BMW’s high-performance driver school won’t just make you a better driver, it’s also tremendous fun on one of the world’s prettiest race tracks
Phillip Island, Australia – What’s the most bang-for-your buck performance upgrade you can ever buy?
The answer is not ‘A more powerful car’, since more performance without the know-how to use it is like giving a fish a bicycle.
CarBuyer’s answer is always two things: Better tyres or advanced driving classes.
The former is self-explanatory, and the latter is the evolutionary process that allows a any old flounder to become a four-wheeled flyer.
‘BMW Driving Experiences’ is the brand’s term for this. As seen on its European site, you could learn anything from being a better everyday driver, to snow driving, and even piloting a proper racecar on the famed Nurburgring Nordschleife.
Closer to home, BMW also offers similar experiences at its driving centre in Korea which Ju-Len describes this as ‘a place the size of 33 football fields and has six driving areas where BMW orgies happen.’ As they do.
Those looking for more adventure and less tarmac thrills can even do safari drives, like the one Ju-Len did in South Africa. Motorcycle riders aren’t neglected either, as it offers track and off-road training in Germany, and Enduro Park Thailand.
It’s not just K-Pop and Eurovision though, as we took part in BMW driver training in Australia – this is held at Phillip Island (shown here) or Eastern Creek (near Sydney) depending on the date.
We attended the ‘BMW Advance 2 Driving Experience’, which is the higher level course. Just like in driving school, it caters to different levels of skill, this one requires that you take the Advance 1 driving course beforehand.
Advance 1 and 2 are each a full-day courses, but if you’re visiting Australia you can do it over the span of two days. Advance 1 is an introduction to high-performance driving, and Advance 2 takes this all a step further.
With the BMW M2 coupe, M3 sedan and M4 coupe (in the latest Competition variants) as our tuition cars, there’s certainly a level of challenge involved here – but the rewards and results are quite tangible.
Advanced driving classes always kick off with theory, so you can understand why you’re doing it, and how things work. That’s important because as you push the performance envelope, the physics of high performance driving are counterintuitive compared to normal driving.
We learnt about the traction circle, apexes and lines, weight shift dynamics, what safety electronics do, and more – in other words topics a proper, thorough high-performance driving course should always cover.
What we found extra useful was an emphasis on vision, smoothness, and the correct mindset, very important things not all advanced driving classes include (see box).
As lead instructor Derek Walls told the class: “We don’t expect you to go faster by the end of the day, we expect you to go smoother – and that generally translates to more pace.”
For instance, one of the basics of steering is to push the steering. That is, if you’re taking a left-handed corner, you should initiate the turn with your right hand pushing up, rather than left hand pulling down.
But we finally found out exactly why: If your shoulder is in contact with the backrest, as it should be, pushing stabilises your body, while pulling leverages your body away from the backrest.
As any professional knows, it’s all the small details that add up to make the difference between mediocrity and excellence, and this course does give you a big leg up on that.
Lesson: How to go through a turn if you come in too hot
Fun Factor: 2/5
Pucker Factor: 4/5
This lesson is valuable, but you need to overcome a mental block of simply driving into a turn faster than you otherwise would, which sounds very easy on paper but is hard to do because of a small thing called ‘self-preservation instinct’. What it does teach you is how to control the car if you run into a corner too hot – slam on the brakes, ABS helps you, then you ease the brakes a little to regain directional control to remain on the tarmac.
Lesson: How to control the car when the rear steps out under power
Fun Factor: 5/5
Pucker Factor: 3/5
A damp corner, big throttle, and DSC Off in an M3 means the car’s tail steps out – this lesson teaches you how to control that by fast corrections to the steering and the proper direction of your vision. Very useful tool to have in a driver’s skill box, but easier to learn on a damp skidpad rather than a single corner.
Lesson: Learning finesse in a brutal M car
Fun Factor: 4/5
Pucker Factor: 1/5
The finesse motorsport we all know and love – easy to learn but hard to master, even more so if you’re driving a grunty M car with more than 400hp. But it only shows that smoothness rules all when it comes to driving, and it’s possible to finesse an M3 around a tight gymkhana circuit.
Lesson: How not to shit yourself when learning Phillip Island Circuit
Fun Factor: 5/5
Pucker Factor: 4/5
Phillip Island is a very fast, flowing circuit with no corners taken at less than third gear in the M cars we used. It’s made more daunting by the fact that you often can’t see into the next apex and the lines are complex and compound – there are no obvious 90-degree ‘simple’ corners for instance. But it’s an immensely enjoyable track to drive fast once you get it right and the instructors know this place well (having done more than 50,000 laps here). By following their expert lead and advice, you soon become a little faster, and less terrified of this challenging racetrack, and more comfortable at very high cornering speeds.
“What I want you to do is to drive towards that corner at a speed where you think probably won’t make it,” our instructor says over the radio. He sounds absolutely calm, like he’s talking about the weather.
“Ok fine but it’s your BMW M3, not mine!” I think. This is the setup for the E-brake in a turn exercise (see above). It’s an example of the sort of “What the hell!” type of reaction some of the practical lessons will evince, and it’s prime evidence that you’re pushing boundaries and learning in the process.
Tying all of the lessons together though, it the best part of the whole course: Taking guided laps around the magnificent Phillip Island Grand Prix Circuit (PIGPC). Most race tracks are situated in the middle of a whole lot of nothing (Sepang immediately comes to mind) but PIGPC really is one of the most beautiful racing locales in the world.
Rolling hills, native Australian wildlife, surrounded by blue sea all around, you can imagine Thor’s Asgardians settling down here.
The trick here is to ignore all of that, because if your gaze stops to admire the scenery, you’ll become it.
Pretty as it is, PIGPC is honestly, a slightly terrifying circuit not just because it has a very high average speed, but also because it has stomach-lurching crests and elevations, and is far less wide that a modern (boring) F1 circuit.
But as mentioned, being led by the instructors takes a lot of the danger out (simply because you don’t have to find it yourself!) and by the end of the lap sessions in all three M cars, we’re going quicker and a little more confident of the tarmac rollercoaster that is Phillip Island.
But we’re also thrilled by the combination of machine, the locale, and the joy of being a bit further along in the skills department and the end of the day, the AUD2.2k course fees are really quite reasonable.
The chance to drive BMW M cars very fast? You’d have to buy one to do that. Doing laps of Phillip Island circuit? Not expensive, but not exactly easy to come by for Singaporeans.
The accomplishment and knowledge that you can handle a car better than ever? Priceless.
Cost: AUD2,200 (course fees, exclusive of airfare, lodging etc)
Location: Phillip Island Grand Prix Circuit