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Driving the Le Mans BMW M1

I normally don’t rub shoulders with royalty and other artistocrats, but the annual Goodwood Festival of Speed is a rare exception. Not only do I know the Duke of Richmond who organizes this event, but sometimes I meet other famous individuals, too…

When the friendly folks at BMW Classic told me I would share a car at the Festival with Leopold Prinz von Bayern, a hugely experienced professional racing driver who happens to be a Bavarian prince, I was a bit speechless for a while. And the car we were sharing was also special, the 1981 group 4 BMW M1 which the prince drove at the Le Mans 24 hour race, wearing, after a thorough restoration, its original Bavarian livery, complete with Munich landmarks, including my personal favorite, a “Metzgerei” (butcher’s shop).

The M1 was never really successful at Le Mans, partly due to its higher weight compared to its competitors (1130 kg), a lower power output (470 hp) and repetitive reliability issues. For instance, this particular car retired from the race in 1981 after around seven hours with a crankshaft damper failure. This problem was an Achilles’ heel of the M1 when this model was used in competition, and could lead to catastrophic engine failure. Added to that were problems with the gearbox (transmissions had to be rebuilt during pit stops as the ACO rules at that time precluded gearbox replacements) and the clutch (bleeding and/or replacement had to be performed several times during the race).

However today I am not expecting any trouble, as not only will I run at high speed for less than a minute, but also I am determined to escape the wrath of the Prince I would be certain to incur should I bust anything on his car. He uses it to give fast demo runs to VIP guests at DTM race meetings. I familiarize myself with the cockpit, and a problem immediately looms. I don’t fit. I am big and fat, and my HANS-equipped helmet won’t clear the rollcage next to my head. A quick problem-solving session with the very helpful BMW Classic mechanics, and I get a brainwave: we rip out the Velcro-attached padding from the seat. All of it. I have to sit on the hard seat bottom shell, but so what. At least the stewards won’t have a reason to exclude me for safety reasons.

The only time you can get used to the clutch action, steering and the engine characteristics at Goodwood is during the drive from the paddock to the assembly area, and then to the start. That’s it. Experience helps, but despite the short run it is very easy to have a big crash. Would be a shame. The car feels taut and fresh, the engine is new, and I am running wets on the M1, as conventional racing slicks don’t work at the Festival (no time to warm up, plus a dusty surface, special hillclimb tires are necessary for really quick runs). Normally there is a long wait at the start, but this time, probably for the first time since I started driving at Goodwood in 2010, everything proceeds smoothly. But when I inch forward to place the nose of the car right over the line of bricks implanted in the Duke’s tarmac, and brought from Indianapolis, disaster strikes. The lights go red, and the marshals indicate I should stay put: there has been an accident, and the route has to be cleared. Waiting is difficult, but I resign myself to my fate: getting irritated might force me to make some stupid mistake.

After a while, the marshals get some sort of message over their headphones, and they tell me to go! I manage to judge the clutch and gas pedal interplay perfectly, and launch the car with almost no wheelspin and no stall. Up through the gears, into turn one, accelerating, into third for turn two, two wheels over the dirt, no time to think, just a quick corrective jab at the wheel. The steering, very heavy at a standstill, has a fluid, linear quality at speed which I also love in the roadgoing M1. Over the bumpy stretch in front of Goodwood House, brake early for the Molecomb corner, then past the scary flint wall and into the two blind corners. Past the finish line, job done.

The car felt really good on the way up the hill. In 1981, with the Porsches and the Ferraris faster and more reliable, it must have been tough for the BMW drivers. In those days the Circuit de la Sarthe was not choked by the chicanes added later, and a lot of the results were down to the sheer bravery of the drivers and their hard-won skill. Driving this very special car at Goodwood was just fun, no pressure (well, maybe a bit), and it brought me a little closer to experiencing what the original drivers felt while racing it in France. Having delivered the car back to the paddock, I report to the Prince (for some reason I can’t resist sounding military) that his car is intact. He says “thank you” and smiles a quick smile while the mechanics replace the padding in the seat for his next run. I look back at the Munich-liveried wedge. It was good for me, M1.