Mondello Park, for one day in August, offered Ireland's front-line workers from the healthcare, public transport, supermarket and postal industries free rides in its mighty BMW M8 Coupe. To find out what Ireland's Covid heroes let themselves in for, we've been for a little spin ourselves...
At first, all you feel is the velvet glove. The BMW M8 Competition burbles into life with exactly the sort of double-creamy smooth grumble that you might expect. The big 4.4-litre, twin-turbo V8 is a literal powerhouse - 625hp (25hp more than the standard M8, which isn't offered for sale in Ireland) and 750Nm of torque are still senior school figures, even in an age of 1,000hp+ outputs. Even when the car they are propelling weighs a not inconsiderable 1,960kg.
Much of that weight counts as refinement. It's the weight of leather; of hefty, accommodating seats, of turned metal and knurled aluminium as much as it is of sheer structure; of four-wheel drive; of turbochargers. So, when you press that oh-so-tempting red starter button and click the softly-padded leather gear selector into D, the M8 doesn't leap forward like a stabbed rat. Rather, it pads effortlessly down the Mondello Park pitlane in the manner of an unhurried tiger, its paws splaying gently across the surface as it walks. As it ambles, almost. After all, a tiger only rushes when it has to.
Just as you can see the sheer menace of the musculature of a tiger under its stripey skin, though, so too can you detect the unbridled fury waiting beneath the aluminium and steel skin of the M8, which is, conveniently also wearing stripes, the blue and red stripes of BMW's M Division. Apart from the vital statistics of the engine, there is the switchable four-wheel-drive system that diverts a bigger chunk of the engine's power towards the rear wheels than the fronts, and which in a truly insane move can actually be switched entirely from four-wheel drive to rear-wheel drive. Note: we do not recommend pushing that button in Ireland, not unless we get an unseasonably dry day at any rate.
Here in a damp Kildare, the four-wheel drive is going to stay switched on. Which is probably just as well, as the light stack at the end of the pitlane has just winked green, and I am bidden to unleash the tiger within.
Foot to the boards, the M8 Competition doesn't quite leap forward. The inertia of its mass overwhelms, just for the blink of an eye, the efforts of that thunderous engine. So the acceleration is, to an extent, gradual, linear. The velvet glove is never quite removed; although, by the time the underside of your sneaker has brushed the top fibres of the carpet, the iron fist within appears to have been shackled to the front of an Airbus A380 as it approaches the rotation point.
Linear it may be, but the M8 Competition's acceleration is still savage, apt to suck the breath from your lungs the first couple of times that you experience it. The benchmark 0-100km/h is dispatched in just 3.2 seconds. Keep your foot down, hard, and you'll hit 200km/h in around 10.6 seconds - that's 120mph in the time it takes most family cars to hit 100km/h. Top speed? Depends on the depth of your skills and your wallet - normally, as with all BMWs, it's electronically-limited to 250km/h, but BMW will, for a fee, de-limit it to 305km/h if you happen to have a handy stretch of Autobahn tucked under the stairs.
Here at Mondello, we're never going to explore that top speed, but the M8 is fast enough to reach deep into serious velocities before we've even reached the first corner. Brake hard and the pedal feel is a little odd, a little artificial, but speed is nevertheless shed with Teutonic efficiency before we pitch that broad, low nose at the apex. In spite of its weight, the M8 Competition turns in with minimal understeer and maximal aggression, but never feels nervous, helped no doubt by some suspension components specific to the M-model, and by the fact that the on-board computers effortlessly shuffle power to and from the wheels that need it most. We catapult out of turn one, and heave at silly speed though the awkward tight left at turn two, before launching the M8 at Mondello's trickiest corner - the double-apex three, which leads directly into a tight, almost-hairpin right that pulls you uphill and towards the back of the paddock. This is a hard corner to get right, not least because the correct line puts a large, if distant, tree right in your line of sight while you're still hard on the throttle, but the M8 predictably monsters it, even tackling the traction-sapping uphill-right section with apparent ease.
It's not, thankfully, a point-and-squirt performance machine. While it's doubtless artificially intelligent enough to be able to lap a track better without you, the M8 Competition is magnanimous enough to make you feel involved in the process. The sheer speed is enough to keep you engaged, but the supple, surprisingly biddable chassis and sweet steering do their bit too.
It's a wonderful thing, the M8, but one that leaves you with three slightly morose sensations. The first is that, statistically, none of us will be able to afford the two-hundred-grand price tag. The second is that there's now an inevitable tickle at the back of the scalp, like a doleful version of ASMR, that this will be one of the last of the great V8 sports coupes. The final thought is that this is, for all its brilliance, still not the greatest BMW M-car.
The good news is that Mondello has a fix for both of those. For a start, the M8 Competition is part of its BMW driving experiences fleet, and you only need to find €299 to get behind the wheel for a few, delirious, laps. The second is that there's also an M2 Competition on hand, and that really is the best M-car. Possibly ever.
With 400hp on tap, and a crisp, sweet, straight-six roar filling the cabin, everything about the M2 is perfect. You can drift it with ease and confidence around Mondello's rain-slicked corners, and it's always exciting, but never intimidating. Performance is bonkers in a straight line, but it's a practical, relatively simple, two-door coupe at heart. It also looks terrific - especially in the simple silver paintwork and M stripes, clearly a direct descendent of the aesthetically perfect BMW 2002 Tii and 2002 Turbo models of the 1970s. It also costs, at €82,739, rather less than half the price of the M8 Competition. True, that's still a lot of money, but it's a heck of a lot more accessible.
So, for the best consumer motoring advice you'll hear this week, go to Mondello and sample the M8 Competition (when you can). But go home and buy, and keep, and cherish, the M2 Competition.