Behind the scenes with BMW Motorrad Motorsport
The news that BMW Motorrad was working on a new 450cc sports enduro concept bike by entering it in the World Enduro Championship came as a big surprise to those who weren't expecting such a big step from the German manufacturer.
However, this motorcycle is just the latest in a long line of exciting off-road machines that BMW has been designing and building to win races for more than 80 years. From Rudolf Schleicher's success on his R 37 in the 1927 UK Six-Day Race, to consecutive Erzberg Iron Road prologue victories on the formidable HP2 Enduro in 2005 and 2006, there has been plenty of success. The Paris-Dakar victories on the factory R 100 GS in the 1980s were outstanding, as was BMW's securing the top four places in the 2000 Dakar Rally with its modified F 650 rally bike.
There's a well-known saying that says 'racing improves the breed', and no one would agree with this statement more than Christian Wettach, the product manager for the new 450cc sports enduro prototype. "You can develop a new bike behind the scenes for years and do all the private testing in the world, but until you race it on the best tracks against the most talented riders in the world, you'll never know how good it is." Interestingly, in development terms at least, the new sports enduro has come to fruition very quickly, as the project team has only been working on this prototype since the end of 2004. Christian believes that this motorcycle - along with the 'new generation' of machines that started with the introduction of the R 1200 GS just three years ago - is helping to change the brand's perception beyond all recognition, as well as attract new riders from well outside BMW's 'traditional' channels.
"The emotional side of riding a BMW has changed massively since we launched the R 1200 GS and subsequently other models, such as the HP2 Enduro, G 650 Xchallenge, K 1200 S and K 1200 R. Not only are new riders beginning to take note of what we are doing, but even the more established riders seem to have a renewed enthusiasm for the brand. The reaction to this bike has been very positive - both inside and outside BMW."
BMW Motorrad's long tradition of off-road racing took another step forward at Puerto Lumbreras in southern Spain at the end of last month, where in front of more than 20,000 spectators, the company's first serious enduro contender was unveiled to the off-road world. Making a debut in the highly competitive and popular E2 class in the prestigious World Endurance Championship against the world's most talented enduro riders was a real 'acid test' for the new bike, but one it passed with flying colors, according to Christian.
"This was a big challenge for us. We hoped that our concept was good enough to be at least competitive with the established bikes and riders in this class, so it was great to finally get there and even score some world championship points on debut. What we are proud of though is how we've been able to develop the prototype to the level it is now, and the fact that it has been developed almost exclusively in-house by our own employees - with no 'bought in' expertise.
In Spain, we had a lot to gain from competing, because there is a massive difference between racing and testing. Fortunately, we were able to finish the event and the experience was invaluable. We learnt that to be successful requires so much more than top riders and competitive machinery - you need the entire team working perfectly together throughout the weekend for the results to go your way. This we knew before, but it was proven again massively."
As a sign of its commitment to this project, BMW has engaged the services of two outstanding, yet very different riders to develop the sports enduro machine. Everyone will have heard of five-times world motocross champion Joel Smets but Sascha Eckert may not be familiar to those outside the enduro arena. Christian believes that the combination of a seasoned MX professional and an experienced enduro campaigner will be a real advantage for the team's development in 2007.
"Everyone is aware of Joel's talents as a top-level rider from his success in world championships, the six-day scene and MX of Nations series. As he has been racing for over 20 years as a pro, he knows just about all there is to know about the off-road world and will be a fantastic international ambassador for this project. Because he's had so much success, Joel has nothing left to prove to anyone, so this project is a great challenge for him because at this stage it isn't going to be about podiums - only development."
"Sascha on the other hand has actually been involved with this sports enduro project for more than a year. He is very skilled in all technical aspects of these kinds of bikes, due to his profession as 'two wheel mechanic' and he has many years experience on mainly sports enduro and MX bikes. Additionally, he brings in a lot of knowledge of all aspects of this sport as he was racing for many years for several different manufacturers."
The BMW Motorrad Motorsport team was happy with the bike's first competitive outing in Spain, as the objective of a strong finish was achieved. The team will also be entering various other well-known races during the 2007 season for further testing but for now the focus remains on the next round of the World Enduro Championship, which takes place at the end of the month in Italy.
"Fortunately, we don't have any major changes to make to the prototype, because the concept was working properly in Spain," said Christian. "However, we will be concentrating our efforts on the suspension and engine, as these are two areas where improvements can bring you vital seconds in the races. The suspension is the key area though, because getting this working efficiently makes a massive difference to the potential of the bike. Fortunately, Ohlins has been involved in this project from a very early stage. We've also got some private testing planned and Simo Kirssi and Sascha are also planning to compete in several German Cross Country Championship races on the bike. This will give us more information ahead of the next World Endurance Championship round in Italy."
So far then, the initial experience has been very positive for the team, with a lot of interest received from the off-road motorcycle press, as well as Spanish BMW dealers and their customers - many of who came to Puerto Lumbreras to see the action unfold.
"At this stage, we're just testing a prototype and finding out if this segment could be good for BMW," confirms Christian. "Clearly, BMW has already expanded into new segments and developed sportier machines that have attracted a new calibre of rider to the brand. The enduro segment does have a lot of potential for growth and if we succeed with this product, then it could be a big story for us. But for the moment we're just concerned with getting the bikes and the team prepared for the next round in Italy."