Inside BMW’s super secret French test facility

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MIRAMAS, France—From the outside it’s impossible to tell what’s behind the concrete wall. The solid barrier surrounds what looks like a military compound. There’s no sign that this guarded location is BMW’s vehicle testing facility.

Inside, past security, are a number of buildings that resemble an army barracks. Outside of those buildings and circling a big portion of the testing centre is a six-kilometre-long high-speed banked oval. It didn’t take long before a motorcycle, which from a distance looked like it might have been BMW’s new F900XR, rode by at high speed.

The testing grounds are on the left, just to the west of Miramas, so big they’re visible from space. Well, Google Earth anyway.

This is BMW’s Miramas Proving Grounds, about 30 kilometres northwest of Marseilles, France. This is where all of the BMW motorcycles I’ve ridden in the past came to get thrashed, dissected and measured before they actually went into production. I was inside the gates, and I was giddy.

Just, wow!

My job as a motorcycle journalist means I get occasional glimpses behind the scenes at how those motorcycles are made. I’ve visited design centres and factories before, though they’re always tightly controlled — no cameras, no phones, and not even any computers that might be used to record tightly-guarded secrets.

What surprised me here was just how open the BMW engineers were in demonstrating how new motorcycles are tested. And we were allowed cameras, as long as we promised not to take any exterior pictures – some of the vehicles we might be exposed to, cars and bikes, haven’t yet been publicly revealed.

This is the self-balancing Next 100 motorcycle that was ridden onstage in Los Angeles in 2016. They’re still working on it.

BMW has been testing motorcycles at Miramas since 1987, when the R100GS went through endurance testing. Since then the facility has grown to cover five square kilometres. There’s that large oval for high-speed testing, and a smaller oval within for highway testing; there are three handling tracks; there’s a circuit that simulates an urban environment; there’s a racetrack; there’s a wet handling course; and there’s an enduro track for off-road testing.

The facility is kept busy throughout the year, with 3 million kilometres of testing annually. This includes testing more than 180 bikes a year, and aside from regular testing, it includes 150 “misuse tests.” These are designed to emulate what an owner might do with a motorcycle, like doing long wheelies on an S1000RR, or jumping an R1250GS, or overloading an R1250RT and riding it at high speed, among other abusive behaviour.

It’s Rudi Schrupp’s job to retrofit sensors onto all the vehicles.

The Workshop

The 3,000 square-metre workshop I visited is the latest addition to the testing centre, built in 2018. A big part of what is done here is data acquisition — and I mean, a lot of data. But it also includes hands-on work like changing tires, maintenance, disassembly, etc.

When you see spy shots of pre-production motorcycles with wires dangling and loads of electronics rigged on a rear rack or atop the fuel tank, that bike is being used to collect important data. Every component that experiences some form of stress when in use is modified to gather information during testing.

Not your average R1200GS – this one’s worth half a million euros.

In the workshop during my visit was an R1200GS; it’s been replaced by the newer R1250GS, but it will still be used to collect data for another couple of years, and it will travel the world to do so. Its stock components have been modified to accept various sensors. The front-wheel axle is cut down to fit a sensor that measures flex loads. Swingarm pivot bolts incorporate sensors to measure sheer loads. Brake fluid pressure and temperature are measured. Suspension linkages are rigged to gather data. I’m told that when calculating all the work and equipment that’s gone into the otherwise unassuming R1200GS sitting on the bike lift, it is worth about 500,000 Euros. Half a million Euros!

Those trick wheels alone, each of which is a hybrid construction that includes a solid, machined-aluminum hub, carbon-fibre “spoke” section, and machined aluminum rim, costs upwards of 20,000 Euros. To save some money the wheels are adaptable, so the rim and spoke sections can be swapped out on the hub (which contains the electronics) to get wheels of different diameters, though even that process costs 5,000 Euros. And you think paying $200 for a rear tire is expensive!

Wheels don’t come much tricker than this.

There could be up to 20 sensors and several strategically placed high-speed cameras mounted to a motorcycle for testing; that doesn’t include the bike’s own EFI and ABS sensors, which also contribute data. The computer mounted to the bike has an 8 TB hard drive. All the data gathered and stored in the bike-mounted computer is then transferred wirelessly to the mother computer in the shop.

That other data

Most modern motorcycles gather and store data as you ride. If a production motorcycle is equipped with the appropriate sensors, things like lean angle, braking force, yaw, G-force, throttle opening, and gear position, among other parameters, are recorded into the Electronic Control Unit. This data can then be transferred to the dealer once the bike is connected to the diagnostic computer for service.

“Hey Rudi – should I cut the red wire or the blue wire?”

Among other things, this can help determine if certain warranty claims are justly warranted. If, for example, someone brings in a bike and complains of a heavy engine knock, and the recorded data reveals a positive yaw moment that lasted for a kilometre or so, before recording a drastic drop in oil pressure — well, they’ve been busted for doing a long-ass wheelie that destroyed the engine. This data is transferred anonymously, though the owner of the vehicle has the right to refuse to transfer this information to the manufacturer — unless it’s needed to settle warranty discrepancies.

Once transferred, the manufacturer can use the data to learn about how bikes are being used in different markets. Throttle data, for example, revealed that South African riders use the throttle the hardest, and North American riders the softest. This global data acquisition contributes to the further development of a model.

This S1000 has seen some hard miles, but the testing on it helps make sure it’ll see plenty more.

This data can also be used to exonerate a manufacturer from fault in the case of an accident, especially one resulting in a lawsuit. In 2017, during the filming of Deadpool 2, stunt rider Joi Harris was killed after a stunt went wrong. Harris was riding a Ducati Hypermotard. WorkSafe BC conducted an investigation, which included the data downloaded from the crashed motorcycle. That data revealed that nothing went wrong with the bike, and the investigation eventually concluded that the filmmaker violated several workplace regulations. In a case like this, a warrant can be obtained to retrieve the data.

When the test riders head onto that big oval track, they know Big Brother is watching absolutely everything.

What it all means

BMW also tests competitors’ machines at the facility, just as all bike makers test each others’ equipment, so everyone has an idea of how everyone else is tackling certain problems. Analysing all of that information often results in gathering even more data.

But no matter how much information is accumulated, dissected and analysed, the decision on how the final version of a motorcycle will be produced will always come down to the most important piece of data: How it feels and performs from the saddle.  That’s why there’s a test track right outside these buildings.

It may not look like much, but this stripped-down R18 test mule is worth at least 40,000 euros.

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