Desert Pioneers

California-based privateer Martin Christensen has long been BMW’s unofficial point man in the desert. Running the only BMW-powered race in the field (see Bimmer #28), he’s won two SCORE championships in the deserts of Nevada and Baja California, Mexico. With the factory focused on Formula One and the World Touring Car Championship and further support dedicated to roadracing’s PTG team in the U.S., Munich seemed to have little interest in Christensen’s extraordinary exploits or the SCORE series in general.

That may have changed in late 2005, when the High Performance (HR) unit of BMW Motorrad decided to enter two HP2 Enduro motorcycles in the legendary Baja 1000 desert race. They’d entered a prototype of the HP2 in 2004, but this would be the first time they’d do so on a production-based machine with real factory support and an official Munich presence. What the team learned in the effort may have a profound effect on BMW’s racing plans in the near future-on four wheels as well as two.

Thrill rides in the desert

If BMW does end up supporting a SCORE desert racing effort, we can thank Christensen, who took advantage of the factory presence to show off the capabilities of his own S62 V8 powered racer. Two days before the event, Christensen-plus his codrivers Boris Said and Dave Mason-took BMW’s factory reps for a ride in his limited class racer on the actual Baja 1000 course near Ojos Negros. Reaching speeds well over 100 mph on roads that would shatter a conventional SUV, Christensen blew their minds with his car’s capabilities.

“This is just an incredible machine!” gushed HP product and motorcycle sports manager Berthold Hauser. “We were several feet in the air, just flying, and yet I became comfortable with the sensation after just a couple of kilometers. Its suspension inspires tremendous confidence, much like a motorcross bike.”
Dirk Biehler was equally impressed. “I can see that whatever we were thinking previously about off-pavement technology is now completely obsolete,” said BMW’s marketing manager for motorcycles. “This car is the future!”

Roadracer Said was also having a blast. “This new car of Martin’s is just amazing,” he said. “Even when you are running at 80 mph over impossible roads, it can absorb giant holes in the terrain like they weren’t even there. I don’t know how long it’s going to take before I get fully in tune with its capabilities, but right now it’s far faster than I am!”

Not only was he trying Christensen’s car for the first time, Said was also making his initial foray in the Baja 1000, as well. “I try to drive everything I possibly can, in every type of competition. Each experience teaches you something that might be applied somewhere else,” Said enthused during the demo runs.

Christensen’s latest California-built racer, designed specifically to win the Baja 1000, is equipped with an almost-stock BMW V8 engine sourced from an E39 M5. (When he’s not racing, Christensen runs All German Auto in Escondido, CA). “About all that has been changed is the electronic control module and the exhaust system, “Christensen said. “This engine delivers some 70 horsepower more than a stock M5 (which puts out 400 hp – Ed.) simply because we were able to re-map the electronics, but the rest is just as it was when I removed it from the stock chassis.”

Baja power requirements, surprisingly, are much like those of a high-performance street automobile. “That’s why using stock engines down here has such relevance to BMW owners and the factory engineers. It proves their strength and durability in conditions far more extreme than could ever be imagined by the average driver,” he said. “As a result of our past successes with the [six-cylinder] BMW-powered Class 10 car that we used to win two championships, we’ve accumulated a pretty amazing fan club of BMW owners who closely follow our six-race series. This new Class 1 V8 is attracting a lot of interest.”

It doesn’t hurt that Christensen is piloting the lone BMW against a field of Chevys and Toyotas, or that desert racing is truly spectacular even as the average speeds of top vehicles on a course like that of the Baja 1000 are under 50 mph.

“That number is deceiving because of much of the terrain is extremely rugged and highly technical. A standard SUV would be completely destroyed in a mile if it tried to match that speed,” Christensen said. “There are portions of the coursed where we run flat out-over 120 mph-but I’ve learned through experience that any good Baja racing engine has to be extremely flexible…and very rugged. We race through deep sand, silt and over rocks and even across rivers. That’s why I love these BMW V8s. They provide just the sort of broad power curve that’s needed here.”

Boxer power in Baja

On the motorcycle side, the broad power curve of the BMW boxer twin should also be ideal in Baja. To find out how well a factory-supported HP2 team might do on the SCORE circuit, BMW Motorrad sent over two HP2 Enduro machines, one to be ridden by a quartet of Americans led by Jimmy Lewis, the other to be entered by three top Mexican riders from Ensenada.

BMW Motorrad Baja Bound would team ex-Dakar racer Lewis with Baja veterans Dave Donatoni, Jonah Street and Beau Hayden in Class 22, the “open” category for professional racers, (Street and Donatoni had partnered Lewis for the 2004 effort, which resulted in a 115th-place finish), BMW Motorrad Team Mexico, meanwhile, would be comprised of Sergio Vega, Manuel Luna and Arnoldo Ramirez. The trio of Ensenada locals would compete in Class 30, for riders over the age of 30.

As a factory effort, the BMW teams were hoping to challenge Honda’s dominance of the Baja 1000. With 15 victories, most in the latter half of the race’s 38-year history, Honda has been virtually unbeatable of late, most recently with its XR650R single.

With a dry weight of 386 lbs. in stock form, the BMW HP2 outweighs an XR650R by more than 100lbs., but its twin-cylinder engine puts out some 105 hp from 1200cc-nearly double that of the 650cc Honda, which makes around 60 hp in race trim. Nonetheless, BMW’s engineers came to Baja with no exceptions other than to learn if the HP2 could survive more than 700 miles of racing in the Mexican desert.

“We knew in front that these bikes were heavier than required for Baja and that they’d had no development for this type of race,” said ex-Honda team rider Street before the start. As Lewis added, “Our instructions were just to ride as carefully and as fast as we could-to finish so we could apply what we learned for the future.”

Luna was a bit more optimistic about the Mexican team’s prospects. “We understand there’s an impressive field of experts out there in the Open class, many with years of Baja experience, but we can match that,” he said. “We also know that these machines are heavier than required for these conditions and probably can’t win, but we also know BMW quality…They’ll stay together, so our goal is to finish in the top ten for our class. This is a very difficult event.”

The loop from Ensenada

Christensen, happy at last to see anyone from the factory in Baja, whether on two wheels or four, graciously offered the bike racers the full use of his team’s facilities and experience. Both HP2 teams, with Motorrad’s assistance, had already formulated race strategy and pit arrangements, but knowing that Christensen’s well-equipped crew would also be spaced along the course gave them extra confidence.

As the 38th annual running of the Baja 1000 prepared to get underway on Friday, November 18, 2005, some 340 entries in more than 20 varied categories for cars, trucks, bikes and ATVs gathered in Ensenada. An estimated 300,000 fans lined the 709-mile course, which ran southeast to San Felipe on the Gulf of California and west to the Pacific Ocean before returning north to finish in the Ensenada stadium.

The motorcycles and ATVs were the first to leave, taking off at 30-second intervals starting at 6 a.m. When the final ATV had left the starting line, a two-hour break ensued before the first of the four-wheelers would depart. A record entry of more than 60 Trophy Trucks and Class 1 open-wheelers headed the four-wheel contingent this year, with Martin Christensen in his BMW first off the line in Class 1, just 30 seconds after the entire contingent of Trophies had departed.

Starting along Ensenada’s main drive in the shadow of the giant cruise ships that dock in its harbor, the course soon dropped into a dry riverbed that had been carefully graded into a series of jumps, providing thousands of spectators with one of the most exciting views of the race.

Once past the city limits, the course climbed into the mountains toward Ojos Negros and its famous “rollers” – a series of jumps that give the fastest and bravest competitors an opportunity to show off their skill. Fans line up ten deep along the roads in this section, with no fencing to keep them off the course-eager fans spill clear across the road for a better view as each racer storms through in a cloud of dust and roaring exhausts. The sea of people parts miraculously to make room for the cars and bikes to touch down after each big jump, cheering those who fly the farthest.

Jimmy Lewis, starting first for the American team, had drawn the last starting slot in the Open class, so the Hondas were well out of sight when he took the green flag at around 6:35 a.m. After riding the race’s highly technical first 30 miles, Lewis handed off to Donatoni for the next 30. Hayden took over from there, putting in 150 miles on the big Dakar-inspired HP2 before passing it off to Street. 180 miles later, Lewis tackled 130 miles of mountainous terrain to hand the bike back to Donatoni for the run to the checker.

At the finish, Team BMW Motorrad Baja Bound crossed the line in the Ensenada stadium with a time of 20 hours 57 minutes 43 seconds. That put the team 15th among the bikes, though that became 14th overall when the Suzuki team led by Travis Pastrana was disqualified in a post-race tech inspection (for failing to use the required SCORE GPS rally logger). Pastrana’s disqualification also elevated the BMW Baja Bound team to third in the Open class behind the two factory Hondas. The XR650Rs had reached the stadium just before 11 p.m. to go 1-2 in the race overall, the motorcycle division and the Open class with times of 14:20.30 and 14:30.01.

BMW Motorrad Team Mexico had done even better than Baja Bound, finishing 11th among the bikes and third in the Over 30 class with a time of 20:42.09. Team Mexico had also started last in its class, leaving Ensenada ten minutes after the Americans but passing them along the course to reach the stadium in Ensenada at 3:27 a.m., five minutes before Lewis would arrive.

BMW’s Berti Hauser, needless to say, was extremely pleased. “To finish third far exceeded our goals. We’ll be back next year and we now know exactly what sort of equipment is required to win. Both these teams did a great job for us, so we look forward to racing with them again.”

After the race, Lewis was full of praise for the bike. “The HP2 Enduro kept moving forward despite a few unexpected mechanical problems [with Baja Bound’s rear strut, which was changed at a checkpoint, and Team Mexico’s input shaft seal, which oiled the clutch-Ed.]. In a race this rough, problems are expected, but the team took each one in stride. If we fell back, we were able to quickly regain those lost positions. This was our fifth big off-road race and second Baja 1000 with the HP2 Enduro. While we have finished every race, this result was our best so far.

“The HP2 Enduro does amazing things that you would not expect from a bike of this size,” he continued. “BMW has found a nice balance between the high horsepower and the required increased weight that gets the job done and makes the bike a lot of fun to ride. The rear air suspension allows the bike to use its power by keeping the rear tire in contact with the ground. On the loose, washboard-type surface you find everywhere in Baja, the HP2 Enduro does not skip, bounce or spring over the bumps like a bike with a conventional rear suspension-it feels like you are riding a piece of Velcro.”

DNF in the desert

Christensen’s efforts with the Class 1 open-wheeler proved uncharacteristically unsuccessful on this year’s exceptionally tough course. Starting first, Christensen kept his BMW-powered racer in the top three for 250 miles until handing off to Dave Mason, who would drive the mountainous section back over to the Pacific side and then give the car to Boris Said.

Mason never made it. First one rear axle failed. Then, after it had been replaced, the other axle gave up due to faulty machine work from an outside supplier-the cutting tool had created a stress riser where the main shaft joined the splines.

Christensen was philosophical. “This is our first year with this car and we’re on a steep learning curve. I wouldn’t feel so badly except that we weren’t just in the race-we had an excellent chance to win, and having that taken from us by something out of our control is difficult to live with. The engine and chassis were working better than ever, and I wanted to see Boris take the checker in Ensenada. We’ll do it for sure next year. As it is, we have two months before the start of the new season and we’re going for the championship.”

With any luck, he’ll have a some company from BMW Motorrad.