The Most Successful Touring Car Of All Time Also Shares A Strong Connection To Rallying On A French Island
Photography by Will Broadhead
The BMW M3 has been setting sports driving benchmarks for six generations and counting, with each iteration adding to the M3’s status as the most successful touring car model of all time. Its superb racing history on circuits began almost immediately after its introduction in the late 1980s, with championship wins on the big stage of DTM and nearly everywhere else the M3 was campaigned by the factory and privateer teams, from England to Australia and Italy to Japan.. My own early memories are of Will Hoy’s black and baby blue Bimmer winning the ’91 British Touring Car Championship, battling along the way with John Cleland’s Vauxhall. Hoy’s wasn’t the only BMW team entered that year, with a certain company called Prodrive leading a two-car factory-backed effort. Prodrive did just fine with the M3 on circuits, but their story with the car began years earlier, with a rally car.
BMW’s diversity of motorsport success includes winning Le Mans, the Targa Florio, powering F1 champs, winning dozens of touring car titles, and conquering the Dakar on two wheels, but their rallying record is often overlooked. But the E30 M3 was a venerable competitor on tarmac stages, and proved it out of the gate in 1987, when the Bavarians scored a win with the M3 in its debut season in the WRC at the Rallye de France on Corsica. A tarmac-focused car developed by Prodrive, the M3 was well-suited to the tight and technical stages on the island, and although it won a handful of titles in national rally championships around Europe in the late ’80s and early ’90s, that round win was the sole WRC success to come out of the program. Bernard Béguin was the one to achieve the impressive solitary win, which was his first and only win at rallying’s top table. It was also another milestone moment for the fact that it was the first win (but certainly not the last) for the English outfit that entered the cars, Prodrive (whose real fame would arrive in the following decade with Subaru).
Fast forward to 2021 and you’ll find that there are still a fair amount of E30 M3s rallying around Corsica, although these are obviously not part of the WRC, they are commonly entered in the Tour de Corse Historique. And just like their forerunner in 1987, they are winners. During this year’s event, I followed the French team (driver Christophe Casanova and navigator Stéphane Delleaux) that returned the M3 to the top spot on Corsica in an echo of the past.
Their car and others on the rally run a livery from the 1987 Prodrive team. Not the Rothmans colors of Corsica-winner Béguin, but the white-and-blue scheme that was attributed to the other Prodrive car that year driven by Belgians Marc Duez and Georges Biar (who finished sixth at Corsica that year). The 2021 winner, Casanova, is a Corsican entrepreneur in the automotive business, and although he isn’t a pro, he’s proved his skills in the M3 and has really gelled with the car over the years. His machine is full Group A-spec, beautifully prepared by Sarl EVORACE, a racing specialist that was represented by three of their M3s this year. Original Prodrive cars would be a bit too precious—or at least a lot more expensive—to drive as hard as these cars, as there were just 11 of those built in period and purportedly one of those was burned. The EVORACE build is still a tremendous bit of kit, though, and did its inspiration justice tearing around the island.
At its heart is the iconic four-cylinder S14, with this specific one making around 300hp from its naturally aspirated 2.3 liters, and offering plenty of torque. It’s an impressive lump to say the least, and it certainly sounds the part as it screams up to the 9,000 mark on the Stack tach. Making good use of that 130hp/L engine is the much-lauded E30 M3 chassis, which has been stiffened and reinforced—tarmac stages don’t require the raised ride height required by the less smooth surfaces, but they’re far from the smooth ribbon of a circuit.
The M3 won a single WRC event, but the model, under Prodrive’s stewardship, expanded its success in France when it won the French title in 1990 at the hands of François Chatriot and navigator Michel Périn. All of the Prodrive cars were put together in the company British home base in Banbury, and Corsica-winner Béguin recalls that “Only the engine was from Munich.” Indeed, Prodrive handled more development than one might expect, including developing their own six-speed gearboxes.
Prodrive knew the car wouldn’t be beating the all-wheel drive Lancia Deltas in the overall championship, but the M3’s Achilles heel in rallying—rear-wheel drive had its last hurrah years earlier—was also its biggest strength on the tarmac stages that the car excelled at. Prodrive’s efforts made the M3 something of a ringer on tarmac, but the project is overshadowed by both the car’s and the company’s much grander achievements elsewhere.
To see the squared-off bodywork of a first-gen M3 rally car in its element is a rare treat, but it seems that Corsica has long been the best place to find them. It’s intake noise is one of the best to come out of a four-cylinder, and the side-exit exhaust pipes had their own brilliant sounds amplified by the canyons and mountains on the island. The noise created from this high-strung boxy rocket is incredible at the top end, and its pretty rare even in motorsport to hear an engine spinning so quickly.
Three-plus decades since it’s debut in Group A rallying, the M3 is still a threat on tarmac, and while it fared far better as a Group A touring car, the drivers like Christophe Casanova will continue to add to its small but growing rally win tally, and its connection to Corsica.