BMW are undoubtedly one of the finest manufacturers of road cars. Their M division has garnered legendary status amongst fans of the Bavarian marque, with motorsport DNA filtering through into the M2’s, M3’s and M5’s that have long been the darling of magazine road tests. But just how much motorsport DNA does the manufacturer actually have? If you’re of a certain age group, your mind instantly goes to high revving E30 M3’s, battling Mercedes 190’s and Ford Sierra’s on Europes race tracks but what about their other successes and how many championships have they won at the top level?
To find out, I’ve gone through some of the biggest and best categories in world motorsport and combined the number of drivers and constructors championships and then compared the totals with 3 of BMW’s closest German rivals, Mercedes, Audi and Porsche. The results may surprise you.
Arguably the pinnacle of motorsport and the elite category of racing. F1 is home to thoroughbred racing names such as Ferrari, McLaren and Lotus. It has seen the birth of technical innovations like double clutch gearboxes, carbon fibre and ground effect aerodynamics. Combining this technological arms race with global publicity unrivalled by any other form of motorsport, you’d imagine BMW would have sipped champagne on the top step of the podium countless times. Only they haven’t. Their sole championship victory came as engine supplier to Brabham in 1983, when Brazilian Nelson Pique beat Alain Prost, who had been leading the championship since round 6, until the final race of the season. The Frenchman’s Renault suffered a turbo failure and Pique was able to clinch the driver’s title. Consistency from Arnoux and Tambay in the Ferrari’s meant they took the constructors championship away from both Brabham and Renault. The early 2000’s saw a return to the sport as engine supplier to Williams. The British outfit had struggled for a few seasons after losing Renault backing and were keen for another major manufacturer to come in and offer technical and financial support. Unfortunately this period coincided with the emergence of the Ferrari/Schumacher dominance, where only McLaren with Mercedes engines could hold a candle to the mighty Scuderia. In 2006, BMW decided to mount a full challenge on the championship, partnering with Sauber to become a constructor in their own right. Of 72 races entered during this period, BMW saw only a solitary win at Canada in 2008. One year later they pulled out of the sport and haven’t returned. From the Bavarian company’s rivals, only Mercedes can boast true success with competitive spells in the 1950’s and near total dominance in the Hybrid era. For many, a manufacturer’s success in F1 doesn’t make or break its motorsport reputation, often citing the sports lack of relevance to road cars. I disagree however. In days gone by it served as a competitive testing ground for new technologies that would filter down into other race series and eventually into production cars. Even governments have seen the importance of Grand Prix racing, with the Nazi party giving financial backing to both Mercedes and Auto Union to promote the supremacy of German engineering.
BMW – 1* Mercedes – 25** Audi – 1*** Porsche – 3****
*championship won as engine supplier to Brabham
**7 of those 25 are as engine supplier.
***won as Audi predecessor Auto Union.
****as engine supplier but badged as TAG
Le Mans 24 hours
The Le Mans 24 hours is arguably Europes most prestigious single race and has been used by manufacturers for nearly a century to showcase the mechanical durability of their products. The likes of Bentley, Jaguar and Ford have recounted former glories in numerous media campaigns, often using their Le Mans heritage to sell new models. Porsche are the dominant force in this race with a record 19 victories, their first coming in 1970 and they even locked out the top spot for 7 consecutive years from 1981 to 1987 with the magnificent 956 and 962, going down in history as two of the races all time greats. 1999 saw BMW’s one and only outright win. During the race weekend, the V12 engined BMW LMR was down on outright pace compared to the turbocharged Toyota’s and Audi’s but superior fuel economy and reliability turned out to be the deciding factor for car number 15, completing just one more lap than the Toyota GT-One. Unfortunately this win would be overshadowed by Peter Dumbreck’s spectacular crash in the Mercedes CLR where the car took off and flipped over the barrier into the tress. The turn of the millennium saw Audi win 13 of 15 races, only interrupted with wins from Bentley and Peugeot, before Porsche came back to win three on the trot, showing everyone else who’s race this was. For many manufacturers, the Le Mans 24 hours is second only to F1 in commercial value, the race being part of the mythical triple crown, with the Indy 500 and Monaco Grand Prix the other two qualifying races. BMW did have a technical victory in 1995 with their engines powering the McLaren F1. Personally I’d say there’d be an asterisk next to this win as non of the McLaren’s were factory run cars and there was little to no change in the power plant from the road car, barring a restrictor that meant the race car actually produced less power.
BMW – 1* Mercedes – 2 Audi – 13 Porsche – 19
*1995 Race won by privateer team Kokusai Kaihatsu in a McLaren F1 using BMW engines
World Rally Championship
Audi Quattro. It’s arguably the most famous and recognisable car in the history of rallying and it put Audi on the map. It’s fire breathing 5 cylinder and revolutionary AWD system are at the core of who Audi are today and neither of the other three big German manufacturers can hold a candle to the four rings on the world stage. That’s not to say the others haven’t tried, Porsche developed the AWD 959 with an eye on the Group B championship and BMW have had plenty of lower tier success with the E30 M3. Considering the sport’s popularity over the years, I’m unsure as to why the big German brands have generally avoided the WRC (with the exception of Volkswagen and their recent campaign in the Polo), as through certain eras, it’s often said rallying was able to pull in more spectators than some F1 races.
BMW – 0 Mercedes – 0 Audi – 4 Porsche – 0
(Deutsche Rennsport Meisterschaft, Deutsche Tourenwagen Meisterschaft & Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters)
This is where I thought BMW would shine, Germanys domestic tin top race series. DTM is popular across the globe and has at varying times, been regarded as the premier European touring car championship. Once again however, rivals Audi and Mercedes have outclassed their Bavarian counterpart with the latter racking up nearly three times as many drivers and constructors titles. DTM can be split into three different regulatory eras, 1972-1985 in which BMW tallied up only a solitary championship in 1978 with Harald Erti behind the wheel of a 320i turbo. The next took us through to 1996 with BMW securing 3 wins with the 635csi and just two in the E30 M3. This was probably my biggest surprise of all. I’d had it in my head that the E30 was this all conquering monster that blitzed the touring car world much like the Nissan R32 GTR did. The E30’s first championship win was in 1987 at the hands of Eric van de Poele with its last in 1989 with Roberto Ravaglia behind the wheel, split in 1988 by Klaus Ludwig’s Sierra RS500. Under current rules from the year 2000 onwards, BMW have only taken home 4 drivers and 3 constructors titles with all other 39 titles combined being split between Mercedes and Audi. To put BMW’s poor record into perspective, Ford have 7 DTM championships to BMW’s 11, with the American’s most recent win coming 35 years ago!
BMW – 11 Mercedes – 29 Audi – 21 Porsche- 6
World sports car championship 1953-1992 & World Endurance Championship 2012- present
For many years, the World Sports Car championship was run as a multi class series separated by engine sizes, prototype, production car, group and GT classes, meaning there was often more than one championship up for grabs in a single season. Unsurprisingly, considering their Le Mans record (that race has often tied in with the championship) Porsche are head and shoulders above the others. Shockingly BMW have not recorded a top class win since the series inception in 1953. It should be noted that Mercedes pulled out of sports car racing after the horrific crash that marred the 1955 Le Mans race, so we can speculate how many more titles they’d have won had they continued racing.
BMW – 1* Mercedes- 3 Audi – 4 Porsche- 35
*1984 Group B FIA grand touring cup
Quite possibly the ultimate proving ground for showcasing mechanical robustness, the Dakar rally is a two week event, crossing some of the most challenging terrain in the world. BMW have had no outright victories in the car category to date, choosing instead to concentrate on the motorcycle category in which they have recorded a rather modest 6 wins. Rivals Porsche have the most out of the four with wins in a 911 and later a 959.
BMW – 0 Mercedes – 1 Audi – 0 Porsche – 2
Indy car/Indianapolis 500
Non of the big four German manufacturers have had much presence in North America’s premier open wheeled racing series. It is Mercedes however, who are the only ones to have secured glory with wins in the 1915 and 1994 Indianapolis 500 and an Indycar manufacturer’s title in 1997.
BMW – 0 Mercedes – 2 Audi – 0 Porsche – 0
I was debating wether to include formula E or not, the rules allow for very little technical innovation as many parts are controlled and shared by the entire paddock but since electricity is apparently the future I’ve got to include something EV related. BMW entered formula E using their “i” sub brand and have been involved since the 2018/19 season. They are yet to pick up any real silverware however, with rivals Audi and Mercedes having won drivers and constructors championships.
BMW – 0 Mercedes – 4 Audi – 2 Porsche – 0
BMW – 14 Mercedes – 66 Audi – 44 Porsche – 65
Other notable categories
From online sources, the only race category/series (that has any global relevance) I can find that BMW are the statistical leaders of, is the Nurburgring 24. BMW have won this 20 times as a manufacturer with Porsche in second at 13, Audi 6 and Mercedes 2. Some, myself included, would argue that as brilliant as the race is, it doesn’t have the same worldwide reach as others in the lists above.
Considering BMW have produced a wide variety of motorcycles since 1923 (their first ever motor vehicle being a motorcycle), they have failed to win a single drivers or constructors championships in both MotoGP and the World Superbike Championship. They have however had success in the motorcycle category at Dakar and in the Isle of Man TT races.
This article has not been written to discredit BMW, if that was the case I’d be writing a piece about their current design language! I’ve just found it interesting how little top flight success they’ve had and how they market the M Division in comparison to perceived lesser manufacturers, who don’t play on their motorsport success as much. So while BMW’s of old may have been the “ultimate driving machine”, they probably aren’t the ultimate racing machine.
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