Learning Curves

Learning Curves

Auto writer Steve Siler gets schooled in the 600-horsepower M5 at the BMW Performance Center in Thermal.

Steve Siler Current PSL, Shopping

Learning Curves
With the V-8 at full throttle, the M5 shoots forward, pressing the driver into his seatback until he stabs the brakes.
PHOTOGRAPHS BY FAB FERNANDEZ

111 East

CAR CULTURE

If Turns 2 and 3 of the South Palm Circuit at the Thermal Club were on a public road, the posted speed limit might be 35 mph. We charge toward it at 115.

The tight right-hander leading into an even tighter, decreasing-radius right-hander joined a right kink that passes so quickly it has no number itself; the sequence technically could be considered three turns and encompasses 200 degrees of total directional change. Ordinary drivers in ordinary cars moving at ordinary speeds might steer three different times to get through it. But Adam Seaman, instructor lead at the BMW Performance Driving School at the Thermal Club, is no ordinary driver. And our Marina Bay Blue 2018 BMW M5 is no ordinary car.

The inebriating song of the M5’s 600-hp V-8 at full throttle has filled the cabin, and my body has been pressed into the seatback since Turn 1 before a hard stab of the powerful carbon ceramic brakes shifts most of its 4,370-pound weight from the rear wheels to the fronts and my body forward into the seatbelt. The fat front tires  press into the asphalt, amplifying the effect of any steering wheel movements while lightening the load on the rears as if a Peterbilt-sized helium balloon were tied onto the trunk. We’re still well above legal highway speeds when Seaman tugs the wheel to the right, directing the nose starboard toward the apex while the rear end, now more under the influence of centripetal force than gravity, gradually breaks loose, rotating the car even more. Seaman jumps back on the gas and steers hard to the left, catching the M5’s rotation before we pirouette into the sand. We remain over-rotated by about 45–60 degrees — a classic drift angle — passing Turn 2’s apex cone within kissing distance of the right corner of the bumper.

BMW Helmets
“I don’t know many cars
that will do a third-gear
all-wheel-drive drift right
off the showroom floor.”Adam Seaman, Instructor, BMW Performance Driving School

For the next several seconds, the M5 claws for grip like a wet dog being chased around the corner on a freshly waxed floor as Seaman maintains the drift angle with measured adjustments to the throttle and counter-steering angle. White smoke billows from the wheel wells as we enter the decreasing-radius Turn 3, where the track tightens around us. But Seaman’s eyes focus 500 feet down the next straightaway on Turn 4. With the drift having pointed the M5 at the entry point of Turn 4 even before passing the apex of Turn 3, Seaman pours on the power and unwinds the wheel as we sweep past the apex cone of Turn 3, cajoling all 600 horses underhood into an unbridled charge onto the straightaway.

“That’s pretty impressive,” Seaman says calmly as the engine sound floods the cabin once again. “I don’t know many cars that will do a third-gear all-wheel-drive drift right off the showroom floor.”

Yeah, and I know few drivers I’d trust to attempt one while I was riding shotgun. But drifting has been one of the Georgia native’s specialties long before he became a full-time instructor at BMW’s first Performance Driving School in Greer, South Carolina, in 2009. And after witnessing him dispense with three corners in one elegant move — sideways — I can say it shows. Then we hear the voice of our photographer, Fab Fernandez, through the two-way radio nestled in the cupholder: “Could you do it again?”

“Copy that.”

And so we went around again … and again … and again, shredding the fat Continentals and painting that quarter-mile stretch of the South Palm Circuit with arcs of black rubber. I could have ridden along all day, except that drifting was not what I came to do. Nor was it anything I necessarily wanted our photographer shooting, given that drifting isn’t part of the curriculum here. But Seaman can include drifting instruction in one-on-one sessions with advanced drivers.

BMW Track

An experienced driver, the author would have to break two bad habits: not looking far enough ahead into corners and shuffling the steering wheel in his hands when it might be better to keep a firm grip on the rim.

BMW M5

For a few seconds after being over-rotated in a classic drift angle, the agile BMW M5, the author describes, “clawed for a grip like a wet dog being chased around the corner on a freshly polished floor.”

I spent much of the rest of that day being given “lead-follow” instruction in that same blue M5 — shod with new tires, thank you. It was a constant attempt to stay within three car lengths of the Alpine white 2018 M5 with which Seaman showed me the most stable (and hence the fastest) line around the South Palm Circuit’s 10 corners, providing feedback via two-way radio.

As an advanced driver, I could find and follow a good racing line and understand how to work with the physics of weight transfer during acceleration, braking, and turning. My challenges involved undoing bad habits: not looking far enough ahead in corners and shuffling the steering wheel through my hands in turns when it might be better to keep a firm grip on the rim. As Seaman pointed out during our many laps, these tendencies often left me diving into corners too early or late, exiting corners too slowly or a few degrees wide of the line, or unwinding the wheel with a less consistent motion and/or not listening to the nuances the M5’s brilliant steering was communicating to me. I may never understand how Seaman could see how high my eyes were looking and my hand position using only his rearview mirror whilst setting such an incredibly quick pace, but the real-time feedback was both constant and constructive.

By the end of the session, Seaman had identified more ways that I could improve than I could ever articulate in this space. Out on the road, however, my driving acuity has been taken to another level, much of the advancement being visceral, my internal gyroscope better tuned to rotation, my eyes trained to look farther down the road, my understanding of vehicle dynamics clearer. I still wouldn’t attempt to thrill a photographer, a love interest, or even myself by pitching an M5 sideways around a corner, but never say never. “Keep coming to see us,” Seaman told me. “We’ll get you there.”

BMW Seats
BMW Wheel
“I still wouldn’t attempt to 
thrill a photographer, a love interest, or even myself by pitching an M5 sideways around a corner, but never say never.”Steve Siler