The M Festival at Johannesburg, South Africa is an appropriate event for BMW’s M Division CEO Markus Flasch to attend.
Just 12 months into the role, he has to take on the likes of Mercedes AMG’s acclaimed boss, Tobias Moers, while competing with premium performance brand Porsche.
BMW M Festivals are held at tracks around the world for fans of the performance vehicles. This is the second time Johannesburg has hosted the event at the Kyalami grand prix circuit.
Once in the countryside, the track is now surrounded by residential and industrial buildings as a result of the city’s expansion. This makes for a unique experience when driving on the track.
BMW South Africa says 30,000 people attended the recent weekend event at Kyalami that included drag racing between a variety of M vehicles, hot laps in M vehicles for the public, plus evening concerts.
But on the Friday, international media attended a track day to test M vehicles, and go for a hot lap with local driver Sheldon van der Linde in his M4 DTM race car or Dutch driver Beitske Visser in her M4 GT4 race car. The day finished with a road loop in the recently updated 1 Series.
To start the day, Flasch held a press conference to discuss his important division. The future of the performance arm of BMW with electrification of his range was the media’s main focus.
Flasch said that it has hybrid power “on standby” ready to use but there are still no firm plans — and no rush — to introduce electrification.
“You don’t have to be first; you have to be best,” he said.
“I can assure you we’re working on electrification.
“I’ve driven petrol-electric vehicles from the M team. I’ve driven plug-in hybrids from the M team. It’s there. But I cannot disclose data. I cannot disclose a [production] start date. But we’re working on it. It’s on the shelf.”
Flasch said vehicles such as the X5 M would see electrification, not the “pure, the core” vehicles such as the M2, M3 and M4.
“I’m not producing cars for demonstrators; for people who don’t buy them. I’m producing cars for our customers and [they have] a very, very clear opinion of what they want to see. They will only buy the successor model if it’s better than the predecessor model. So, if a new technology doesn’t qualify itself as better than its predecessor, it’s not going to happen.
“Our customers aren’t bragging about having the latest and the greatest but they know if they have an M badge on their car it’s the best car when it comes to performance.
“We need to keep up this promise.”
So, what brand does he see as M’s competition?
“What sets us apart is our heritage, and there is only one other brand, Porsche, that has that heritage.”
Driven, the only NZ media at the event, asked Flasch what was the highlight of his first year as CEO and what he wanted to achieve.
“My highlight was the implementation of my M transformation strategy and having full permission from the board to ramp it up to new level,” he said.
This year, his division has released the M8 coupe and convertible, and the evening before the festival, Flasch unveiled the M8 Gran Coupe.
Next year he wants to give customers an entry-level racecar.
“M is the most powerful letter in the world and I want to make it even more powerful.”
It makes sense that the M2 should be the starting point for a customer racecar.
The M vehicles media drove on the entertaining yet challenging Kyalami 1.111km track were the M2, two M340i xdrives, an X3 and X4 Competition, plus the big daddy of the bunch, the M5.
With an instructor beside us, Driven’s first car was the M2 — and it had to be the highlight of the track session.
We easily overtook the M340i in the first straight just seconds out of the pit lane, before navigating the perfectly balanced coupe through tight corners and even instigating a few over-steers out of some bends. On the longest straight, the M2 easily hit 220km/h with the high-performance six-cylinder in-line engine (272 kW/500Nm) having plenty of power.
Driven was also impressed with the rear-wheel drive agility. And, thanks to the lightweight aluminium M Sport suspension, the M2 felt firm on the track.
The M5 also performed well on the track, proving worthy of its M badge.
Unfortunately, mechanical issues saw the X3 and X4 Competition pitted for a while. To make up for that disappointment, Driven was given a hot lap in a M850i that night at a VIP event.
With no track lights and only headlights and the instructor’s skills at play, the counter-clockwise Kyalami circuit became even more enjoyable, especially powering up a hill and diving into a blind corner.
But Friday’s highlight had to be when Flasch had the track to himself in the late afternoon.
Behind the wheel of the repaired X4 Competition, he drove increasingly faster around the circuit, proving he’s as much of a fan as he is the boss the M Division.