In the first installment of BMW’s new “Power of M” campaign, three-time Emmy-winner Milo Ventimiglia gapes and then exults while he’s drifting around racetrack corners in the 2021 BMW M4 coupe fitted with a six-speed manual transmission. Although he’s in the driver’s seat, we are to believe the car is in autonomous driving mode.
The action pauses as the car skids to a stop. “Oh, come on. I drove it myself,” Ventimiglia says, winking at the camera. The transmission goes into reverse, and there’s a crazy, spinning, tire-smoking maneuver before the M4 comes to rest again, and he walks away.
Stylish and trenchant, the spot called “The Ultimate Self-Driving Machine” spoofed the world when released on April Fool’s Day. “Fully self-driving BMWs are not currently available,” the disclaimer informs.
Of course, we already understand that BMW M models are the most capable ones in the marque’s portfolio. Members of the elite high-performance M lineup receive upgrades to the power train, suspension and electronic functions. And there’s unique trim inside and out. The implicit message of the M4 is that the manual gearbox betokens utmost driver control and fun. Who would even want autonomous-driving capability?
I had occasion to reflect on Ventimiglia’s cheerful malarkey just before jumping on the brakes at the end of a long straightaway at the Thermal Club, in Thermal, Calif. Ventimiglia did the filming here, so for the sake of authenticity, Robb Report accepted the opportunity to drive on this country-club racetrack near Palm Springs to get a taste of the “This Is Us” star’s authentic wonder and joy.
Rather than the second-generation M4, I was thrusting along in a bewitching 2022 BMW M8 Competition, provocative and daring outside in Alpine white, voluptuous inside in black-and-tan dressing. With even more features and electronic offerings, the M8 Competition is an “M” above the rest.
Ace instructor Christopher Hill of the BMW Performance Center West, located at Thermal, was leading the way and coaching on a two-way radio. He urged judicious acceleration until the steering wheel returned to center, mindful of the monster under the M8 Competition’s long, sloping hood.
This new projectile from BMW starts at $131,995 and is loaded with a few extra grains of firing powder in the form of the 617 hp, 4.4-liter V-8 engine. Its twin-turbos and internal furies operate behind a series of vertical grille bars and lots of mesh in the lower fascia—all in black. The eight-speed automatic transmission works nicely if the setting is dialed up to Sport Plus. It blips the throttle on downshifts, but one is free to choose manual mode and regulate activity with the paddle shifters.
Weighing in at 4,295 pounds, or 2.14 tons—which seems about right for, say, a coastal defense vessel in the Danish archipelago—the M8 spills out of its swimsuit, so I was happy to rely on Hill’s conservative dynamic settings. The car seemed happy too, lest it find itself departing Turn 8 backward.
Despite the “all-safe” settings, the portly M8 was nevertheless imposing. A contributing factor was the unfamiliar driving position that Hill prescribed. It was more NASCAR or IMSA GTP in style and less the relaxed grand-touring posture with arms stretched out.
Still, even as it shed away the effortless blazing speed, the M8 always went where it was supposed to go. Reaching the apex of a turn, I would pick up the throttle and remind myself to breathe and command the moment.
“Look at the flashing light of the stability control,” Hill had said beforehand. “It’s almost like a driving coach.” But I was holding on tight and hadn’t even noticed the head-up display or variable instrument-panel graphics. Urgent updates, if any, from the chassis-management system would go unnoticed.
We finished our laps without anyone puncturing the outer wall and landing in a date grove or, if pointing north, encroaching upon the runway of the Jacqueline Cochran Airport. At worst, I’d missed a couple of apexes but could claim to have pressed as hard as I dared.
Hill soon loaded me and another student into his bone-stock M5 sedan and made an excellent display of chassis stiffness and car control while drifting through the corners just as Ventimiglia’s M4 had done. For patrons who leave Los Angeles before sunrise to come out to the desert for a morning of motorsport thrills, these hot laps are a way of experiencing a skill-set most can only dream of aspiring to.
In the final assessment, driving the M8 Competition on the track after the long pandemic interval was revivifying. The car is full of dragons and wizards and needs lots of internal supervision, and for all we know a Wyoming data farm is tied up in support of the effort. Ultimately, it was a fun time in a good-looking car.
When Milo Ventimiglia walks away from the smoking M4 on his track day, he says, “Not bad for an actor, huh?” When it came time to relinquish the helm of BMW’s super-coupe, this reporter and avid amateur driver kind of felt the same way.