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.