‘I was spooked by BMW’s hot coupe in California’

Laguna Seca was a letdown but at Mondello the M2 revealed itself as a dream car

 

Last year, lucky old me, I got to drive the BMW M2 coupe. Luckier still, I got to drive it at the legendary Laguna Seca Raceway in California, just up the road from Clint Eastwood’s old hang-out of Carmel.

That combination should have been perfect. A small, agile, fast BMW M-car on the famed racetrack with the amazing ‘Corkscrew’ corner – a left-right flick on a gradient that drops you four storeys in the blink of an eye. Petrolhead heaven, right?

Well, wrong. At least wrong for me. I came away demoralised and a touch depressed. All my colleagues, people whose opinions I trust and respect, were raving about the racy M2, but me? I was frightened after driving it on track. It wasn’t the Corkscrew – the Corkscrew is amazing – it was Turn One. A tight, almost hairpin-left, approached at the end of the ultra-fast pit straight, Turn One turned my stomach. Just in the 10th of a second in which I lifted my foot from the accelerator to plant it on the brake, approaching Turn One, running more or less flat out, the M2 rode over a crest in the tarmac.

Rollercoaster

The combination of weight transfer under a lifted throttle, and the sudden vertical movement in the suspension made the M2 suddenly feel like a runaway rollercoaster, and I just wanted to run away. I had, clearly, reached the limits not of the car, but of my talent. I had failed to tame the Munich beast.

About a year later, at last , there came another opportunity to try it again – an invite from BMW to Mondello Park racetrack just outside Naas, to sample both the new 5 Series and grab a couple of hot laps in an M2. The M2 still loomed large as a personal nemesis, but at least at Mondello I’d be on familiar ground. I’ve driven everything from an Audi R8 V10 to a VW Polo diesel around Mondello, and while I’m no Jackie Stewart, I at least know where the track goes. And where the crests are.

The M2 is not quite what you think it is. Yes, it’s a small, gorgeous German coupe with a firecracker engine (assuming firecrackers now come with kiloton power ratings) and a fun-loving (or terror inducing, we’re about to find out) chassis. But it’s actually neither as small nor as light as you think it is.

Best of the Ms?

The BMW 2 Series and the BMW 4 Series coupes share a lot of their underpinnings (and both, of course, share much with both the 1 Series and 3 Series ), but the M2 and the M4 are more closely related still. In fact, you can think of an M2 as a 2 Series body on a chopped 4 Series chassis. The M2, at 365hp, is certainly powerful, but it’s 60hp down on the M4 (the two cars use effectively the same turbocharged 3.0-litre straight-six in differing states of tune) but it’s no lighter – the difference between the two cars is a mere two kilograms.

And yet the M2 does feel more nippy, more aggressive, more agile. It is shorter, but perhaps this is some form of nominative determinism, only with styling rather than names. The M4 is bigger and, arguably, grander, so you expect it to be more sophisticated and a little less outright fun than the M2, and so it proves.

All of this comparative wittering is, of course, intended to give me a chance to dry my palms on the fabric of my jeans as the M2’s engine ticks over with mounting aggression in the Mondello pitlane. It’s time. Destiny or doom, all I can do now is drive.

Judgment time

I trickle out of the pitlane, sticking to the 60kmh limit up to the edge of the Armco barrier and then squeeze the throttle down. The M2 leaps forward, its 1,570kg eradicated by the physics of exploding dinosaurs, a gruff growl rising to a more soulful howl as you hit the limiter in seconds just as the braking zone for turn one – yes, it’s a tight almost-hairpin – arrives. Brake. Turn. And . . . and . . . and . . .

And it’s brilliant. With no crest to disturb the process.

Now though, a sterner test arrives. I accelerate hard up to turn three, exploring the upper reaches of fourth gear, the M2 adding pace in big, meaty chunks all the way. Three is a double-apex left, with a dab-brakes-and-turn fast approach, before slowing, hooking second and then climbing up slightly to the apex of the second section. Here, the M2 should feel nervous and twitchy, if Laguna-spec-me is in charge. But no, it grips and turns and holds the line I ask of it, the power dipping slightly at the apex as the traction control adds a helping hand. This is going OK, actually.

Final exam

A final test. A full run of the front straight means that we arrive back at turn one with full speed showing, clamping hard onto the brakes at the 100-metre board, and flipping the left-hand paddle to pull the DC-T gearbox down into second.

Here then, braking hard for a tight turn from a high speed, is where it’ll all go, right? Again, the M2 turns in beautifully, with a hint of playfulness, and easily clips the apex of turn one. The steering is weighty and communicative, the brakes tireless, the balance tuned to give you a gentle push of understeer at first, which can be dialled out with throttle. Hairy slides are there for the taking if you dare to turn off the electronic nannies.

Hang on then. Maybe I’m not quite so useless as I thought? Maybe it was just that Laguna is a scary circuit? Maybe I was jet-lagged? Maybe I had a bad day?

Maybe I don’t care anymore. The sun is shining, the M2 is driving like the dream car everyone told me it was, and Mondello Park looks great on a rare sunny day. I think I’ll try a lap with the traction control turned off . . .

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