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