Fun Stuff

BMW M Driver’s Thermal Training Experience

“Whoa, whoa, whoa… whooooooooooa!!!”

The instructor behind me is half laughing, half admonishing me. The M3 underneath me has broken loose and is currently performing a graceful pirouette. A saner man would brake, stop, and then continue. But I have chosen a different path.

When in doubt, power out.

My right foot drops hard on the accelerator and ignites the rear tires. Its 444 hp and 406 lb-ft of torque flood through the drivetrain and explode into a cloud of tire smoke. I turn the 2017 BMW M3 on the throttle and drive it sideways back to the “entrance” of the skid pad – the whole time pretending I did it all on purpose.

The next time my sideways adventure goes pear-shaped my instructor knocks the lever over into neutral. “Our new tire shipment doesn’t get here until next week,” he says.

Skid pads are fun. BMWs are fun. Putting them together is less an addition and more a multiplication, especially with BMW’s M models. It’s fun squared. Fun to the power of fun.

We’re at the BMW Performance Driving School in Palm Springs, California, for the Thermal M Driver’s Package Training Experience. Open only to M drivers, these are the sort of “money can’t buy” experiences that BMW makes available for its customers, and I’ve been embedded among them for a glimpse into their lifestyle.

I say “money can’t buy” but that’s not entirely accurate. In 2017, M owners will have access to the program for $2,085 – but you must be an M customer.

The men and women in the room with me all have that one thing in common. Each of them has forked out well over $120,000 to get what BMW likes to claim is the “ultimate driving experience”.

One is an obstetrician from Alberta. There’s a pair of M-owning IT entrepreneurs and a family of pharmacists with an X6M. Another is one of the few buyers of the 2017 BMW M5 Competition Package – and he’s also the owner of a non-BMW chain of dealerships.

These people don’t just buy the car. They buy into the entire M ideology.

This Thermal M Driver’s Package Training Experience is somewhat of a pilot program right now, so there’s no pay-to-play here yet. These drivers have not been charged to join the program – though they are responsible for getting themselves to Palm Springs. The only way in is to be entrenched in the M community.

There is also me. A lowly automotive journalist embedded here to get a taste of how BMW customers are earned, and kept.

We’re to sample some basic autocross, a small handling course, a skid pad, a lane-change exercise and laps around the world-class Thermal race track with guidance from instructors.

As a side bonus, I get to experience the M2, M3, M4 and M5 all in one setting, back to back. First though: school.

BMW Performance Driver Training School

This particular BMW Performance Driver Training School is situated within the grounds of the Thermal Club in Palm Springs. There is another one in Spartanburg, South Carolina, and it’s rumoured one will open soon in Victoria, British Columbia.

The centre features acres of smooth asphalt for setting up various cone-course exercises and testing launch control, a skid pad, a multi-configuration mini racetrack complete with timing loops and a corporate event facility. There are also classroom facilities and a viewing balcony. Naturally, there is also a gift shop filled with BMW and M-branded products.

Part of BMW’s agreement with the Thermal Club includes access to the main racetrack – a proper national-level circuit complete with a partly covered NASCAR/IndyCar-spec pit lane and world-class safety features.

The Thermal Club

Thermal “Private Pavement” is a membership-based private racetrack. There is 8.1 km worth of track when the two main circuits are joined, and a third phase is being built as we speak. The track can be run in 19 configurations and features villas that overlook key corners. The villas are not hotel rooms – you can buy one and live there. They are houses!

The track itself is fast, with two distinct loops: North Palm and South Palm – the third loop under construction will be named Desert Palm. There is a mix of long, difficult, fast corners, lengthy straights and flowing esses. There is even, despite the desert environment, a fair amount of elevation change. The result is a challenging and educational circuit that gives drivers a taste of tighter, technical sections, conventional “stop and turn” corners and rhythmic complexes.


The instructors here are all professional drivers with racing backgrounds. Some are still racing, some used to race. Chief instructor for our group is Robert Stahp.

He starts the day with theory: seating position, vision, that sort of thing.

The theory soon gives way to action though, and before long we’re behind the wheel warming up on a short cone course, practicing the hand-over-hand steering technique that Robert has taught us. I was previously a shuffler, and Robert admits he was too. But this way is better.

The hand-over-hand technique makes you more aware of exactly where the gorgeous BMW M2 steering wheel is in its lock travel at any point in time – a characteristic I soon find immensely helpful on the skid pad.

Skids, Yo!

With no water, the polished concrete of the BMW M Performance School’s skid pad is variable in its grip levels and warrants close attention. No sooner do I think I’ve got the hang of drifting the M3 around the pad then I’m caught out. After 270 degrees worth of continuous sideways motion around the circle I get tripped up by a change in grip and can’t catch up to the wheel in time. Whoops! I’m now facing the wrong way and feeling humbled.

That same mistake happens repeatedly until the instructor asks me why I’ve forgotten the hand-over-hand lesson. Next circuit I am once again tripped up by the drop in adhesion in the same place, but this time catch up to the car using hand-over-hand. Had he let me go again I might have gotten it right. But he didn’t. Something about the torture that the M3 combined with my right foot is doling out to the Continental tires….

Big Track Time

Out on the big track, we’re in M4s but we’re not going fast – yet. Instead we’re stopping at key moments on the track to talk about the right line, and how weight transfer will dictate the best way through the undulating esses. Reference is made to BMW’s much-hyped 50:50 weight balance, and how that helps manage the way the car rotates in the turns. Is it marketing speak? Not really: the BMWs we’re in really do transfer their weight in a predictable way, making them easy to push to the outer edges of their grip levels.

This circuit is well-suited to the BMW M4 (and M3 for that matter), which bundles a ton of horsepower and agile chassis into an imposing yet compelling package. Stomping hard on the brakes with Dynamic + mode turned on generates a healthy dose of squirm, before we ease out of the brakes, letting the M4 settle and turn hard right into turn one. A little curb is absorbed smartly by the adaptive suspension and the M4 changes direction smoothly before embarking on a g-force-laden sojourn through the carousel.

Mild throttle modulation changes the attack angle of the car, shifting weight front and rearward depending on the direction of pedal movement. The back starts to walk towards oversteer, talking to me as it goes so I always know where it’s at. As long as I’m smooth, the M4 will dance between oversteer and understeer in an entirely predictable way, and my co-driver will feel confident and perhaps even impressed in my abilities.

If only I was smooth.

Lane Change Exercise

If we’re honest, the lane change exercise is little more than revenge against cones, set up to demonstrate the advantages of using performance skills learned in this school on the road in emergency situations.

It’s a little bit like putting lettuce in your double-bacon cheeseburger – it’s good for you, see!

Winner Winner – Chicken Dinnner

“It would be wrong to bring you guys all out here, teach you all these things and then leave not knowing who’s fastest,” says Robert Stahp, Chief Instructor.

Earlier in the day we’d hustled the diminutive 2017 BMW M2 around one section of the centre’s smaller circuit. The narrow, tight and technical little track is perfect for tossing the M2 about. It gives a great read of the car’s balance and agility, and there is a good mix of corner types that require concentration and commitment. The variable grip levels add to the encounter too. The challenge is to launch off the line, into a chicane, through a long, closing radius hairpin, through some esses and a rhythm section and then stop in a stop box.

Dropping wheels or blowing through the stop box all trigger penalties, and the pressure is ratcheted up courtesy of a big red timing board.

The M2 scoots off the line and we all learn that there is no point pre-loading the throttle as traction control causes the engine to bog. Instead, a big hard stab at the pedal results in linear and powerful acceleration.

Turning left and then quickly right again causes the M2 to pivot sharply on its front wheels and a little opposite lock is required to catch the thing and flick it right-left again out of the bus-stop-style chicane. I’m in manual mode and soon find myself hard on the limiter – this is a true manual mode. If you don’t shift, neither does the dual-clutch gearbox.

On my second run, I flick the gear stick left again and select automatic mode. Over six runs I alternate between the two and while manual mode is more fun, automatic mode is consistently faster. In fact, my best time is three-tenths of a second better in automatic mode than it is in manual mode.

My best time is also, much to my surprise and pleasure, one-and-a-half-tenths faster than the next-best driver, giving me the “win”.

There are some handshakes and some wry smiles, and even a small “trophy” with “1st” written on it. I’m feeling pretty smug until I realize – these guys are going home to their own M cars.

I wonder how many will swap their current M for an M2….