For over half a century there has been a paved racing circuit in Garrettsville, Ohio in close proximity to the Nelson Ledges Quarry Park. In recent years the ownership of the race course has changed hands, and finally the faltering facilities are receiving the attention they have long needed. It had been two years since my last visit, so the timing was right to pay a visit to my nearest road course, and go for a spin!
Sporting fresh new pavement covering the entire racing circuit, track events are starting to appear on the Nelson Ledges Road Course web site calendar. Local car event host/site Autointerests offered a weekend event that fit my needs and budget, so I signed on. But my original registration was for my 2011 Porsche 911 GTS, which has subsequently been replaced with my BMW i8. With my registration fee already paid I decided to take the BMW and make the best of it– hey, it is supposed to be a 911 competitor, right?
You can learn more about Nelson Ledges Race Course by clicking HERE.
For the past week or two I’ve been asking myself this question— What would you get if you could cross an Audi R8 with a Tesla Model S? My theory is that many of the best features from both of these cars can be found in the BMW i8 Hybrid. Styling on the BMW is unique, and a show stopper like the Audi. Both also have all wheel drive on tap, offering superb traction. Like the Tesla, you get instant torque from the front axle of the BMW thanks to electrons powering the front wheels, leaving the gas motor out back to swoop in after and finish the job. And the motor sits nicely behind you, just like in the Audi. It is a technology marvel, much like the Tesla. But the car isn’t meant to go head-to-head with the Tesla, but more so the Audi, or a 911. But I digress…
Going into the track event my expectations for the BMW were that it would perform a few clicks lower than what I had experienced this past spring in the GTS (see more about that track event HERE). Though my ownership of the BMW had been a mere 9 days prior to the track event, it wasn’t hard to tell the pedigree was different. Porsche’s Carrera 911 is clearly a street legal car built by a company that also makes race cars. At odds then are the BMW i8 and Audi R8, where both vehicles are a luxury car maker’s response to meet the demand for a sports car; more specifically, a 911 competitor. Both the Audi & BMW are competent, quick, and a blast to drive, yet lack some of the analog engagement that my Porsche possessed. Many will argue that the 991.1 chassis Porsche is the more appropriate comparison here, and more digitized and numb, but my ownership was of a 997.2 GTS, hence that is my benchmark, and ultimately the best track car I’ve owned to date. For me the BMW was a sensible move– but on the track, is it a 911 replacement?
Enough rambling … let’s get on track!
Leaving the false grid in sport mode, my first session started off with around 11 miles of electric range (~75% full) and a ~90% full tank of petrol. Immediately into the first braking zone I found the pedal was a bit soft, lacking feedback. Over time I learned to trust it, and as they warmed up their bite increased to an acceptable level, though never quite as confidence inspiring as the big brakes fitting to the GTS. Part of that may also have been the fluid, which had been upgraded on my Porsche.
After about two laps in I decided that the tires were warm enough for me to really give the BMW some tossing about, and I started chucking it into the corners. It didn’t take long for me to realize I could exit harder than I initially was, by pressing the go-pedal early (pre-apex in many cases) and letting the AWD system work some magic. Two electric motors (one at each front corner) controlled by some voodoo coding magic allow you to essentially have a virtual limited slip front axle, pulling the car out of corners with the same agility that Audi and Subaru vehicles tend to exhibit. In fact, the instantaneous access to that torque reminded me most of my visit two years prior with an AWD Tesla (see HERE for that blog post), though in a far smaller and more nimble wrapper here.
Out on the back straight I found myself hitting 120+ MPH in the BMW compared to barely ~105 MPH in the Tesla, proof that the half-ton weight savings and high revving 1.5L 3-cyl motor gives the i8 some extra oomph. In that context, I wish I had run the GTS at NLRC so that I could have a more direct comparison. I’d speculate a slight advantage to the Porsche, though perhaps obvious given it puts down 50HP more juice, and was outfitted with premium tires. Still, I would wager that the difference on the back straight (GTS vs i8) would be somewhat small, and that the faster exit speed of the BMW would balance out the power somewhat.
Sidebar: Right now the BMW is running the stock Bridgestone Potenza S001 tires, with the front/rear width being 215mm and 245mm respectively. Future plans include aftermarket wheels, and a square 20×9 setup that will allow 245mm tires all around. My hope is that this will help reduce the understeer the car exhibited, which I’ll talk more about below.
Handling/cornering in the car was interesting, as it entered most turns feeling a bit like an AWD BMW or Audi with a decent amount of plow. Getting on the throttle helped invoke the programming that kicked the front axle into a more aggressive state, but the car felt further from neutral than I would have liked, plagued with understeer galore. It wasn’t until later in the day I realized I could have held down the traction disable button long enough to place the car into a more track purposed mode, something I’ll consider next time (with those wider front tires). Some of the push I felt MAY have been from the traction system being engaged, but from the other reviews I’ve read this is just the normal i8 experience.
Still the BMW i8 does a respectable job handling the twists and turns, but it doesn’t beg to be pushed hard. Too much speed and the tires became the limiting factor, and no voodoo magic electric/petrol combo was going to help you get back on the line. Come in too slow, and the car often took a second to recalculate, before finally launching you forward in a thrust that was pleasant, if not shockingly quick. When you hit that sweet spot though, you were rewarded with what felt more like a really quick WRX than a slow 911. And that isn’t really a bad thing, in my book, even if it lacks the precise “point & place” steering response of the GTS. Steering is oddly light in the i8, but somehow seems perfect for the way the car itself drives.
By the end of my first heat my battery has lost over 50% state of charge and was now down to around 20% SOC. Starting my second heat with half of the prior electrons already vaporized meant that just 5 laps in I was running 100% on gasoline. This was reflected in my lap times, which quickly dropped from ~1m:25s to about 3-4 seconds longer (average ~1m:28s). With the inability to punch out of corners in AWD/electric and the over 100HP lost without that axle in play, driving the car was slower, and less fun.
Here is the best lap from my FIRST heat:
Here is the best lap from my SECOND heat:
Pardon the wiggle in the video– I’m told this is a short coming of the newer iPhone devices (stability control) and because it is hardware based, cannot be turned off. As you can see, I shaved roughly a half second from first to second heat.
Now I’ll be the first to admit I could brake later/harder, and push the car further. For me pushing the car (and my confidence) to around 60% or so is a respectable amount. Could the car go a few seconds faster with a more aggressive driver? Certainly. But I was happy to pull consistent times, and showed improvement across both heats. And I had fun, which at the end of the day is what really matters!
Lap times turned out to be very similar to my Tesla, which had better tires and were on stickier pavement. Slick new blacktop at the track and rules that prohibited us from crossing the temporary white lines (until curbing gets installed) may have also added to my lap time. But in the end I think it was my confidence with the car more than anything that kept the numbers similar to the Tesla (as I suspect the BMW would/could/should be faster otherwise).
Perhaps another track day will help me prove this the case! For now I’m not sure I’ll rush to track the i8 again — though I do have plans to attend an autocross event in a few weeks. Stay tuned for more fun updates– and hopefully the new wheels will arrive soon!
PS: Special thanks to Ryan (@carsofcleveland) for all the awesome photos you see in my blog post here, and for providing some added conversation during the day. Also shout out to Brad/Jim (@teamevilvillain) for hanging out at the track, too!