BMW has competed at the highest level in everything from Formula 1 to endurance racing, touring cars, World Superbikes, and more, but there’s a new frontier where the blue and white roundel has made a major impact.

Starting as a niche sport born in Japan, drift has become a major motorsport in recent years. And the US-based Formula DRIFT Championship has become the preeminent global series. It’s home to drivers who control some of the most powerful competition cars in the world with incredible finesse – and the entertainment factor is off the charts.

Entering its 21st season, Formula DRIFT attracts millions each year to its free-to-view livestream for the eight-round national Championships. Taking place in front of sell-out grandstands, FD attracts a young demographic and its exponential growth has positioned it with NASCAR in terms of audience engagement.

Drift racers traditionally used rear-wheel drive Japanese cars, with the Nissan S-chassis gaining legendary status. However, their scarcity and rising value has led an increasing number of professional and amateur drivers looking for alternatives. And while the Ford Mustang has captured a number of championships in recent year, many of the grassroots competitors have turned to BMW chassis, with the E36 and E46 being the most popular.

The top Formula DRIFT PRO Championship teams develop around 1100hp from small-block V8 engines equipped with either superchargers or turbos and nitrous injection. Since the regulations permit engine swaps, many of the BMW teams opt for a V8 powerplant or perhaps the Toyota 2JZ in-line six-cylinder turbo engine to provide performance. To date, only one man has successfully campaigned a BMW with a BMW engine; 2013 FD PRO Champion, Michael Essa.

That being said, we shouldn’t ignore the success of Fredric Aasbo. The three-time PRO Champion claimed back-to-back titles in 2021 and 2022 driving the Rockstar Energy Toyota GR Supra powered by the BMW B58 3.0L in-line six. Retaining the stock block, Papadakis Racing claims more than 1000hp thanks to forged internals, an uprated valvetrain, larger turbo and nitrous among it repertoire.

Returning to Michael Essa – who retired from Formula DRIFT in 2022 to build cars for Daily Driven Exotics – we spoke to him about why BMW chassis have become so popular for drift competition and his journey with the brand.

First or all, we wondered why Essa had stuck to BMW chassis with such determination when there were so many other options: “When I was running Techtrix Motorsports, we only worked on BMW and Porsches. And since the latter wasn’t feasible for drift, I defaulted to BMW. I also wanted to do something outside the regular Nissan and Toyota options that had dominated the sport for so long,”

Having gone in that direction, Michael discovered that BMW offered a number of advantages, particularly the trailing arm suspension on the E36 and E46, which worked well and proved extremely durable. The cars also had strong axles, diffs and hubs, as well as the rugged ZF five-speed gearbox available in the E36 M3 and some E46 models. In fact, Michael noted that a number of Nissan and Toyota drivers are now turning to BMW drivetrains because the parts are both readily available and stout.

It’s also worth noting that drift teams don’t need to start with an M3. In fact, Michael recommended the E46 330i since it comes with the same axles, trailing arms, hubs, etc as the more expensive M3. “Once you got to the PRO level, everything is cut out of the cars, so it really didn’t matter which model you start with,” he observed.

In his opinion, the lighter E36 chassis has an advantage for amateur drifting, but at the PRO level, Formula DRIFT imposes a weight limit, which neutralizes its benefits. While “the E46 is one of best drift chassis, they all have compromises. The longer E46 wheelbase isn’t as good on shorter tracks but it does most things well,” Michael explained when considering choices from both the amateur and professional perspective.

During his 14-year professional drift career, Michael experimented with a number of BMW models. He started in 2010 with an E92 M3 fitted with the M5/M6 V10 and a Quaife sequential gearbox. And while the car sounded superb, the Formula DRIFT rule book didn’t allow the suspension points to be moved, so the M3 didn’t work well for the level of grip needed in competitive drift.

At this point, we should explain that despite the tire smoke, drift is all about grip, especially on the front-end when the driver initially turns in, and then through the transitions from left to right turns. The spinning rear tires help to turn the car and maintain momentum, but its grip that lead to success. But not too much grip: drivers will dial-in the level of grip to suit each track, allowing them to flow through the course.

For the 2011/12 season, Michael switched to the BMW Z4 chassis fitted with an S54 turbo engine. With essentially the same suspension as the E46, the lightweight Z4 seemed like the ideal drift car but its short wheelbase and insufficient “side” grip made the car “twitchy when gripped up.” Michael observed the Z4 “worked well with small tires in the lower championships, but got hard to drive when fitted with the big tires in the PRO Championship.”

Reflecting on the success of the latest GR Supra/Z4, Michael noted that it’s the car’s multilink suspension that has made it competitive. FD regulations also allow the suspension pick-up points to be moved now, giving the teams more chassis tuning options.

In 2013, Michael bought a 2000 E46 323i, transferred the Z4 components into it. The longer E46 wheelbase increased stability and provided more side grip, making the car fast through the course. It proved to be an unbeatable combination when combined with Essa’s precision and aggression.

He remains the only FD champion to claim the title with a BMW engine, despite the additional cost and complexity it caused over the years. “The BMW engines are incredibly capable, especially the S54,” he explained. “I saw no reason to swap to a 2JZ or domestic V8 but that decision proved to be expensive at the start. With few people building the engines to this extent, there weren’t many parts available. For example, there was only one ECU we could use – the Cosworth Pectel, while our competitors could buy the cheaper Haltech or AEM ECUs. It was also more expensive to develop and build intake and exhaust manifolds for the turbo conversion.

In its ultimate form in the 2022 season, the Essa Autosport S54 developed 1100hp at the wheels. It retained the stock block but had VAC Motorsports sleeves, which reduced the bore from 87 to 85mm, allowing thicker cylinder walls for the stock 11.5:1 compression CP-Carrillo forged pistons. The stock head retained the stock ports, cams and even the stock VANOS system. “We worked with Supertech to develop a new valvetrain to stop shims being spat out and valve float at high RPM,” Michael recalled. “But the head flowed really well and the cams were almost a race profile. We could time the cams with the VANOS system, making it easier to tune than a 2JZ thanks to the Motec M1 ECU.”

On the bottom end, Essa Autosport utilized the stock S54 crank, oil pan and mains but added Carrillo forged rods to withstand the boost pressure from the Borg-Warner 9280 turbocharger.

Since retiring, Michael has built a 2017 F30 340i with the same B58 engine as the Aasbo Supra. “It works really well, especially with multilink rear suspension, but it’s weaker than the trailing arms, which could cause a problem in competition if you hit a wall or another car.”

As the leading exponent of BMW drift in North America, Michael has worked with a number of other teams and drivers, helping to develop their programs. In the case of Dmitriy Brutskiy, that meant personal coaching. Brutskiy bought Michael’s 2013 Championship-winning E46, with which he was able to win the 2020 and ’21 FD PROSPEC title (the feeder championship FD PRO). Dmitriy has moved up to PRO for 2024 and will be running the 2022 Essa Autosport E46 at the highest level.

More BMW success came for Robert Thorne, who won the 2022 Formula DRIFT PROSPEC series as a rookie with a supercharged Wegner 376ci V8 under the hood of his E46 328i. He promptly moved up to PRO in 2023 and was again Rookie of the Year in the same car.

Michael Essa is still drifting in events such as Gridlife and the LZ World Tour. And you can catch him regularly on

For Formula DRIFT, check out the event schedule at You can find the event livestream either via the website homepage or at for some high horsepower BMW action.

There are currently nine drivers – almost 25% of the entire PRO Championship Field – using BMW chassis in competition. These include Youtube star Adam LZ in the LZMFG E36 BMW, Dylan Hughes, driver of the Royal Purple E46 BMW, and Rome Charpentier in his new Garagistic / Pedal Commander / Vitour Tires E82 BMW. These are perhaps the most successful of the current BMW pilots in the FD PRO Championship and well worth a watch.

*Photos courtesy of Michael Essa and Formula DRIFT




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