SOUTH AFRICA HOLDS A SPECIAL SIGNIFICANCE FOR BMW, AND THE M FESTIVAL AT THE COUNTRY’S REVERED KYALAMI RACING CIRCUIT IS OUT TO CELEBRATE IT
I’M ON A bus, sitting directly behind the driver, listening to him rant splenetically about a tent city that has materialised overnight on the freeway reservation. It’s my first acquaintance with South Africa and it doesn’t disappoint. As we pull up at a set of lights, the driver stops mid-sentence, looks in his rear-view mirror, yells “OH, FOKOFF!” and leaps out of the vehicle. An overweight gentleman is attempting to waddle off into the oncoming traffic with a suitcase he’s liberated from the bus’s luggage compartment. We’re here to sample BMW’s M Festival at Kyalami. Seems Johannesburg is here to sample us.
Truth be told, I didn’t have a clue what the BMW M Festival even was. I was furnished with two pieces of information, namely that it would be held at the historic Kyalami racetrack and that the boss of BMW’s M division, Markus Flasch, would be there, which was more than enough to pique my interest.
The program turned out to be relatively straightforward. There was a media day on the Friday, when we had the run of Kyalami, and then the festival opened to the public for the weekend and turned into a brand-building exercise the like of which I’d never witnessed. We arrived on Wednesday, drove a rather pedestrian off-road course in an X5 on the Thursday, and by Friday cabin fever had already set in at the off-world colony that is the Sandton Sun hotel.
Kyalami is an interesting place. It used to be bigger, but South Africa lost its grand prix in 1985 due to international pressure on apartheid policies. The track was rebuilt in the early 1990s, with sections like Leeukop Bend and the Kink eliminated, turning it from one of the fastest tracks on the calendar to a more technical affair. Formula 1 returned in 1992 but it was to be a short-lived dalliance, the 1993 season being the last grand prix in the Republic after Mr Ecclestone found the race promoter temporarily embarrassed for rands.
It’s also a track with great resonance for BMW. In 1983, Nelson Piquet took a podium in the last race of the season at Kyalami in his BMW-powered Brabham, in the process pipping Alain Prost for the drivers’ title. Despite massive investments since, that was the last time Munich muscle would find itself at the pinnacle of world motorsport.
South Africa has been BMW’s quiet powerhouse for a long time, though. Plant Rosslyn near Pretoria was the company’s first outside of Germany, building cars since 1973, often with charmingly obscure local names. The E30 3 Series was the Gusheshe, the E36 was the Dolphin, the E46 was the G-string and the E90 the Tweezer. You probably know of the Rosslyn-built E28 M5 and the lovely E30 333i.
You may even know the 2.7-litre Alpina-engined 325iS for the local market with its M3 suspension, Getrag dog-leg ’box and factory LSD. The 530 MLE might be a bit more of a mystery. It shouldn’t be, though. This was BMW’s first road car with a Motorsport designation and it occupies pole position in the Kyalami pit boxes.
Markus Flasch is sitting in it. I don’t think many have twigged that the big boss of the M division is just mulling over the cabin, inhaling the unmistakable period thermoplastics and admiring the restorative work of four men. The badge stands for Motorsport Limited Edition, and this homologation special is one of 217 built to qualify it for the Modified Production Series in 1976. It won 15 of 15 consecutive races, wrapping up three championship titles in three years. Upon retirement, the 147kW/277Nm 530 MLE was the most successful racing BMW 5 Series in history.
This one was a wreck. It was rescued in 2018 and now looks absolutely perfect, restored at Plant Rosslyn by a team of veteran employees who originally built it. It’s hard to know quite where to look, though. Further up the pit lane is an original 3.0 CSL Batmobile near a red M1, the only one of its type in South Africa, Then there’s a magnificent 745i race car, and even a crazy homebuilt BMW V12 LMR tribute with a 750iL V12 engine amidships. The new X5M and X6M are unveiled, current M4 GT4 and DTM cars are ripping huge wheelspins out of pit lane, and there’s every single one of BMW’s current M car line-up to sample.
I jump into an M2 Competition for an orientation lap of Kyalami. What was once open veldt is now hemmed in by houses, business parks and the local Church of Scientology. It’s an easy track to learn the fundamentals of, with no nasty surprises, but it’s clear that extracting real speed here would require some fortitude. The most exhilarating part is a fast crest that momentarily obscures the run into a hairpin at the top of the hill, where the track used to veer off through what now looks to be L Ron’s parking lot. You wouldn’t want to get that corner wrong and send a thetan back to its landing station on Venus. I hear they’re a litigious bunch.
“Aim for the tree up there on the hillside,” comes the instruction from the romper suit sitting beside me. Sure enough, when you line up with the tree, you’re cued straight onto the apex of the Leeukop hairpin, before careening back down the Mineshaft towards The Crocodiles, Cheetah and Ingwe, a set of challenging lefts and rights before the finish straight.
We sit through a press conference and product presentation from the local team and then start getting into the refreshments. Night falls and Johannesburg is spread out like a twinkling carpet ahead of us. Then an announcement that pit lane is open. We look at each other to check whether it’s for real, but they are indeed serious. Things are clearly done rather differently in Gauteng province.
That’s the background to finding myself blasting uphill, peering into the blackness at flat knacker in an M5 before realising that I have no hope in hell of picking the line into the hairpin. With both the seeing and stopping options off the table, guessing seems to be my least-worst course of action. Suddenly the red and white kerbing bursts into view and we’re not too far off course, maybe half a car’s width. The tail swings wide a few degrees in lazy lift-off oversteer, squeeze the throttle gently and it gathers itself up without any real corrective lock required. Judging by the eavesdropped radio chatter, I’m not doing too badly compared to some of our Middle Eastern colleagues.
The media preview is but the prelude for the real deal. The whole of Kyalami is turned into a massive entertainment and retail venue, with a concert-quality live stage, open-air bars, merchandise shops, a fun fair and countless food trucks. BMW expects 30,000 paying punters, and judging from the throng, it’s not a bad prediction.
Queues snake out of the pits for the free on-track passenger rides, while those looking to buy can drive cars themselves on a smaller circuit. The most impressive aspect is that the entire upper section of the pit complex has been turned into a massive pop-up dealership with event discounts and an expectation that 200 cars will find new owners across the two days.
Be as cynical as you like about the branding, but it’s genuinely encouraging to witness a new generation engage so immersively with cars. Kids with wide eyes cling to the fencing as a race car erupts from the pit lane, and gaze open-mouthed at the super-fit drivers with necks the same size as their waists. They’re sporting M-branded caps before they even troop through the gates, and in the evening the laser show, fireworks and dance music festival cement an association that we’ve so often forgotten. Cars can be huge fun. There’s a time for mobility solutions and environmental footprint, and today is not it. Right now, it’s Bavarian beer, biltong, braai and BMWs. And it doesn’t get much better.