You know a car company means business, when the launch invite calls for a track-only program at Portugal’s challenging Algarve International Circuit.
It’s a high-speed race track with lots of elevation and a killer-long straightway that dips heavily towards turn one, which is taken fast – only to be followed by fast-taken blind crests, including a section that dips steeply into an almost flat-out left-hander that’s slightly off camber.
My own introduction to this place was something of a baptism of fire, some years earlier, while testing another similarly potent coupe from another Euro manufacturer. And, this from the passenger seat of all things, on what was essentially a couple of sighting laps with a locally-based pro driver.
You’d have to assume he knew the circuit backwards, but that didn’t stop him spinning the car, not once, but twice on the same lap. I suppose you might put that down to cold tyres, but it was a bit of an eye-opener, certainly not a confidence-inspiring event.
But, whatever car you’re piloting at the Portimao circuit, you better hope it’s got a tonne of grip and plenty of feedback, or it can be an intimidating experience, especially for first-timers.
My turn came next, and I just happened to have the head PR guy riding shotgun in the car. Two or three laps in, and the car just snapped all of a sudden, sending it into a 180-degree spin at around 160km/h through an off-camber uphill climb, after which I found myself steering backwards and doing my level best to avoid what looked like freshly extruded Armco.
I can still visualise it as clear as day, nine years on. In the end, we came to rest just a few centimetres parallel from it. I counted it as a lucky escape and something I’ve managed to avoid ever since.
Over the years, there have been more track sessions at this circuit, but never really loving the experience like others I’ve driven in Europe. In fact, I only really started to get comfortable here in 2018, while putting the latest Aston Martin Vantage through its paces. That’s a car which develops huge levels of grip – rain, hail or shine – which is exactly what I was hoping for from the latest and greatest M car creation; the all-new BMW M8 Competition Coupe.
If you thought BMW design has waned over recent years, at least from its glory days, the new 2020 BMW M8 (like the M2 and M5) is a car to celebrate. It’s low, wide and very aggressive. Just the ticket for a high-performance coupe from BMW's M division.
The low-profile kidney grille in gloss black and 20-inch light alloy wheels look the business, but it’s the rear of the car with its blacked-out diffuser and quad-exhaust tips in the same stealth black that do it for me. It’s over 2.1m wide, if you include the wing mirrors.
It’s an imposing car, even when standing still.
Inside, the M8 is a treat, just what you would expect of a flagship Grand Tourer from BMW. The look and feel of materials is first class, and the level of comfort achieved from the leather-wrapped M Sport seats is exceptional.
It’s also ultra-modern, with dual digital screens handling infotainment and instrumentation as well as one of the industry’s best Head-Up displays.
Interestingly, at the pre-drive presentation the night before the track session, we were speaking with the engineer in charge of the car’s development who told us, categorically, the new M8 Competition has more grip than the M5 – and that’s a car that all-but conquered the famed Estoril Circuit in Portugal, so this was starting to sound like it could be something quite special.
The numbers alone are impressive. The high-revving 4.4-litre twin-turbo V8, where the turbos are sitting in the hot V between the cylinder banks for more immediate throttle response, pushes out 460kW of power and 750Nm of torque.
Quite enough, but still 50Nm down on the incoming Audi RS 7.
But, that doesn’t matter, because the M8 Competition can deliver its Thor-like twist between a staggeringly broad 1800-5800 revolutions (5600rpm for the stock M8). Put simply, it’s the fastest series-production BMW road car ever built.
And, that impressively wide torque band is enough to propel this two-door coupe from standstill to 100km/h in a blistering 3.2 seconds and onto a top speed of 305km/h, depending on how the car is optioned.
While numbers do count to some degree in what is a fairly rarefied segment, it’s much more about how a car gets its power down – quick is good, but only if it’s delivered in a linear fashion so the driver has more control of the car.
It’s that connection between car and driver that matters most here, and BMW’s M division has clearly gone to considerable lengths to ensure the M8 Competition delivers on that count, and then some.
For starters, there’s a specific engine mount that’s stiffer again over the standard M8 Coupe for that all-important connection with the chassis. It’s something I felt the effects of from the very first time I turned in to turn one. It also affects throttle response – satisfyingly sharp and very quick with little or no lag, as long as you’re carrying some revs.
There’s more camber at the front axle and even more precise wheel guidance at the rear axle. And, again, these changes make this car so much more predictable at the limit.
It’s a car that you can position exactly where you want it through the bends and still keep pushing, even in those perilous off-camber downhill sections here at the Algarve without any nasty side effects.
The harder I pushed, the more grip it developed. I mean, we were really on it by lap five and six, and still, I reckon I could have gone even harder on the entry onto the main straightaway. I know that for certain, thanks to the hot lap with works driver Jesse Krohn who was wringing its neck and yet, still no loss of traction and little if any oversteer, even out of the tighter corners.
That’s in Track mode, too, with driver assistance systems all but completely deactivated. There was a small wriggle through one of the tight right-handers but it's dead easy to gather up.
You get the feeling the M8 Competition simply won’t let go, no matter how hard you care to charge. I'm sure there's a breaking point, but that's a point where even angels might not dare.
The normal M8 gets Road and Sport modes, but the Competition version adds Track for ultimate response from the engine, dampers, steering, four-wheel drive and brake system.
It’s uncanny how much speed you can carry through the faster corners, and that’s pretty much down to the addition of the car’s new all-wheel steering and all-wheel drive systems. I wasn’t game to push any harder – but in hindsight the M8 Competition is capable of so much more.
But, there’s also the option of selectable drive modes via the Setup menu. It means drivers can choose between the default 4WD setting and 4WD Sport mode, which will send more drive to the rear wheels.
Deactivate DSC, which is what happens to some extent when you choose Track, and 2WD comes into play. It’s not scary either, because the Active M differential ensures there’s still plenty of traction available.
You can really feel the M8 Competition’s high torsional rigidity on track more than anywhere else. There’s zero body roll to speak of, at least, that’s the feeling you get from behind the wheel. Put that down to the M-specific forged links and stiffer roll bars in this new M car.
The front end feels particularly rigid, which is why turn-in is such a joy on track, thanks to the tower-to-bulkhead strut and a newly-developed rigid sheer panel with side sill connection.
At the rear, there’s steel X-brace and an aluminium transverse strut that delivers a more stable connection between the rear axle and the body.
I don’t think we came close to properly exploiting the optional carbon-ceramic brakes on the M8 test car we drove – such is their ability to haul this car up at 240km/h down the main straightaway. That’s even after repeated abuse from a succession of different drivers at the circuit, and tyres that were well and truly worn in.
Moreover, this is an integrated braking system that allows drivers to select between Sport and Comfort – though we only got to try Sport, but it’s impossible to tell the brake pressure is triggered by an electric actuator.
It sounds brilliant, too. Not like any other M car to date. The soundtrack is closer to a GTE racer than any other twin-turbo V8, and best heard at full cry at 200km/h plus. Unusual for a twin-turbo V8, but that's the magic of the M8's cross-bank exhaust manifolds and a sports exhaust system which uses electrically-controlled flaps.
That said, it could be louder at low speeds, but there might be a button for that. (I was a bit busy.)
And, don’t think for one moment that you might suffer from the lack of a dual-clutch transmission, because the eight-speed auto feels just as quick but more refined than most of those we’ve driven. It’s something you don’t even think about on the track.
Clearly there’s a lot we didn’t get to test at the track, like ride comfort, cabin insulation and general daily drive factors, which we’ll discover in depth when we get to drive the car under local conditions.
Performance-wise, though, you’ve got to give the BMW M8 Competition a very strong thumbs-up for its holistic approach to a high-performance GT car.
For a car that tips the scales at 1885kg, there are few if any rivals in the segment that could get around a circuit like Algarve with such ferocity yet with such predictability and sure-footed confidence.
Pricing and specifications will be available closer to the M8's arrival in Australia in the second quarter of 2020.
EDITOR'S NOTE: As a track-only test, we've left this review unscored. Keep an eye out for our Australian launch review.