BMW has a rich heritage in touring car racing, and from 1987 through to the end of 1991, the BMW M3 was their car of choice in the BTCC. The car was a formidable machine, and it notched up titles in 1988 and 1991 before being replaced by the BMW 318is ahead of the 1992 season. One of BMW’s flagship cars to this day, I looked back at the history of the BMW M3 in the BTCC in this edition of BTCC History.
A high-performance version of the BMW 3 Series, the BMW M3 spans five generations from 1986–2018 with the E30 M3 being the first, introduced in 1996. A sixth-generation is planned for launch in 2021. Produced between 1986 and 1991, the first-generation BMW M3 was produced mainly in the coupe body style, with a few convertible variants also produced. The Sedan shape didn’t become part of BMW’s M3 range until 1994 with the E36 generation M3.
The E30 M3 was one of the most iconic and most talked about cars of the late ’80s and early ’90s and a staple of touring car racing around the world. As well as winning in the BTCC, the M3 won titles in the World (1987), European (1987 & 1988), Italian (1987, 1988, 1990 & 1991) and DTM (1987 & 1989) touring car championships as well as competing in the World Rally Championship and winning the Irish Tarmac Rally Championship in 1990.
1987 Group A BMW M3 – Factory Specifications
Engine: BMW S14 4 in-line
Bore and stroke: 84,0 x 94,0
Size: 2332 cc
Cams: 2 OHC
Valves per cilinder: 4
Power: 300 HP/8000rpm
Transmission: Getrag 5-speed
Weight: 960 kg
Brakes: disc front and rear
Wheels: 9 x 16 / 9 x 16
The BMW M3 In The BTCC
1987 – A Promising Debut
The BMW M3 made its BTCC debut in July 1987 at Silverstone in the hands of Frank Sytner in a car run by Banbury-based Prodrive. Founded in 1984 with a background primarily in rally cars, Sytner’s appearance at Silverstone marked Prodrive’s first appearance in the BTCC. The team would go on to become one of the top touring car outfits of the 1990s and run the famous Ford Mondeo cars to the title in 2000.
Sytner and the BMW M3 entered just five out of the twelve rounds of the 1987 season in Class B, the 2001cc-2500cc class. The car’s potential was clear from the moment it hit the track as Sytner won his class (and finished 3rd overall) in the car’s first race. In addition to his victory on the M3’s debut at Silverstone, Sytner would go on to win twice more, both times at Donington Park and despite missing half the season would end the year 11th in the overall standings and 3rd in class.
Three class wins and two DNFs in the BMW M3’s opening five races highlighted the potential of the car in the BTCC, and that would be realised by others with a growing BMW M3 presence on the grid for 1988.
1988 – First Title Win
Four BMW M3’s graced the BTCC grid in 1998 as Prodrive entered two cars in a semi-works effort and John Maguire Racing and Demon Tweaks each ran a car apiece. Sytner ran a full season in one of the Prodrive cars, whilst the second car was shared between Mike Smith (rounds 1-11), James Weaver (round 12) and Will Hoy (round 13). A third Prodrive BMW M3 did make an appearance for five rounds in the final third of the season, and driving duties of that car were shared between Weaver, Hoy and Lionel Abbott.
The other two privately run BMW M3s equally saw driving duties shared between several drivers. Godfrey Hall was the primary driver in the John Maguire Racing M3, and he was joined by David Sears for the final round of the season. But Alan Minshaw, Roland Ratzenberger and Chris Hodgetts all shared the Demon Tweaks car throughout the year. Hodgetts had won the BSCC/BTCC title for the three years previous, Ratzenberger was on his way to a career as an F1 driver which would be tragically cut short on that fateful weekend at Imola in 1994 and Minshaw had founded Motorsport retailer Demon Tweaks in 1973.
With very little competition in Class B, the BMW M3 was the class winner in every single race of 1988 as Frank Sytner won both the Class B and overall BTCC title. Sytner’s record was immense, as he finished first in class 11 out of 12 times, the only time he failed to win Class B was when Ratzenberger won at Thruxton.
Sytner would end the season 1st on 103 points, five points ahead of the Toyota Corolla FX GT of Phill Dowsett. Godfrey Hall would finish 4th overall and 2nd in Class B and Mike Smith finished 5th overall and 3rd in Class B as the BMW M3s reigned supreme in the BTCC. The car had made its mark in only it’s second season in British touring car racing, but more success was to come.
1989 – Popularity Among Runners Grows In Class B
The majority of the 1989 grid was comprised of the Class A Ford Sierra RS500s leaving little no competition for the BMW M3 in Class B. Prodrive continued their two-car effort, now with backing from BMW Finance running James Weaver and defending champion Sytner. Demon Tweaks made occasional appearances fielding James Kaye (round 1), Barrie Williams (round 7) and Alan Minshaw (rounds 11-12) with the rest of the BMW M3 contingent made up independent runners who whilst trying valiantly, failed to test the Prodrive pair. John Maguire Racing ran John Clark and Godfrey Hall who both appeared for the majority of the season, Ian Forrest and John Llewellyn ran full campaigns and Swede Nettan Lindgren also appeared for the majority of the season.
Prodrive dominated Class B in their BMW Team Finance M3s as James Weaver won his class 12 out of 13 times, with the other class victory coming courtesy of Sytner at Thruxton. The Class A RS500s were the fastest cars in the field, but the overall BTCC title battle came down to two drivers, John Cleland in the Class C Vauxhall Astra and James Weaver in the BMW M3. John Cleland was the eventual champion, and he finished the season on 110 points, just one point ahead of Weaver. The next BMW M3 finished 6th in the overall standings and 2nd in Class B and was Weaver’s Prodrive teammate Sytner. John Llewellyn finished 3rd in class and equal 9th in the overall standings.
It was a year dominated in class terms by the BMW M3, and the car came within one point of securing the overall title for the second year in a row. However, the BTCC was changing and the car would face stiffer competition the following year.
1990 – A Transitional BTCC Year
1990 was a year of transition for the BTCC as the series moved from a four-class to a two-class structure in anticipation of a single class for 1991. Classes C and D were abolished, with just Class A (for Group A touring cars over 3000cc) and Class B for two-litre touring cars, the cars which would go on to form the basis of Super Touring cars. The BMW M3 contingent faced a range of new opposition including the Vauxhall Cavalier and Belmont, Ford Sierra Sapphire, Mitsubishi Starion and Honda Civic but in terms of numbers, the M3 was still the dominant Class B car on the grid. Class A would be entirely composed of Ford Sierra RS500 entries.
Frank Sytner was once again one of BMW’s primary drivers, as he remained behind the wheel of the Prodrive BMW Team Finance entry. He was joined in the second car by a combination of Kelvin Burt, Tim Sugden and Kurt Luby during the season. Ecosse Motorsport ran a two-car effort consisting of Ian Forrest being joined by an array of drivers in the second car. Hugh Chalmers would complete the most rounds (six) out of any of the second drivers for Ecosse Motorsport.
BRR Motorsport, Pyramid Motorsport, Arquati Racing Team, BMW Team Sweden and Vic Lee Motorsport would also run the BMW M3 in 1990 for either a full or partial campaign. The late David Leslie would make an appearance in round 12 at Thruxton in the Pyramid Motorsport car, and Jeff Alam drove the Vic Lee Motorsport car in the same year he finished 2nd alongside Paul Radisich at Bathurst in an RS500.
In terms of the 1990 title race, Rob Gravett won the overall BTCC title from Class A, but Frank Sytner finished the season in 2nd as the top BMW M3 and Class B driver. Sytner finished 27 points behind Gravett and 52 points ahead of his nearest Class B competitor John Cleland. Sytner’s BMW M3 finished first in class five times compared to Cleland’s four, and the BMW M3 won its class on nine out of 13 occasions.
It had been a dominant year the M3 in the BTCC’s final year of a two-class system. It’s performance and speed in the two-litre touring class boded well for the onset of Super Touring regulations the following year.
1991 – A Second Title For The BMW M3
After a transitional 1990, 1991 saw the onset of Super Touring regulations and a single-class system arrived in the BTCC. Previous cars which ran to Class A regulations were still allowed to compete, but only if they had been restricted to run to the speeds of numbers of the new regulations.
The BMW M3 was once again a common sight on the grid, with both manufacturer representation and a healthy privateer contingent. Six works M3’s competed as factory entries, with Prodrive continuing to run a two-car team under the BMW Team Finance moniker and Vic Lee Racing running two, two-car entries, BMW Team Labatt’s and BMW Team Listerine.
In the Prodrive cars, Jonathan Palmer ran a full campaign in car #22 and was joined by Steve Soper, Tim Sugden and Christian Danner in the second car throughout the season. Tim Harvey ran a full season in the BMW Team Labatt’s car #4 alongside Lawrence Bristow, who was replaced for round 12 of the season by Armin Hahne. In the BMW Team Listerine entries, Will Hoy and Ray Bellm both ran the full 15-race campaign.
In the Independent class, there was an array of drivers driving the M3, most notably Frank Sytner who left Prodrive and joined Pyramid Motorsport to run the majority of the season in car #2. He was joined at the team throughout the season by David Leslie, Matt Neal, Alistair Fenwick and Godfrey Hall who would all complete one round each. BMW Team Sweden returned with Nettan Lindgren and Peggen Andersson behind the wheel for the opening half of the year, and Drambuie Racing, BRR Motorsport and Tech-Speed Motorsport would complete the BMW M3 representation.
The season would be a fantastic one for the BMW M3, as the car won eight out of 15 races, taking BMW Team Listerine’s Will Hoy to the overall driver’s title. Hoy finished on three race wins and 155 points, beating Vauxhall’s John Cleland who finished on 132. The pair had engaged in an intense season-long battle, but Hoy’s double-victory in the first two races of the season set him up for a campaign leading from the front. Steve Soper would finish in 4th in another BMW M3 despite racing in only nine out of 15 races and Ray Bellm finished 5th in other BMW Team Listerine car to make it three BMW M3s in the top five. Frank Sytner would finish as the highest-placed Independent BMW M3 runner and in 12th in the overall standings.
The M3 helped BMW take victory in the manufacturer’s championship, too. The combined six-car factory effort saw the marque finish on 134 points to Vauxhall’s 116, and win the first manufacturers title since of the new Super-Touring era.
1992 & The End Of The Line For The BMW M3 In The BTCC
The 1992 season saw BMW replace the M3 with the BMW 318is. The M3’s run as a factory-supported BTCC car was over although the car did continue to feature in the privateer’s category in the hands of Matt Neal, Lawrence Bristow, Ian Forrest, Sean Walker, Karl Jones, Ian Flux, Guy Povey and Alistair Lyall. Matt Neal took the M3 to within three points of winning the 1992 privateer’s championship with Sean Walker finishing five points behind Neal in third.
For 1993 the BMW M3 appeared just twice, both times as a Peggen Motorsport-run Swedish entry with Peggen Andersson behind the wheel. Andersson would fail to finish either of the two races he entered and by 1994 the car had been completely replaced by the BMW 318is in the BTCC.
The BMW M3 was one of the defining cars of the late ’80s and early ’90s in the BTCC. In it’s four full seasons as a factory or semi-works-backed entry the car won the title twice, in 1988 and 1991 and was a consistent race winner and competitor throughout. BMW have, and are continuing to enjoy a resurgence in the BTCC in the late 2010s with the 1 Series and now the 3 Series, but the M3 was one of the cars which sealed the brand’s legendary status in the BTCC and remains one of the series’ most iconic machines.