Ranking the 10 greatest BMW Motorsport machines

BMW Motorsport has produced several landmark cars in its 50 years of competition across several different motorsport disciplines. But which are the greatest of all? Autosport picks out the top 10 and speaks to some of their fortunate drivers

Ranking the 10 greatest BMW Motorsport machines

For half a century, BMW’s motorsport division has been producing fantastic cars. It’s main areas of success have been on the road and in touring car racing, but it’s also taken big victories in sportscar competition and Formula 1.

To help mark its 50th birthday, we decided to pick out the 10 best BMW Motorsport machines and talk to some of those lucky enough to get behind the wheel.

For this list, we considered the level of success scored by each of the cars, their importance to BMW and what the drivers made of them.

10. F1.08

Kubica won his only F1 race, the 2008 Canadian Grand Prix, with the BMW Sauber F1.08 and at one point looked a title contender

Kubica won his only F1 race, the 2008 Canadian Grand Prix, with the BMW Sauber F1.08 and at one point looked a title contender

Photo by: Motorsport Images

After its semi-successful relationship with Williams soured, BMW bought Sauber to continue its F1 quest. BMW Sauber went from finishing fifth in 2006 to third in the 2008 standings, via an inherited second in 2007 following McLaren’s exclusion.

The 2008 F1.08, which technical director Willy Rampf described as “an aggressive development” arguably should have achieved more than its famous 1-2 at the Canadian Grand Prix. After that win in round seven of 18, Robert Kubica led the drivers’ standings and the team was only three points behind leader Ferrari.

But thereafter BMW’s developments didn’t bring the expected gains and it slipped further behind Ferrari and McLaren. The team switched its focus to the new F1 rules for 2009 as soon as possible, a gamble the failed and the F1.08 remained BMW’s high-water mark before it sold the team.

PLUS: How BMW-Sauber blew its chance of title glory

Kubica, 2008 Canadian GP winner and fourth in points with F1.08, says: “It was good to see how things progressed after BMW took over Sauber and in 2008 we had a competitive car, one that suited my driving style. I think that car had so much more potential and it was a shame that we didn’t chase development.

“My feeling is that in 2008 we missed an opportunity, because we had all the ingredients on the table to at least fight for the championship. The focus of development switched early on to the 2009 because new regulations were coming.”

9. M1

The M1 Procar series attracted top F1 drivers to race on the support bill, and was popular with all who encountered them

The M1 Procar series attracted top F1 drivers to race on the support bill, and was popular with all who encountered them

Photo by: Rainer W. Schlegelmilch / Motorsport Images

The Group 4 M1 had limited success in international sportscar racing, for which it was conceived, but it makes this list because of its role in motorsport’s greatest one-make series. The Procar Championship supported selected Formula 1 events in 1979 and 1980, with perhaps its best element being that the top five drivers (team and tyre contracts permitting) from that weekend's Friday F1 practice joined the regular cast.

The 450bhp six-cylinder, mid-engined supercar provided some spectacular action and an impressive list of winners that was almost exclusively full of F1 or sportscar frontrunners. It’s two champions were Niki Lauda and Nelson Piquet…

There were some decent moments in endurance events. Herve Poulain, Manfred Winkelhock and Marcel Mignot took the Andy Warhol-liveried Art Car to sixth overall in the 1979 Le Mans 24 Hours, but perhaps the M1’s finest moment was Hans Stuck’s brilliant charge through the field in the wet early stages of the 1981 Silverstone 6 Hours.

Jan Lammers, winner in 1980 BMW M1 Procar series with BMW Nederland entry, says: “What was wonderful about that car first of all was the sound. If you like racing, hearing it going up through the gears was like a symphony.

“There was lots of torque and it had a good power-to-weight ratio. The M1 was so enjoyable to drive. And still is: I got to drive one at the Procar Revival at the Norisring in 2019. As soon as I got back in I remembered how much I loved driving the M1.

“There was a lot of prestige involved in the series because of the top Formula 1 qualifiers coming and then you had some very skilful sportscar and touring car drivers like Hans Stuck and Hans Heyer. Everyone had a reason to perform on that stage.”

8. March-BMW 782

Giacomelli relished the BMW-powered March 782 that launched him into F1

Giacomelli relished the BMW-powered March 782 that launched him into F1

Photo by: Motorsport Images

The combination of March and BMW had already taken European Formula 2 titles in 1973 (Jean-Pierre Jarier) and 1974 (Patrick Depailler) before Renault became a serious force in the two-litre era.

Rene Arnoux won the 1977 European crown in a Martini-Renault, ahead of the Ralt-BMW of Eddie Cheever, but the response from March produced something special.

Powered by the Paul Rosche-designed BMW M12/7 engine, the works March 782 of Bruno Giacomelli dominated in 1978, marching to the title with eight wins, while team-mate Marc Surer was runner-up.

It could be argued that the real advantage of the package was Robin Herd’s chassis and aero, which helped give the car good straightline speed. But BMW was a key backer of the project, the M12/7 engine deserves recognition, and BMW used F2 for its junior programme, of which Surer was a part.

Podcast: Autosport debates the greatest junior single-seater

Giacomelli, 1978 European F2 champion with eight wins from 12 races, says: “So many drivers who’ve driven the 782 are very enthusiastic about that car. Some say it is the best car they ever drove. I’m very proud of that because Robin Herd at March developed that car with me the previous year. I drove it the first day its wheels were on the ground.

“We took it to Donington Park at the end of 1977 and won the race. It was such an easy car to drive, which is what we developed it to be. I remember at the Nurburgring the next year coming through to the front after a bad start and feeling totally at one with the car around the old circuit there. A wire came off and I was really pissed off because I was going to win that race.

“We had a great engine in the M12/7 from BMW; Paul Rosche was like a big brother to me. The Hart engine was lighter but the reliability and the torque of our engine were so good.”

7. 635CSi

Quester won the 1983 ETCC crown with 635CSi, which continued winning until its replacement with the legendary M3

Quester won the 1983 ETCC crown with 635CSi, which continued winning until its replacement with the legendary M3

Photo by: Motorsport Images

The E24 6 Series took over the baton from the famed 3.0 CSL. It successfully did so immediately, two European Touring Car titles coming in 1980-81 before the arrival of Group A revived the category.

Schnitzer’s 635CSi helped Dieter Quester see off the new TWR Jaguar challenge to take the 1983 title, but the V12 XJS proved too much the following year. Rover and Volvo also made the going tough for the shark-nosed Beemer, but the BMW remained a contender in the right hands through to 1986.

The 635CSi also made an impact outside of Europe, most notably in the hands of Jim Richards. His striking JPS-liveried machine won seven races and only once missed the podium in 10 rounds as the Kiwi stormed to the 1985 Australian Touring Car Championship.

The 635’s greatest days were perhaps in longer races, when reliability proved more important than outright speed. That was demonstrated by three Spa 24 Hours victories in four years, and the 3.5-litre, straight-six racer was still winning when it was replaced by a smaller, more boxy machine that’s higher up this list.

Emanuele Pirro, two-time ETCC winner in 1986 with Schnitzer 635CSi, says: “I got called up to race for Schnitzer at the Monza ETC race in 1985. I ended up damaging the sump when I went over a kerb, but I did enough to appreciate the car and for BMW to appreciate me - and to get invited back.

“The 635 was a big car, but it was quite low and didn’t roll much, but it had a kind of porpoising under acceleration over bumps. It was a good reliable car and very enjoyable to drive, though I’d use even more favourable adjectives to describe it if I’d never driven the M3. That car made the 635 feel old immediately.

“But I’m proud to have raced such a beautiful car and have nice memories from that time. I was lucky enough to drive the hand-painted x-ray livery car showing all the parts of the car.”

6. E46 320i (Super 2000)

Priaulx began run of four international titles with the E46 in the 2004 ETCC

Priaulx began run of four international titles with the E46 in the 2004 ETCC

Photo by: Motorsport Images

The Super 2000 era provided a cheaper, more sensible basis for tin-top racing after the boom-boom-bust of Super Touring. BMW developed the E46-shape 3 Series and was predictably a frontrunner.

Equally predictably, rivals complained about the rear-wheel-drive car’s traction advantage, as though it was somehow BMW’s fault for having the driven wheels in the right place. That meant the 320, which continued in E90 form from 2006, was subjected to rolling starts for some of its racing career, but that didn't prevent the well-balanced machine racking up an impressive CV.

That included a run of titles for Briton Andy Priaulx, who took the 2004 European Touring Car crown before securing a World Touring Car hat-trick from 2005-07. Either the E46 or E90 could make this list, but we’re happy to let Priaulx decide and he doesn’t hesitate…

Priaulx, 2004 ETCC and 2005 WTCC champion in 320i with the Racing Bart Mampaey team, says: “The E46 320i is really special to me. It was such a well-balanced car and really worked well on the Michelin tyres we were running at the time. It was a responsive racing car that suited my driving style.

“It had that beautiful six-cylinder engine, so it sounded great as well as looking great. I loved that first car I drove in the ETCC with the Union Flag across the bonnet.

“It was a special time in my career because I went from being a national-level drive to a European and then a world champion. It seemed the sky was the limit for me at that time and was the start of an amazing 13 seasons with BMW.”

5. E36 318i/320i (Super Touring)

Ravaglia relished his single BTCC season in 1996 with the E36

Ravaglia relished his single BTCC season in 1996 with the E36

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Super Touring ultimately became too expensive but it is still regarded as a high-water mark for international tin-top competition. BMW competed with the E36 3 Series, in 318i/320i and two- and four-door forms, and was usually at the sharp end.

The rear-wheel-drive car was the British Touring Car benchmark in the early days of the two-litre era. Tim Harvey took the drivers’ title in 1992 before Jo Winkelhock and Steve Soper led the way the following year, winning eight of the 17 rounds. Things were tougher in the UK after Alfa Romeo introduced wings to the party in 1994, but the E36 remained a winner as late as 1996, after which BMW withdrew.

The E36 went on winning even longer elsewhere. Johnny Cecotto (1994 and 1998) and Winkelhock (1995) scored German Super Tourenwagen Cup titles, while Paul Morris and Geoff Brabham were 1-2 in the 1997 Australian Super Touring standings. BMW also won the Bathurst 1000 during the great race’s brief Super Touring era.

Roberto Ravaglia, winner of the Italian series and racer in the British and German series aboard E36 Super Tourers in his final years in tin-tops, says: “What I remember most about the E36 was that it gave me the chance to race full-time in the BTCC in 1996 with Schnitzer. My only victory came at Silverstone on the same weekend as F1, but it’s a race there earlier in the year that gives me the best memories.

“On the grid, Charly Lamm and me decided to change to wets even though it was not raining. But there were black clouds coming and every day it had rained at that time. At the end of the first lap I was so far behind everybody that I couldn’t see the next car, but then it started raining and I started overtaking cars. I caught Frank Biela in the four-wheel-drive Audi on the last lap. One more lap and I would have overtaken him to win the race.”

4. V12 LMR

Kristensen missed out on another Le Mans win in 1999 but still remembers the BMW V12 LMR fondly

Kristensen missed out on another Le Mans win in 1999 but still remembers the BMW V12 LMR fondly

Photo by: Motorsport Images

BMW had scored limited success at Le Mans before – the CSL had been a class winner and the remarkable 328 punched above its weight before the Second World War – but the late-1990s project with Williams was its first proper crack at overall victory with a sports-prototype.

The six-litre BMW S70 V12 had already proven its worth in Gordon Murray’s McLaren F1 GTR, which won the 1995 Le Mans 24 Hours and back-to-back BPR GT titles. As endurance racing entered a brief golden era, the Williams-BMW combination arrived in 1998 with the V12 LM. That car was not a success but the following year the V12 LMR was ready to take on Audi, Mercedes, Nissan, Porsche and Toyota at Le Mans.

The V12 LMR, which was better in every department, had won on its debut at the 1999 Sebring 12 Hours, but Toyota and Mercedes were the favourites for Le Mans. The Silver Arrows challenge ended thanks to the CLR’s aerial antics and the BMW had strong race pace. A sticking throttle thanks to collapsing suspension caused the leading BMW to crash, but Joachim Winkelhock/Pierluigi Martini/Yannick Dalmas narrowly defeated the sole remaining Toyota to win one of the greatest editions of the 24 Hours.

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The V12 LMR narrowly missed out on the American Le Mans Series title and remained competitive in 2000, winning twice and providing some resistance to Audi’s R8 steamroller.

Tom Kristensen, who gave the V12 LMR a victory on debut at Sebring and then lost the win at Le Mans when the car had a four-lap lead, says: “That car was lovely to drive. Whatever you did on the set-up, the car gave you a reaction. If we wanted one-lap performance we went stiffer and if we wanted endurance, you went softer.

“It had that fantastic engine with a fantastic sound, though the weight of the engine was the car’s Achilles’ heel if it had one.

“One of my favourite memories is from the launch of the car in Kitzbuhel. I was giving it some driving down the street with police on horseback and the sound from the V12 on this narrow street in a winter wonderland was amazing.”

3. Brabham-BMW BT52

Piquet stormed to his second F1 title in 1983 with the BMW-powered Brabham BT52B

Piquet stormed to his second F1 title in 1983 with the BMW-powered Brabham BT52B

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Renault started Formula 1’s first turbo era, but it was BMW that powered the first turbocharged world champion. The Brabham-BMW combination had a difficult 1982 but did start winning, Nelson Piquet taking a crucial victory in the Canadian GP.

After ground-effects were banned at short notice ahead of 1983, Gordon Murray penned the BT52, with its weight distribution moved back for better traction. Despite a Piquet win in the season opener, Renault’s Alain Prost built up a championship lead before Murray made a B version and BMW introduced its infamous ‘rocket fuel’, solving detonation problems with its M12/13 straight-four engine and boosting power.

PLUS: When ‘rocket fuel’ shot to the F1 title

Piquet won two of the final three rounds – with team-mate Riccardo Patrese taking the other – to snatch the drivers' crown, though Ferrari won the constructors’ title.

BMW failed to provide another championship winner, but its turbos were often considered the most powerful and racked up nine wins in the 1980s.

Patrese, Piquet’s team-mate at Brabham in 1983 who won the South African GP and claimed pole on home ground in Italy in the BT52, says: “The BT52 was a great car, but not easy to drive. I had the chance to drive one again in the Legends Parade before the Austrian Grand Prix this year and remember thinking how uncomfortable the car was and how physical it was to drive with a manual gearbox and such a powerful engine with poor throttle response.

“My favourite memories are of course being on pole for my own grand prix at Monza and then winning in Kyalami. The low point was probably crashing at Acque Minerale at the San Marino GP. After that the focus was much more on Nelson; maybe I lost the chance to go for the championship there.”

2. 3.0 CSL ‘Batmobile’

Hezemans began the BMW Motorsport era in fine style with the 3.0 CLS in 1973 by securing the ETCC crown

Hezemans began the BMW Motorsport era in fine style with the 3.0 CLS in 1973 by securing the ETCC crown

Photo by: Rainer W. Schlegelmilch / Motorsport Images

Ford’s thrashing of BMW in the 1972 European Touring Car Championship was the catalyst for the creation of the Motorsport division. Team manager Jochen Neerpasch was among those recruited from Ford and the 3.0 CSL was the first result of the new approach.

The bewinged, lightweight, homologation special version of the E9, the ‘Batmobile’ crushed Ford’s Capri RS2600 in 1973. BMW Motorsport and Alpina CSLs won all but two of the eight ETCC rounds, with Toine Hezemans securing the drivers’ crown.

CSL drivers would win that title for the rest of the decade as the legendary BMW became almost unbeatable, albeit as the championship entered a tricky period.

This important car also proved competitive in America, winning the 1975 Sebring 12 Hours and IMSA events against Porsche as the marque broke through on the other side of the Atlantic, while the 3.5-litre version was a victor in the 1976 World Championship of Makes.

Hezemans, 1973 European Touring Car champion, says: “The CSL was so easy to drive and is one of the best cars I’ve ever driven. It was fantastic and it never broke down. It was so much better than the Ford Capri we raced against. BMW had the brilliant idea of putting that rear wing on it, and after that it was unbeatable.

“But our factory car wasn’t so good to start with. I remember at the first race at Monza, Vittorio Brambilla drove past me on the straight as though I was standing still. Paul Rosche had all these restrictions from the company on what he could do to the engine, so we went to the board with Jochen Neerpasch and explained to them it was a bit strange that a tuner like Schnitzer was beating the factory.”

1. E30 M3

M3 secured the 1987 WTCC title with Roberto Ravaglia, who took fifth in Class 2 at Bathurst

M3 secured the 1987 WTCC title with Roberto Ravaglia, who took fifth in Class 2 at Bathurst

Photo by: BMW

Autosport voted the BMW M3 the greatest touring car of all time as part of our 70th celebrations in 2020, so it should be no surprise it heads this list.

PLUS: The game-changer that monopolised tin-tops

It’s the original E30 version that earns this slot, but it has to be noted that the car was the start of a long line of M3s that continued competing and winning in various forms, in DTM and GT competition, over the next three decades.

Developed completely within the Motorsport division, the 2.3-litre E30 was lighter and more agile than the ageing 635CSi it replaced – and was instantly quicker. Despite the new car being thrown out of the Monza opener, Roberto Ravaglia took his Schnitzer-run version to the 1987 World Touring Car title. The handling and reliability of the M3 meant it could take on more powerful machines, usually in the form of turbocharged Ford Sierra Cosworths in Europe or big V8s in Australia.

The E30 M3 was extensively developed during its career and ran different engines depending on what was needed – two litres in the UK, 2.5 in the DTM. Championship successes came in the BTCC, the DTM and Italy. Four wins at both the Spa and Nurburgring 24 Hours underlined the car's durability, while the 1987 Tour de Corse win by Bernard Beguin was the highlight of the E30's rally career.

Eric van de Poele, 1987 DTM champion, two-time ETCC winner and runner-up in the Spa 24 Hours in 1992 with the M3, says: “I’d driven a few touring cars before, the BMW 635CSi and the Alfa Romeo 75 Turbo, but when I got in the M3 it was unbelievable. The M3 was conceived for racing, which is why we could battle with cars like the Ford Sierra Cosworth that had 500bhp with our car that had 310 or 320bhp. The base of the car was so good.

“Everything was more controllable than in the other touring cars I’d driven. There was less inertia and the car was very responsive, on the power, in the corners, over the bumps, everywhere. It was just such a good racing car.

“I don’t think I appreciated the differences as the M3 evolved because, after doing the European Touring Car Championship in 1988, I was racing Formula 3000 and then Formula 1 and doing only one or two touring car races a year. I’m lucky enough to get to drive one of the later M3s in the DTM Classic Cup these days, and now I can feel how different those later 2.5-litre car were.”

Eric van de Poele won the DTM title in 1987 with the M3 on his way to Formula 1

Eric van de Poele won the DTM title in 1987 with the M3 on his way to Formula 1

Photo by: BMW

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