• Apr 12th 2010 at 3:00PM
  • 30
GSR Autosport 350R – Click above to watch the progress of the season

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.

  • 2008 BMW E92 335i before the makeover.
  • BMW E60 M5 donor vehicle. This is the rear view!

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.

  • 2008 BMW E92 335i before the makeover.
  • BMW E60 M5 donor vehicle. This is the rear view!

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 5 Years Ago
      No Loss: Drifting, like indoor motorcross, is for sissies who want flush toilets and clean seats, all while having their motorsport events served up in easy to understand slides and jumps. I wish you were old enough to have stood inside the fence at Riverside's turn 6 fence, pissed in a port-a-potti and gone home dirty from the desert sand blowing across the track late every afternoon. Don't bother repairing the 3-series pile -- get a new video game. Bruce
        • 5 Years Ago
        And you, troll, are ignorant
      • 5 Years Ago
      The design forum is up and running. We do have a registration approval process as we've had some hackers in the past mess with the site.
      • 5 Years Ago
      Aaannnndd this is why tracking a hot BMW can get expensive really quick.

      They're lucky a broken lower control arm was the worst thing that happened.

      I've heard of e36 and e46 subframes tearing off the chassis under high stress. These cars were built to tight tolerances and if you want to track one you REALLY have to know what you're doing.. sounds like the guys who fabricated these parts didn't. It's not like you can go out and buy upgraded parts either.
      • 5 Years Ago
      Rod ends in BENDING!?!? Someone forgot the #1 rule of rod ends...
        • 5 Years Ago
        As a FSAE rookie that was the first thing i thought of. Plus the load path is crazy!

        Huge bending especially if it was a loaded arm.
      • 5 Years Ago
      Was at the event this weekend, I missed the crash but saw the after effects of the crash. Car looked rad with those bright orange wheels. I wish I could have heard the car. Anyone have a video?
      • 5 Years Ago
        • 5 Years Ago
        That was beautiful
      • 5 Years Ago
      Should have performed a finite element analysis on that a-arm
        • 5 Years Ago
        Amen. Triangulation fail.
        • 5 Years Ago
        Agreed..the parts should have been "engineered" not built from "experience"
      • 5 Years Ago
      Still want to see vids of this beast!
      • 5 Years Ago
      This bad luck is the work of the BMW Gods.

      • 5 Years Ago
      The force required to shear 1.5 in .095 wall chrome moly is tremendous. Based on our calculations the forces involved should have been well within the operating range of the material and design. Chrome moly is extremely strong but can be brittle. Research continues to answer the question why it failed. Unfortunately the part was molested in an attempt to repair so review of the failed part is somewhat compromised.
        • 5 Years Ago
        We've begun redesign based on some of the feedback we've received. Link to design forum:

        • 5 Years Ago
        Hi guys, just wanted to make the quick comment that your biggest problem with Cr-Mo is going to be the weakening due to welding (mostly due to high carbon content). Unless you can heat treat the whole part after welding, you're just asking for trouble. For this type of setup I'd stick with a good mild steel, since ductility and ease of in-event repairs are going to be much more important to you than the slight weight savings achieved from using thinner Cr-Mo tubing.
        I'd also seriously reconsider your use of the rod ends in that configuration as Jason already pointed out.
        If you're serious about getting help from an engineer let me know. I'm an ME with 3 years of Automotive experience and another 3 designing amusement park rides.
        • 5 Years Ago
        Hi Nick,

        As I stated above and emilevv repeated, I'd strongly suggest going to a spherical bearing inside a bearing keeper housing with a snap ring instead of the rod ends.

        I can run some calculations for you if you want...your highest force is probably going to be during braking, when the torque created by the caliper is transferred through the upright and into the control arms.

        What calipers and pads are you using? (Wilwood model #) I'm thinking it's going to be tough to find the true frictional coefficient of the pad-rotor without testing, so you'd have to make an educated guess to get it close. I have a MATLAB program I wrote to design a braking system for a formula SAE car that I could run some numbers through if you want to get a better idea of the forces generated under max braking.

        I'd also be willing to lend a hand too if you need some help. I'm a new engineer fresh out of college, but I've been working on race cars for 4 years via Formula SAE while in school. Just let me know and I'll email you via the contact info on your website.
        • 5 Years Ago
        the basic part design leaves more to be desired.

        Shows there were more part time racers involved in the design than engineers.

        it doesnt appear that "shear" was the cause. I'd call this 'bending' and bending loads on suspension are very, very bad. Tension and compression are your friends, just be sure to do the buckling calcs for compression

        • 5 Years Ago
        DrBoost - point taken. No, we don't have engineers on staff unlike some of the "energy drink" teams. The term "shear" was misused. We changed the pick up point on the upright from two to one so I can see the where the stress beyond the triangulated piece would be great, which is in fact where it broke.

        If there are any engineers out there that would like to lend a helping hand we welcome you with open arms and free tickets to any event you want.
      • 5 Years Ago
      I love following this story. You guys should do more like it.

      And remember it's not a good story without a few plot twists!
      • 5 Years Ago
      OK, I've setup a forum on our website to continue this discussion. Not that we don't love Autoblog but it's a little hard with this simple thread tool.


      I'll round up all involved and start posting to the thread.

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