Formula DRIFT is recognized as the North American professional drifting championship series. As the first official drift series in North America, Formula DRIFT has taken competitive motorsports to the extreme, attracting fans and car enthusiasts from all walks of life. This high-skilled, high-powered motor sport has drivers intentionally maneuvering their cars into well executed, controlled sideways slides at high speeds through a marked course. Judging is based on execution and style-rather than who finishes the course in the fastest time. Autoblog has been invited behind-the-scenes with GSR Autosport, and their driver Michael Essa, as the team builds, tests and campaigns a V10-powered BMW 350R during the 2010 racing season. This is the first in a regular series as we follow the team throughout the build, testing and race season. With that out of the way…
The idea is mildly deranged, but everyone around the table is wildly grinning. Someone has just suggested mating a BMW 3 Series Coupe to a V10 engine ripped from a BMW M5 and then entering the beast into the 2010 Formula DRIFT series. A few nervous laughs. Then, a bunch of nodding heads. The plans are set.
Common folk – that would be most of us – think this sort of absurd talk is pure madness. To drifters, this type of deliriousness is simply considered being competitive.
Meet Michael Essa – the driver and creative genius behind the aforementioned concoction. Last year, the Los Angeles resident and owner of Tech Trix Motorsports campaigned a Mazda RX-7 in the 2009 Formula Drift Championship Series. (Let’s clarify this – his «RX-7» was gutted down to 2,300 pounds and was sporting a Corvette-sourced LS2 rated at 400 horsepower.) The two-door Mazda was a very potent tool, and Essa used it to land runner-up spot for the 2009 Rookie of the Year.
Essa wanted to light the afterburner for 2010 so he enlisted the help of GSR Autosport. Headquartered in Los Angeles, the company is a multi-facetted professional automotive racing business founded and operated by genuine racing enthusiasts. GSR Autosport designs, develops and builds turn-key race cars – mostly Porsches and BMWs. Essa and the GSR Autosport team sat down over a few beers and came up with a formidable brute. They would campaign a BMW 335i powered by a V10 engine sourced from an E60 M5.
The package would be unique. While others have drifted BMW 3 Series models, the new GSR Autosport «BMW 350R» (acknowledging the 5.0-liter V10) would be the first all-BMW model in the field–a pure German drift car. The team set a target weight of 2,700 pounds (the stock «E92» 335i weighs 3,571 pounds) and 550 horsepower (a stock «S85» V10 puts out 500 horsepower). The transmission would be a custom sequential gearbox and the custom rear end would be fitted with a quick-change clutch-type rear differential to offer adjustability for different tracks. Wheels, suspension and all of the other go-fast parts would come later. The hunt for a donor 335i and V10 engine began…
It didn’t take long before a suitable BMW E92 was found on eBay. The 2008 335i was lightly optioned – sans leather or sports package – and fitted with a six-speed manual transmission. With only 32,328 miles on the clock, the Southern California car was almost too nice for its upcoming Frankenstein-like surgery.
The V10 engine, currently found under the hood of the BMW M5 and BMW M6, was a bit more difficult to acquire. A powerplant was located in Oregon, but it proved blown. Another was found in South Carolina, but it too had undiagnosed issues. Finally, a luckless M5 owner plowed the rear of his M5 into a tree at high speed. The car was written-off immediately – the drift team promptly bought the whole car, including its perfect engine.
With a clean BMW 335i, a wrecked M5 and boxes of parts sitting in the garage of GSR Autosport in Anaheim, California, the radical transformation from street car to Formula Drift contender was all set to begin.
Armed with a 2008 BMW 335i coupe, a shattered BMW M5 and boxes of components stacked around the shop, the team gets busy tearing the near-perfect 3 Series apart. The bumpers, doors, hood and trunk go first, followed by the glass sunroof and remaining sheet metal on the roof (hundreds of spot welds must be painstakingly drilled out). The stock twin-turbocharged 3.0-liter N54 is carefully removed and put aside. The interior is completely gutted and the heavy glass front, side and back windows are cut out. The chassis sits bare on the cold concrete shop floor.
Starting with more than 100 feet of DOM (drawn over mandrel) steel tubing (1.75 x .095), Michael Essa measures, cuts, bends and welds a custom roll cage complete with race gussets. Once complete, the stunning metalwork is primed gray. The stock 335i battery cable (made of aluminum, not heavy stranded copper) is shortened and relocated from the underbelly to within the cabin. The rear crossmember in the chassis is redesigned and reinforced to accept the new rear differential. The stock subframe bushings are replaced with solid units. Custom motor mounts are fabricated, and the transmission tunnel altered to accept the new engine (the stock inline-six is long by design, so fitting a rather-compact V10 in the same space wasn’t too much of a chore). Formula Drift rules dictate that the engine cannot be moved further rearward than the stock firewall.
The engine, a stock 5.0-liter V10 (S85B50) yanked from the donor M5, is moved into place complete with its factory cooling system (the engine weighs 50 pounds more than the N54). The stock air intake is removed and an AEM DryFlow dual-cone intake is fitted. Internally, the engine is left stock and GSR Autosport runs OEM BMW factory synthetic oil. (The factory oil sump has two oil pumps-one on each side of the engine. Under high cornering loads the pumps automatically pull from the side with more oil, thus preventing oil starvation.) The radiator is filled with water and a wetting agent. While the stock M5 exhaust headers are used, the catalytic converters are removed and a custom 2.5-inch dual exhaust with an X-pipe is aimed right out the back. There are no mufflers, so the blare of the rev-happy V10 should drown out the sound of spinning rear wheels.
Nearly all of the engine electronics are custom. Apex supplies a hand-made wiring harness and a unique engine map run through a custom Pectel ECU. The digital dashboard display is a Pi Omega. Thanks to the custom engine management software, redline is increased from a stock 8,250 to 8,400 rpm.
The SMG transmission is pulled from the donor M5 and sliced apart. The front half of the bell housing is welded to a custom fabricated aluminum plate and a six-speed Quaife sequential gearbox, with a third-pedal clutch, is bolted on. A dedicated master cylinder operates the hydraulic Clutch Masters dual-disc clutch. A custom built-to-spec rear differential, with quick change gearing, is mated to a specially-fabricated driveshaft, CV joints and axles. The stock fuel tank is retained, but it’s modified with two internal pumps (one on each side of the tank to prevent fuel starvation) sending gasoline to a third external fuel pump. An electronically-actuated foam fire suppression system stands guard inside the metal cabin.
The GSR Autosport 350R has serious brakes. It uses two separate Wildwood master cylinders (in addition to the third master cylinder dedicated to the hydraulic clutch). One master cylinder is dedicated to the front six-piston Wilwood calipers (14-inch slotted rotors). The other is dedicated to the rear four-piston Wilwood calipers (13-inch slotted rotors). A cockpit-adjustable balance bar allows the drive to dial in a custom brake bias. There is a second set of four-piston Wilwood rear calipers on the rear rotors (yes, two sets of calipers on each rear rotor) just for the custom hydraulic handbrake – a necessity for drifting. However, there are no brake boosters on the car – the pedal will be very heavy, but it will offer excellent feedback to the driver.
Underpinnings include custom-made KW Clubsport coilovers on all four corners complete with remote reservoirs. Each has a three-way adjustable rebound and a high- and low-speed compression adjustment. The stock 335i steering rack has been retained, but it has been lowered and moved slightly to clear the V10’s oil pan. Drift cars need a lot of steering angle so new lower control arms were fabricated from scratch. Also, there are no sway bars.
The stock wheels and run-flat tires have been replaced with Enkei PF01 10-spoke cast aluminum racing wheels wrapped in Nitto NT05R tires (DOT-compliant competition radials). The fronts are 245/40R18 while the rears wear meaty 295/35R18 rubber.
Last to go in is a Sparco Pro 2000 fiberglass racing seat with a Sparco six-point harness mounted behind a three-spoke steering wheel from the same manufacturer. The driving position has been moved back a full 12 inches. This necessitated a custom steering column extension and a unique arrangement much further rearward for the Wilwood gas, brake and clutch pedals.
BMW’s signature «Angel Eye» headlights will be retained (on their own toggle switch); as will be the band of genuine wood trim on the dashboard – it adds a touch of class, the team jokes. As the last wiring harness is zip-tied down, the battery (moved from the trunk to the passenger well) is connected. Although it’s mechanically complete, the 350R is still missing a front bumper, quarter panels, hood, roof and all of its windows. Those will stay off during testing allowing everyone easier access to the engine and suspension while it is being tuned.
The team gives the car its last once-over. Michael Essa, always smiling, opens the door and drops into the driver’s seat. With a warning for everyone within the garage to cover their ears, he reaches over and pushes the start button. The V10 turns over quickly, and then fires to life with a raspy growl.
The BMW V10 ripped from an M5 and transplanted into a 3 Series does turn over on the first try – but then it starts to backfire. The GSR Autosport team shuts it down promptly and dials Apex Speed Technology. The engine and its related electronics are the most sophisticated part of the 350R. Its digital ECU is tasked with controlling fuel, spark, four-cam VANOS, dual drive-by-wire, electronic oil pumps and a variable-speed electric cooling fan. Without delay, the experts diagnose the problem (exhaust cams) and download a few fixes to the S85B50’s ECU. Set straight, the BMW Motorsport engine growls without a hiccup.
Once the engine is warmed, Michael Essa does exactly what most of us would do – he takes the brand-new 350R for a celebratory spin around the block at the industrial complex and does screaming donuts in the middle of the empty street.
The car, still missing its front bumper, hood, roof and windows, isn’t exactly done… but it needs to put some time in at the track to be honed. The team loads the 350R into a closed trailer and heads for Willow Springs International Motorsports Park in Rosamond, California.
Willow Springs Speedway, a quarter-mile paved oval, is the smallest track at the desert complex (not counting kart tracks). It’s a lousy road course, but the open figure-eight is the perfect grounds for testing a drifter. Unloaded from the rig, fully fueled and running an engine map borrowed from a performance-tuned street M5, Michael takes a few hot laps to get a feel for the car. Then he takes many, many more.
Over the next several hours, shock settings are tweaked, springs are adjusted and tire pressures are both bled and increased. The final settings are as guarded as the recipe for Coca-Cola.
Power does not seem to be an issue, but weight is (lack of poundage, for better clarification). The 350R is light in the back (remember, everything was stripped out of the rear of the car while 50 additional pounds of V10 were added to the front), so the modified BMW is run with a full tank of fuel for more rearward weight bias. Content with the direction of the testing and tuning, everything is loaded back onto the trailer for the ride back to the shop.
The next visit is to the dynamometer. Strapped down firmly, the V10 puts up an angry fight and sends about 450 horsepower to the rear wheels. (Thanks to driveline loss and a rear differential utilizing a 10-inch ring gear that isn’t exactly power efficient, our best guess says it is making an estimated 550-570 horses at the crank.) The team tweaks the ECU and finds some more power.
Two days later, the GSR Autosport 350R is getting painted. The exterior is sprayed glossy black, while the interior is shot bright silver (the lighter interior helps the in-car cameras with automatic white balance – no joke). The wheels receive a two-stage powder coat. They are coated in bright white followed by a garishly bright orange – Michael Essa’s signature color. You can’t miss them.
While stock bodywork is retained for now, a custom carbon-fiber widebody kit is being produced – it will shave another 100 pounds off the curb weight. Lexan windows replace the rear units, but the side quarter panels remain glass (the Lexan side windows only save two pounds each). Capping the drifter is a lightweight carbon fiber roof ordered straight off the E92 M3 parts sheet.
As you read this, the GSR Autosport 350R is sitting on the grid qualifying for the Formula Drift Round 1: Streets of Long Beach at the Toyota Grand Prix street course. Months of hard work, tens of thousands of dollars, countless individual contributions, and the generous help of sponsors have made the mildly deranged idea of drifting a V10-powered BMW 3 Series a highly-competitive reality.
Formula DRIFT is recognized as the North American professional drifting championship series. Autoblog has been invited behind-the-scenes with GSR Autosport, and their driver Michael Essa, as the team builds, tests and campaigns an all-new V10-powered BMW 350R during the 2010 racing season. This is the fourth installment in our series (see Part I, Part II and Part III) as we follow the team throughout the development, testing and race season.
The wail of BMW’s V10 bouncing off the limiter at redline is deafening – especially coming out of two straight pipes – so it’s unlikely that anyone heard the steel lower control arm on the front right of the 350R shatter. Michael Essa, manning the M5-powered 3 Series, certainly didn’t. The run had been going well, just like the ones before it, when all of a sudden the BMW unexpectedly snapped off its line and careened directly into the tire barrier at speed. The incident would wreak havoc on our debut weekend at Formula Drift.
Team GSR Autosport arrived at the streets of Long Beach three days earlier (Tuesday) with the entire entourage for testing. The Southern California venue is unique, as it is the only event that uses a street circuit (turns 9, 10, and 11 of the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach Street Course) for drifting during the season – the other Formula Drift competitions are held at speedways. The track is narrow and lined with heavy concrete walls.
Tuesday went well. It was the first time the car had been run outside the wide-open spaces of Willow Springs. Unlike the gentle tossing during the first days of practice, the restricted Long Beach track required the car to be fiercely whipped back and forth within its narrow confines.
The first sign of trouble occurred early Friday when a suspension component failed at low speed in the hairpin during testing. The car was brought to a stop without damage and towed back to the pits. The lower control arm had snapped cleanly in the middle of the chrome-moly pipe – not on a weld. Thinking it was a small flaw in the material, the arm was removed and welded with additional gussets for strengthening. Reassembled, and properly aligned, the car was sent back out for additional test laps at high speed.
It was during one of the final laps, near the end of Friday’s practice, when the component failed again – sending the broken car directly into the tire barrier.
The crash damage the second time was severe, but survivable. The «soft» tires dissipated the energy across the entire front of the 3 Series in a controlled manner. Instead of destroying the front quarter of the car back to the engine block (like a concrete wall would have done), the fiberglass front bumper was blown into several pieces («like a piñata,» as they say in drifting), the radiator punctured and the power steering pump left dragging by its reinforced hoses. The right front wheel had been flailing wildly since the control arm broke one hundred yards earlier, so it proceeded to rip the quarter panel clean off and bend its shock angrily. The battered car was towed back to the team trailer.
As mentioned before, most of the suspension components were custom designed for the 350R. The hand-crafted front lower control arms were made from chrome-moly tubing. The material is very strong, but more brittle than mild, forged or DOM steel. The stress of professional drifting proved too much and the team never realized that the material would fail so drastically. The arm snapped both times like a rigid tree in a strong wind storm.
Anticipating its arrival, and with military precision, the crew back in the pits jumped into action. With just two hours left for qualifying, and without a single qualifying lap on the books, the 350R had to be back on the track in just over 100 minutes or it would not be in the competition.
The front end was dissected and placed around the car. The radiator was leaking, so it was taken several feet away to be dried, cleaned and repaired (two-part JB Weld to the rescue). The lower control arm pieces were whisked off for welding with double gussets this time, and the bent shock fitted with a new unit. The damaged wheels and tires were replaced, and the front bumper reassembled with black duct tape. The electric power steering pump (now without a mount) was strung into place with a nylon tie-down strap – ugly, but effective.
With only minutes left of qualifying, the car was started and the radiator pressure tested. Everything looked good. Michael zipped up his suit and donned his flat back helmet for the initial run.
The whole team was trackside when the GSR Autosport 350R came around Turn 9 during its first official lap of qualifying. As expected, the tail was out wide in a drift. Within a second or two, the car would transition hard to the other side of the track and skim past the wall hanging its other side to the crowd.
However, something was obviously wrong. During the maneuver, the BMW continued to rotate uncontrollably around its axis – against full lock of the front wheels. Michael Essa and the 350R came to a stop in the middle of the track facing backwards. The run wouldn’t score well. It was all over.
Playing Monday morning quarterback, the team realized that in addition to the damage to the components, the alignment had been absolutely destroyed by the second crash. In fact, the right front wheel had been pushed back an inch or so further than the left (giving new meaning to a «staggered» wheel setup). The car was completely unstable at speed even in a straight line, regardless of Essa’s heroic driving efforts.
Team GSR Autosport wrote Friday off as an unfortunate and expensive learning experience and spent Saturday watching the other drivers compete (congratulations to Vaughn Gittin Jr., Rhys Millen and Tanner Foust for their first, second and third-place wins, respectively). It was cool meeting drifting enthusiasts and showing off the very unique BMW to thousands of receptive fans.
The next Formula Drift event is at Road Atlanta in Braselton, Georgia, in early May – team GSR Autosport will be there. In the meantime, the BMW 350R will be completely repaired this week as it is scheduled to run drifting demonstrations all next weekend at the Long Beach Grand Prix.
9. Michael Essa – BMW 350R
Powered by an E60 BMW M5 V10 engine, Essa’s BMW 335i has been transformed into a professional drift machine called the 350R. While the BMW did not make it on to the two-wheel drive podium, Essa convincingly won the burnout contest with a nearly 2-minute long absolute roast of his rear tires. Listening to the V10 bounce during the burnout contest was already enough to make our hair stand up.