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The best of both worlds collided at Phillip Island for a day to remember

If I am forced to ride pillion in a car, or whatever the correct term is, I like to do it looking out the driver’s side window as we drift sideways. As a motorcyclist, the relatively secure feeling of sliding in a car, as opposed to a motorcycle, is more fun than I care to admit. The fact the nose of the BMW M3 we were sideways in was poised over the ripple-strip grass as we lofted over Lukey Heights at Phillip Island was a bit concerning, but our pilot seemed non-plussed. It was just another day for him. Not for me. It was one of the best days ever…

The whole reason I was there, AMCN the only motorcycling media outlet to be so, was to celebrate the coming together of the car-focussed M brand with BMW’s motorcycling division, Motorrad.

It makes sense for BMW’s insanely capable four wheelers to team up with the two-wheeled fleet, too, because similarly minded people enjoy them. This was proven with the amped customers and handful of journos who turned up to the day, which was designed to allow us to scare ourselves stupid on one of the world’s best racetracks, on and in a selection of flash BMWs, as well as turn ourselves inside out on the skid pan, pilot the cars ourselves with tuition included, then have our head on the two-wheeled fleet, of which there was plenty of options, with tuition as well. What’s not to like?

Driving a car around a race track is very different to riding a bike, and not just ’cos you don’t lean them over. Lines, braking abilities and stability are all very different beasts in a four wheeler, and it takes some getting used to.

As soon as you start steering a car, you need to be easing right off the brakes or the thing just understeers itself to the outside of the track, while you sit there waiting for all the tyre squealing to stop.

Instead, braking hard in a straight line, then easing off the brakes to allow the inherent stability of the four wheeler to coast you around the corner can be better. Different corners, different techniques of course, but the concept of being entirely out of the throttle or brakes for the first section of a corner is a hard one for me to deal with. At first.

We were lined up behind a driving instructor, a little bemused that I would be left essentially to my own devices in a $150K BMW M4, and headed out on track. Nestled in the armrest was a two-way, which we were clearly instructed not to use as a two-way – that thing was there for me to listen and listen only. The instructor ahead had his beady eyes on our every move via his mirrors and we weren’t allowed to pass him, so he set the pace. The more you lunched your front rubber, the slower he would go. And vice versa. Simple.

My first mistake was Southern Loop, one corner into our first lap – I tried to trail brake deep into it, but cars really don’t like that. I heard all about it via the two-way. Goddammit.

I’d soon forgotten all about that, because I had 550-odd newton-metres of torque firing me down the hill to Stoner corner and, not needing to brake thanks to botching the corner before, I couldn’t believe the feel I was getting through the wheel as those four fat tyres bit into the Phillip Island hotmix and kept me on line for the slow, tight right-hand Turn Four. My heart was in my mouth as I flew past my motorcycling braking point and then mashed the pedal to the floor. Then my eyeballs were on the windscreen. I love braking late on a motorcycle, but the way a car squats and stops is beyond what most two wheelers can, despite the weight penalty. There’s so much rubber and so much brake hardware, the M4 simply wipes off the pace, then get off the brakes and turn the wheel. ’Round she goes!

You need so much patience on corner entry in a car, you really need to get the braking done and then feed it in all settled so you can get on the gas. It’s a bit different to my hyperactive efforts on a motorcycle.

Once I had my head around that, all I could think of was how different Phillip Island looks like sitting bolt upright… And just how a car makes some aspects of getting around a racetrack easier, but some others harder. I am really not sure how a bog stock road car can travel so quickly corner to corner, but that M4 was a real eye opener.

I have owned a BMW Alpina before, and it handled great, but it didn’t have the sheer punch and manners of this thing. It feels uncrashable – when all the driving aides are turned on, anyway… Heading to the skid pan proved otherwise.

By the time we got to the skid pan, this time armed with short, punchy M2 road cars, a healthy rivalry was developing between the car journos and the lone bike guy. They could all ride bikes, too, but I was determined to prove any car guy is a bit lame compared to us bona fide bike riders. This did not start well.

The M2 is a stumpy powerhouse and, with the traction control turned off and lack of skill at the tiller, likes to turn the world into a washing machine – around and around it goes… The goal was to start and hold a drift on a wet skid pan around a witches hat, then steadily build to a full-opposite-lock, 360-degree navigation of a single witches hat. It was my chance to shine.

The pressure was on, because the car journo I was paired with nailed it first go, smooth as silk. It was hard, because the cars have all that grunt at the rear wheels and with a body used to twisting throttles, not pushing pedals, I had been hopelessly out of the ballpark in the practice. Simply because I was trying too hard.

To hammer home my ineptitude, a small crowd had formed to hand out ridicule – BMW’s Nigel Harvey, ASBK racer Glenn Allerton, Stunt legend Lukey Luke and the photographer Dean Walters were all class, handing out unwanted advice, erupting in laughter as I spun again and again, really aggressively and totally lacking in finesse. Bastards.

Finally, my big moment arrived. Practice was over and, with the radio squawking advice in my ear, while my passenger Justin gently teased, I took a softly, softly approach and… nailed it! The M2 slid to full lock, or thereabouts, and with a combination of luck, determination and an excellent car responding well to my class-less inputs, I completed a sideways lap of the cone and slid out, pumping the air. I turned to my derisive crowd and… crickets. They had gone.

I never did repeat the feat, in fact getting worse and worse at it, confirming my beginner’s luck status, but I don’t care. Justin knew I did it. The instructor knew. I knew. I’ll take that.

From the skid pan was lunch, and then an instructional classroom session from the California Superbike School fellas, basically on how not to turn ourselves into a snowball around one of the world’s fastest racetracks.

We had a range of options to do so, including the S 1000 RR, R 1250 GS, S 10000 R nakedbike and so on. Climbing aboard a S 1000 RR, I had to remind myself I now had less grip, more power to weight and needed to revert to my motorcycling brain to make it all work.

The contrast between being all leathered up, sitting on an engine with two wheels, and the cosy confines of the car, could not have been more keenly felt at that point. While the weather was good, there was a stout wind blowing across the track and the first trip to top gear down the straight had me thinking fondly of how relaxed the same, slightly slower situation was in the car. The car was certainly a more relaxed place to be when you miss a braking spot, too, which I did first run and momentarily forgot which part of the track I wanted to actually be on, as opposed to looking at from a distance…

It didn’t take long to remember, though, and while I really enjoyed the security and insane corner speeds and braking abilities of the M-badged Beemers, the sheer adrenalin of flapping off the bars of a 190hp sportsbike is hard to beat.

BMW also had a police bike there for testing purposes. It’s not every day you arrive on the sight I did, though. Approaching Turn Four, there was the police bike, lights and sirens on, hammering full noise with Lukey Luke and Glenn Allerton in hot pursuit. It was like landing in the middle of a motorised Benny Hill film. I rode in the group for a while, simply because you just don’t get to do that stuff very often, then passed the big girl and took off, for the same reason. It was hard to concentrate when laughing so hard.

Despite the hilarity, my favourite session of the day, each riding session interspersed by a classroom session with Steve Brouggy, was on the R 1250 GS. One of my favourite bikes, due to its versatility, the thrill of dragging a knee on a stock-tyred Adventure bike, that could have been ridden straight from Phillip Island and back to NSW off-road is one to remember.

No, it’s not built for lapping a racetrack, but it does it well. This was the same bike we had used for our Adventure bike comparo last year, and here I was braking deep into MG before dropping it on my knee and driving out. So much fun. And impressive.

As the day drew to a close, BMW had one more thing for us journos and customers. Hot laps in an M3, a white hot 317kW/550Nm road car with all the poise and electronics of a performance car that’s been developed for years, was always going to be amazing, but the level to which things got was truly amazing. Honestly, laps in even a really fast road car can be a bit boring for motorcycle riders, and I’ve certainly spent time bored in the passenger seat of a car. This wasn’t to be the case…

From the moment we left pit lane, the instructor and M3 were on the noise, and the terrifying entry speed into turn one, with four people in the car and a braking point well after most motorcycles, not to mention a ripple strip destroying cornering line, and the squirmy feeling the car took on the gas, was exhilarating. As much fun as a bike? No, but I am always going to say that. But given the reduced risk to such antics, found myself enjoying different aspects of a lap of Phillip Island. It was so good.

And then the instructor threw it sideways. Full lock sideways. Proper drifting sideways. Southern Loop one long, long, sideways corner, all of us looking out the closest driver side window, and laughing our heads off. The instructor made it look easy, but I knew from the skid pan it wasn’t. The sideways action continued all lap, the super fast Hayshed included, but easily the best bit was levitating over Lukey Heights.

On full lock already, the car’s nose seemed just above the grass inside the ripple strip over the blind corner, washing off speed down the hill, before gracefully swapping trajectory to the right for the tight and slow MG, then full lock the other way again for Turn 11, all the way into pit lane entry. Amazeballs.

Apparently some customers had been yelling slow down before realising it was all under control and on purpose – their eyes had been opened in ways they never thought possible. For a jaded motorcycle rider, it was brilliant. And making me wish I could afford one of those things. 

The M meets Motorrad concept is a good one. Not many can pilot bikes the same level as they can cars, or vice versa, but if you love motor-inspired hilarity, then a customer day which includes tuition and the chance to sample some incredible machinery will appeal. Contact your local BMW dealer for the lowdown.

It’s the best day ever.