Spec’ Racing at its Best: BMW M1 Procar

BMW M1 Procar at Zolder in Project CARS 3

The BMW M1 is a staple on any list of best supercars of the ’80s. The reasons are many: The only ICE BMW supercar has ever produced, the only mid-engined BMW in history (until 2014’s i8), and, of course, the first BMW to wear the “M” badge. Add to that a car that was penned by the “Designer of the Century” and conceived for the legendary Group 4 racing series, and what you have is a textbook car for some elbows-out spec’ racing in Project CARS 3.

The Roots of the M Badge
The M-Sport brand is one of motoring’s most aspirational brands. M for BMW Motorsport, BMW’s jewel in the crown, and it’s more than a brand, it’s an image that evokes racing passion bottled-up from the mythical European Touring Car Championships of lore, fire-spitting, rasping, crackling beasts tuned for absolute performance.

Its heritage? Look no further than the BMW M1. Not to belabor the obvious, but, well, there’s a reason why it’s called the M … 1. So where did it all start? Back in 1972, when BMW wanted to find a way to project its new-found status as a major player in the German motoring landscape in the shape of a concept car designed by Paul Bracq—the BMW Concept Turbo Car, featuring gull-wings (of course) and a space-age wedge-shape design (de rigueur for “car of the future” concepts of that era)—and a heavy investment in their motorsports program. To get that right, BMW poached the all-winning motorsport manager Jochen Neerpasch from Ford.

BMW M1 Procar at Zolder in Project CARS 3

Neerpasch quickly created his own fiefdom at BMW and named his new division “BMW Motorsport GmbH”. The M for Motorsport. History had just been made, though at the time there was no actual plan to leverage the M badge into the road-car division.

With around 40 employees, Neerpasch got down to work on creating a BMW capable of beating the all-conquering Ford Capris in Touring Car racing. Given he’d all but created the racing Capris, Neerpasch knew exactly what was needed, and it came in the dazzling, era-defining shape of the BMW 3.0 CSL that won the European Touring Car Championship in 1973 and added a (class) win at the world’s most prestigious endurance race for good measure.

The legend of BMW’s M division was born.

The next project, the company’s first projected supercar, was eagerly assigned to Neerpasch—the man with the Midas touch—along with a massive budget.

The result was a car that would deep-six Neerpasch’s career in four quick years.

BMW M1 Procar at Zolder in Project CARS 3

Lamborghini, Giugiaro, Ital Design, BMW, Baur, TIR, Marchesi, Dallara—What Could Go Wrong?
Come 1975 and BMW needed a replacement for the 3.0 CSL coupe that was made obsolete by the new Group 4 rules for 1976. For inspiration, BMW’s motorsport division turned to Paul Bracq’s BMW Concept Turbo Car.

BMW’s plan was this: they would build 400 models for homologation (minimum required for entry into Group 4) powered by the true-and-tested twin-cam M88/1. Once homologation was complete, the engine would then be swapped out for a turbo for the Group 4 racer that would have—wait for it—850hp!

The suspension and chassis would be designed by Giampaolo Dallara (who was busy building F1 cars for Williams F1 at his new company Dallara Automobili, after having spent a decade at Ferrari and Lamborghini). Giorgetto Giugiaro, meanwhile, the man who would be named “Car Designer of the Century” in 1999, would be chief designer. And to assemble the final product, BMW contracted none other than Lamborghini. The best of the best—what could possibly go wrong?

As it turned out, everything.

BMW M1 Procar at Zolder in Project CARS 3

The road car was meant to be in production by late-1978, with entry into Group 4 scheduled for the 1979 season. As a stopgap, BMW kept racing with the hastily put together BMW 320 (powered by BMW’s Formula 2 engine—this ‘flying brick’ is available in Project CARS 3, and it’s a tail-always-out ride and well-worth your time).

The pressure to produce the BMW M1 road cars, meanwhile, was immense. And yet, by early-1978, it was clear Lamborghini was nowhere close to meeting production schedules. The reason? Lamborghini was fighting bankruptcy. By the summer of ’78, the BMW M1 project was in chaos.

BMW acted decisively, cancelling the contract with Lamborghini, and, after a brief search, settled on Modena-based specialists Marchesi to build the Dallara-designed chassis. Then TIR was brought in to provide the bodywork, while Giugiaro’s Ital Design was contracted to wed chassis to body. German-based Karosserie Baur would then install the BMW hardware, at which point the complete car would be shipped off to BMW proper for final manufacture.

A convoluted solution that would soon prove disastrous. 

BMW M1 Procar at Zolder in Project CARS 3

BMW Procar, Bernie Ecclestone, And the End
Once Lamborghini had fallen out of the picture, production petty-much ground to a halt. Homologation was becoming a pipe-dream, and the budget was spiraling out of control. The BMW board nervously assigned a company man to oversee the M Sport division alongside Neerpasch. And that’s when BMW turned to F1’s Max Mosley and sold him on the idea of a one-make racing series to be called the BMW M1 Procar Championship. The PR team at BMW announced the new spec’ racing series aside the official unveiling of the BMW M1 road car in April of 1978.

The format was simple; the top five qualifiers of the F1 Grands Prix during the European rounds would line-up alongside 15 privateers for intense half-hour races. The winner of each race would get $5,000, and a BMW M1 would be given to the championship-winner.

BMW farmed-out the cars to various race teams for preparation; the BMW factory team contracted BS Fabrications, a Luton-based company, to run five cars, while Formula 2 team Project Four Racing (with their CEO Ron Dennis, a year before he would merge with McLaren) would run the championship-winning Niki Lauda car.

BMW M1 Procar at Zolder in Project CARS 3

The M1 Procars were modified road-going BMW M1s, and these are the cars you’re racing in Project CARS 3, serious racing beasts capable of 300kmh-plus and 0-100kmh in around four seconds. Quick today, really quick in 1979. The BMW M1 was stripped of weight, coming in at a lean 1,000kgs. The engine, meanwhile, was a heavily modified M88 straight-6 3.5L capable of 480hp at a screaming 9,000RPM. BMW measured the cost of each car at $60,000.

The series debuted on May 12, 1979, at Zolder. The race was won by Elio de Angelis in the Osella-prepared M1. The series proved popular with spectators; Mario Andretti, Emerson Fittipaldi, James Hunt, and dozens of other stalwart drivers from that era ran the M1s hard in exhilarating races. The popularity meant the series was expanded for 1980, running on both F1 weekends and purpose-created weekends such as the series’ 1980 starter at Donington in April. 

The 1980 championship was won by Nelson Piquet who’d run three GPs with BS Fabrications, before being snapped-up by Bernie Ecclestone’s Brabham outfit. The move wasn’t coincidental. Behind the scenes, talks between BS Fabrications, Ecclestone, and BMW were going in an interesting direction. And it wasn’t toward Group 4. In a sudden about-face, the M-division budget was slashed, and the Procar series sold off to BS Fabrications. And then, in-1980, BMW announced they’d signed a deal to supply turbo engines to Ecclestone’s Brabham outfit starting in 1982.

BMW M1 Procar at Zolder in Project CARS 3

And what of the Group 5 BMW M1 car? In December of 1980 BMW announced they’d finally met the FIA’s homologation requirements—two years behind schedule. It would have been good news except that the landscape in which they were to compete had altered completely. Silhouette-based series were no longer popular, and BMW—who’d never been in the supercar business anyway—had lost its appetite for the project, particularly in 1979 when the world was plunged into its second oil crisis in a decade and the market for gas-guzzlers went up in smoke. With the decision to enter F1 as an engine supplier, it was time to call quits on the BMW M1, on Procar, and the dream of Group 4.

It was also time to call quits on Neerpasch.

The BMW turbo M12 would go on to become one of the greatest F1 engines in history, as well as the most powerful—over 1,400hp at its peak. As for the BMW M1, the plug was officially pulled in late-1980, and the final production numbers makes for poignant reading—453 cars produced, of which 54 were produced for the Procar series. BMW went back to the recipe that had saved them in the 1960s—rear-wheel drive, front-engined sport-sedans, starting with the BMW M535i.

BMW never-again made a supercar until 2014’s i8. It’s no coincidence that was a hybrid. But without the BMW M1, there would never have been an M-Sport brand, either. Or Andy Warhol’s M1 Group 4 “Art Car”. Or that BMW M1 Procar that is about the best spec’ racing you can ever hope to get involved in—so good that they’ve had regular reunions beginning at the Red Bull Ring in 2016 with Niki Lauda turning up in his champ-winning car a quarter of a century from his glory years , and the crowds were yet again left longing for more.

Get some buddies online and give it a go.