In order to even make the grid for the Rolex 24 at Daytona, BMW’s learning curve had to be steep. Making a late start with its LMDh project – what would become known as the BMW M Hybrid V8 – it was far behind Acura, Cadillac and Porsche in preparing a car for the new GTP class in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.
But BMW showed up. BMW M Team RLL and the BMW engineers persevered through a difficult Daytona race during which it spent a lot of time in the garages. But the team had finally done a 24-hour test, even it was in the first race of the season, and that made a huge difference.
“The testing leading up to Daytona was focused on reliability, explains Brandon Fry, BMW M Team RLL’s vice president of Sportscar Operations and technical director.
“Having said that, we had setbacks. We hadn’t done a 24-hour test leading into Daytona, so our performance focus only only started at Daytona. We went away from the Daytona event having finally run a car for, effectively, 24 hours. And we learned a lot from that. Now let’s go to the Sebring tests; we’ve got a lot of things to work on there. And I think we learned a lot. We tested in a lot of different areas at the Sebring test, and then we’re able to kind of go back and put these things together.”
The difference was substantial. Not only was a car running reliably for 12 hours, it was on the lead lap at the end. While not up front, the No. 25 was hanging on. When the top three came together with half an hour left, the No. 25 was there to land on the podium. From being 15 laps down with the 24 and 131 laps with the 25 – albeit, both running at the finish – at Daytona, to second at Sebring, on the lead lap, was huge.
“We went back to the Sebring race with two different setups on the car, and kind of learned in different directions through the Thursday practice day,” Fry says.
“We raced both cars the same, and I think we made some gains there. Then coming out of that race, still, we learned a lot about the car. With some [Driver-In-the-Loop simulator] work that we did between Sebring and Long Beach, we improved again. So that’s good for everybody.”
At Long Beach, Connor de Phillippi was quick to praise Nick Yelloly’s sim work for getting them to a second-place finish. True, the No. 25 got there with some help from a bad pit stop for Wayne Taylor Racing’s Acura ARX-06 that was followed by an ambitious move for the lead by Ricky Taylor that put the car into the tires at Turn 1. But if Taylor had sailed harmlessly into the runoff and hadn’t brought out a full-course caution, BMW might have even had a win, going against a fading Penske Porsche Motorsport 963 that had done the entire race on a single set of tires.
“Over the last six weeks we’ve got things lining up way, way better than beforehand, which is fantastic,” said Yelloly after the Long Beach podium.
“It doesn’t only help setting up the car better in terms of mechanical – because it’s software and hardware, integration is so tricky to get exactly right. Being able to run that on a car in the simulator is massive. And then we can also get guys back at base while we’re here. You know, they can work their asses off while we’re working our off here, so you can improve over a race weekend, more like a Formula 1 team. This is the kind of operation we’re having to run now. It’s cool that it’s starting to pay off.”
De Phillippi and Yelloly got to taste the champagne after a podium finish at Long Beach, and while this weekend’s trip to Laguna Seca isn’t expected to play to the BMW’s strengths, the team is bullish about its chances of a win this year. Jake Galstad/Motorsport Images
LMDh cars in the GTP category are homologated, meaning hardware changes outside a set of approved specs can’t happen. But software is open, and that’s an area where big changes can happen over a weekend as Yelloly notes. Fry explains that the software updates come rather frequently, sometimes requiring updates in between practice sessions.
“There are big gains between every event and I suspect we’re not alone in that; I think everybody is learning about this category in updating the software,” he says.
“When we went to Long Beach, Free Practice 1, we ran into some small issues with the software, so engineers in Germany and BMW Motorsport came up with several fixes and sent them to us, and we installed those for Free Practice 2, and it was a big help. It was a hindrance at first, and then a big help once they fixed the problem.”
Critics are quick to mention Balance of Performance whenever a particular car makes great strides, but Fry says that it hasn’t made a big difference. The BoP for the upcoming race at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, while not dead-even like it was at Daytona, is pretty close. And while some cars have more weight or power, the actual ratios are pretty close, as is the maximum stint energy.
“In the past, the BoP adjustments have been reactive to displayed car performance,” Fry says.
“What they’ve done so far with these cars is, they’ve tried to make adjustments based on simulation in the fundamental design of the cars. That’s what they did for Sebring. Then while there was an adjustment from Sebring to Long Beach, what effectively they tried to do was adjust the entire field within the same window, so they weren’t trying to improve one of the manufacturers relative to another. And in our simulation we tried to analyze the changes, and we came to the same conclusion that they’ve just shifted the whole field.
“I think that’s great. I think it’s important for IMSA to allow the teams and manufacturers to sort of learn about their cars and and see where the real performance is, before they start becoming reactionary based on results.”
While Fry doesn’t expect Laguna Seca to play to the car’s strengths, he is fairly confident that the BMW M Hybrid V8 will achieve a victory during the season.
“I think there are opportunities at every event we come to,” he says. “I see no reason why we don’t have an opportunity to win a race. And that’s certainly our goal. While I won’t say that I’m expecting that we have the same level of performance going into Laguna Seca that we had at Long Beach. I do expect that we’re competitive for all the rest of the races.”