Back in 2001, BMW decided to take on Porsche once and for all. The stage was the American Le Mans series; an endurance racing competition run to the same rules as the annual 24 hours event.
BMW had found the E46 M3 to be outgunned by the performance of the Porsche 911 GT3-RS. The standard fit 3.2 litre straight-six in the M3 lacked the power to rival the rear-engined Stuttgart racer. To address this, BMW developed a brand new 4 litre, 500hp, V8 engine. The fact they didn’t sell a V8 M3 was a mere technicality; the ALMS rules were so loosely worded it wasn’t important. Of greater significance was a race car which looked as awesome as this:
Run by the Schnitzer Motorsport and PTG teams, the GTR had the metal to back up its looks. Winning its class in 7 of the 10 ALMS rounds for that year, along with the championship, the GTR was dominant in 2001. So successful that Porsche complained; they claimed the M3 was not “in the spirit” of GT racing when a road-car equivalent could not be bought. To counter, BMW offered 10 road versions for sale €250,000 after the season had ended. The street version was detuned, and lacked the visual clout of the racer along with its flame spitting side-exhausts:
For the 2002 season the rules were changed. BMW would need to sell 100 cars and 1000 units of the V8 engine; an unrealistic proposition. The Munich team withdrew, allowing Porsche to return to winning their GT title without competition. Until 2010 at least, when BMW returned with that same V8 engine in the new E90 M3 GTR. As the M3 road car was now a V8, they were truly within the “spirit of’ GT racing. Consecutive BMW titles in 2010 and 2011 must make Porsche wish they had kept quiet a decade earlier.
The E90 GTR may now be legitimate, but the E46 will always be more special for pushing GT racing to the limit of its rules. It also happens to be one of my favourite racing cars of recent years.