Last February at the Chicago Auto Show, BMW unveiled an ambitious program that had the German automaker making a welcome return to the American Le Mans Series. It's hard to imagine a year has almost passed since the announcement, but BMW Rahal Letterman Racing now gears up for the car's debut at the Twelve Hours of Sebring.
The sights and sounds of the brand-new BMW M3 going through its paces at Sebring International Raceway this week is a welcome sight, especially in the current economic crisis. While nearly every facet of motorsports is in the midst of budget cuts and rethinks, BMW has soldiered ahead with its ALMS plans, something team co-owner Bobby Rahal has been proud of.
"The strength of BMW's commitment to North American motorsport, and the market itself, is really exemplified by this program," Rahal said. "Because we all know the economic climate is not the best by a long shot out there, and yet their commitment to this program remains while others have withdrawn, not just here but around the world. I think that speaks volumes for BMW's commitment to this."
For the first time, the team rolled out its first race chassis following an extensive test program in Europe by BMW Motorsport and two previous tests by Rahal Letterman at Road Atlanta and Sebring. All four of the 2009 factory drivers, Bill Auberlen, Joey Hand, Dirk Muller and Tommy Milner, took turns at the wheel of the V8-powered beast, as preparations continue for the car's debut race.
Rahal Letterman Racing is no stranger to sportscar racing, though, having competed in the 2007 ALMS season with a Porsche 911 GT3 RSR. Milner and co-driver Ralf Kelleners scored four podiums in the final five races of that year. While the team concentrated on its IndyCar program last season, the hope was always to return to the ALMS.
"One of the reasons we did the Porsche program several years ago was a little bit in anticipation, even though we didn't have an agreement at the time," Rahal said. "I felt it was important for us to dip our toe in the water in preparation in case something did happen with BMW."
There have been many innovations on the new M3, including a lightweight carbon fiber roof, a climate-controlled air conditioning system inside the cockpit, as well as power steering that activates only while cornering. Thus, the ALMS provides a perfect test bed for the German manufacturer to develop new and exciting technological advancements.
BMW had originally filed the M3 to be homologated under the series' GT2S category, mainly used for sedan-like sportscars. However, it would put the car ineligible to run in Europe, including the ACO-sanctioned Le Mans Series and 24 Hours of Le Mans. As it stands now, the homologation process is not yet finalized, but the M3 has already had its final inspection, with the verdict expected in the next few days.
"I think our goal is to continually develop the car as the season goes on," Rahal said. "First and foremost to make it reliable, which so far, knock on wood, it's showing to be. Like anything, we can always be better, no matter what you get. BMW Motorsport has done a very nice job. Our people have worked with them over the course of the summertime. I think we're pretty happy where it's at, but we have to continue to push.
The fight for the GT2 crown in 2009 should be the most competitive yet, with legitimate challenges coming from at least four manufacturers. Porsche and Ferrari return with updated versions of its cars, while Corvette Racing with its new C6.R will enter the fray in the second half of the season. Privateer efforts like Panoz Team PTG could throw up a wrench as well, all making for what will surely be an epic fight.
"Porsche is not going to stand lightly by, nor is Ferrari nor is Corvette," Rahal said. "I think the real challenge is going to be the Corvette because the obviously are a extremely good team. This category is so competitive that I think the necessity for ongoing development is going to be imperative."