BMW’s centenary isn’t the only nice round number associated with the brand this year.
Closer to home, it’s 50 years since the firm first raced in the British Saloon Car Championship – forerunner to the British Touring Car Championship and the class of racing in which the German car maker is on the cusp of its 100th victory.
How convenient, then, that we find ourselves at Silverstone to learn some more about BMW’s past and present racing machines, some of which you can see this weekend at the Silverstone Classic meeting and in particular on the special Tin Top Sunday-themed touring car day.
The BMW 3.0 CSL ‘Batmobile’ made BMW famous here in the 1970s, but the first touring car contender to come to the UK from Munich was the 2000 ti, which arrived in 1966 and was driven by Keith Greene in the British Saloon Car Championship.
The 2000 it soon gave way to the better-known 2002 tii, which you can see pictured here.
Mike Norman Smith of one2one Motorsport now specialises in restoring them. “More and more people want to restore and race them,” he says. “The balance of them is unbelievable, a super little car. Not a lot would live with them.”
Neither the 2002 tii nor the 2000 ti was ever a race winner in the British Saloon Car Championship. That first victory came in 1973, when Brian ‘Yogi’ Muir took the chequered flag at Silverstone in a 3.0 CSL, a car a young Steve Soper, arguably BMW’s most famous touring car driver, remembers watching as a boy.
BMW had to wait until 1988 for its first championship victory, which came with Frank Sytner in an M3. But the class system that ran in the British Saloon Car Championship and then the BTCC (as it became in 1987) often prevented the overall front-runners from taking the title. Even Soper was, surprisingly, never a BTCC champion.
“They were a fantastic manufacturer to drive for,” Soper recalls of his 11-year career at BMW, during which he raced in championships all over the world, including at Le Mans. “They demanded a lot from you, but they made you feel appreciated. If you crashed, they didn’t care, as long as you won a few races. They always produced great cars no matter what.”
The M3 is a fondly remembered car, winning the BTCC again in 1991, this time with Will Hoy. The car here is a 1990 example, prepared by Prodrive and raced at a time when manufacturer competition was both healthy and expensive.
There was a clamour among privateers to race the M3, such was its prodigiousness. Nick Whale raced one at the time and has recently hunted down his M3 from the time and had it restored.
“It was the car to have,” he says. “It was a homologation special with everything optimised for racing: the wheelbase, dimensions, brakes, ride height. M cars were hand-built by BMW Motorsport back then. They were reliable and bulletproof.”
Reliable and bulletproof until the drivers got involved, that is. In 1992 Soper was involved in one of the most famous incidents in BTCC history when he clashed with John Cleland at Silverstone. If you haven’t seen it, look for it on YouTube now…
“It was bad news at the time,” says Soper. “But, good or bad, it has gone down in the history books.”
The next year BMW threw everything at the BTCC after a fallout with its native DTM touring car series in Germany, and Soper lined up alongside German Jo Winkelhock.
“It was regarded as my championship,” says Soper. “But he beat me fair and square. The team was confused; it was a German team and manufacturer but in Britain and with a British driver. I wanted an advantage but I didn’t have one. But BMW still won anyway…”
That was BMW’s last title of the Super Touring era. The firm pulled out of the BTCC at the end of 1996, but a decade or so later 3 Series and then 1 Series models were again regular features of BTCC grids. Colin Turkington won titles in 2009 and 2014.
Pictured below is the 2016 BMW 125i M Sport of Rob Collard, who has raced BMWs since 2008. What does he see as the enduring appeal of BMW in the BTCC? He smiles: “I love racing BMWs because they’re rearwheel drive. They give you feedback as a racer; after all, F1 and sportscars are also rear-wheel drive…”
BMW is now just five wins away from a century in the BTCC, with 15 races to go this year. Few would bet against it hitting the 100 mark in its centenary year, with BMW drivers Collard and Sam Tordoff currently first and second in the standings going into the mid-season break. Here’s to the next 100.