BMW has returned to the American Le Mans Series in 2009 with a pair of V8- powered M3 GTRs. Fielded by Rahal Letterman Racing in conjunction with BMW North America and built in Munich, Germany, the cars will compete in the production-based GT2 ...
BMW has returned to the American Le Mans Series in 2009 with a pair of V8- powered M3 GTRs. Fielded by Rahal Letterman Racing in conjunction with BMW North America and built in Munich, Germany, the cars will compete in the production-based GT2 class of the ALMS, which includes several Porsche 911 RSRs, a couple of Ferrari 430 GTs, an Aston Martin, a Ford GT-R, a Panoz Esperante, and, after the 24 Hours of Le Mans in June, the factory-backed Corvettes. Bill Auberlen and Joey Hand will share one car and Dirk Muller and Tommy Milner will drive the other one.
Choosing to partner with a team best known for its open wheel prowess may seem risky, but Bobby Rahal has always had a passion for sports car racing and is a former winner of both the 12 Hours of Sebring and the 24 Hours of Daytona - in addition to his Indy 500 win and three CART championships. Plus, the Rahal Letterman team contested the entire 2007 ALMS schedule in anticipation of its partnership with BMW. "Two years ago, we entered with a (Porsche) 997 RSR and to a large extent that was to allow us the time to become acquainted with the series, the officials, the whole nature of how these events unfold, because obviously we had not actually competed in it," explained Rahal. "But all of our engineers have been involved in road racing. So we looked at 2007 as sort of our primer year to get our basics down and foundation built, with the view that this program would come to reality, which it now as it has."
During preseason testing, the Rahal Letterman team focused primarily on developing the cars' dampers and ride characteristics. But despite all of that testing, Auberlen only managed to qualify seventh in class for the 57th running of the 12 Hours of Sebring - about a second and a half behind the pole sitting Porsche of Wolf Henzler. And Muller will start last in the 28-car field after suffering a prop shaft failure during qualifying.
But Rahal is not too worried about the team's performance in qualifying, which admittedly does not matter much in a 12-hour race. "Yesterday we had an issue with Dirk Muller's car," said Rahal. "But it's a new car. Some of the . . . other cars (in our class) are pretty well-developed. To expect us to be immediately the fastest is perhaps a little unrealistic, particularly at a place like this. My goal is to finish. That may seem a little underwhelming, but this is a very difficult race for a brand new car that has never been run in anger.
"We don't know where we add up but I think the Ferrari's and Porsches are a bit quicker. But I think we have to focus on ourselves and see where we end up. To expect the car to be immediately on the pace might be a big expectation . . . . While we would like to be (on the pace), I think we have to be realistic."
BMW last raced in the ALMS in 2006, with a V8-powered M3. Prior to that, the company raced a V12-powered prototype sports car between 1999 and 2001, winning Le Mans and Sebring in 1999. During that time, the prototype effort was run in tandem with BMW's Formula 1 program. But as Formula 1 began to require more and more of the company's resources and with the return of the U.S. Grand Prix in Indianapolis, BMW opted to discontinue its prototype program because it felt that it did not need to race in both the ALMS and Formula 1 in the U.S., according to BMW Motorsport Director, Dr. Mario Theissen. BMW continued to race in the GT2 class of the ALMS until 2006, when it withdrew to focus all of its efforts on Formula 1.
"In the years after that, our North American colleagues told us that we needed to be here with production cars," explained Theissen. "And on top of that Formula 1 was pulled last year. And so there was a certain need for doing something for the American market again. Based on our own exciting experience in 2001, we really jumped on the project of doing a new M3 and I am very happy to see this car here for the first time now in America."
Theissen says the company chose to compete in the GT2 class rather than the top prototype class because that is was what its customers wanted. "When we came over (to the U.S.) with the V12 Le Mans winner in 1999, our North American colleagues said it is great that you are here with a Le Mans winner but what really counts for our customers is the M3," said Theissen. "They want to see their own car on the race track. So we started to develop the M3 GTR. And the response was even better than when we raced the Le Mans prototype."
However, instead of building a car that could only be raced by a factory team, BMW focused on building a car that could eventually become a customer car. "We have always tried to set up a racing program in a way that the car that is designed and developed in Munich can be raced in a number of series - not just in one place," said Theissen. "And this is very difficult with Le Mans prototypes. They are mainly built for just one race. And then you try to do something else with them. But basically it's just focused on Le Mans itself. And that's not what we wanted to do."
So additional cars may find their way on to the ALMS grid in the future, but this weekend all eyes will be on the Rahal Letterman team and its new M3s.