Nissan saw two of its three cars fail to complete the Le Mans 24 hours, yet it's third car came home dead last before its 242 laps meant it was classified as a non-finisher. That's still an achievement, says Nissan Motorsport boss Darren Cox
WHILE most pregnant women will proudly display their baby bump to friends, family and anyone interested, not many would be prepared to go through all the mess and glory of giving birth in public.
Yet in some ways that’s exactly what Nissan has done at Le Mans over the weekend with its radical GT-R LM racecar: presenting its imperfect and dripping wet new offspring to the world while the nurses are still trying to wipe it dry.
This was the first outing for Nissan’s front-engined, front-wheel-drive race car that in the LMP1 category goes head-to-head with the might of the race-winning Porsche 919, Audi R18 and Toyota TS040 rivals. In qualifying the fastest GT-R LM was a full 20 seconds slower than the pole-sitting number 18 Porsche with the third Nissan another two seconds further back.
While the pre-race results may’ve seemed disastrous – and a vindication of obvious criticism the car’s layout is all wrong – for Nissan it’s the beginning of a development process that is being carried out in public, not over a long period of private testing as might be undertaken by other manufacturers.
According to Nismo’s global brand director Darren Cox the decision to enter Le Mans a year earlier than it probably should have is intrinsic with the way motorsport is currently managed.
“We’ve got to recognise that the sport is in decline,” he said between qualifying sessions.
“You’ve got to look at Formula One, World Rally Championship, NASCAR whatever it is, the numbers are going down. One of the reasons for that is that people expect now accessibility. Social media, live streaming, people expect openness and I think in a way people are judging us on being open.”
Rather than being vaguely hopeful of winning Le Mans at first try, ahead of the race Cox was only optimistic that at least one car will finish somewhere behind the historically dominant Audis and eventual Porsche victors. One of three Nissan entries finished, and it was dead last, but Nissan issued a confident ‘Mission Accomplished’ release post-race.
“We have shown the world that going to win at Le Mans isn’t easy and I think that’s great: it’s bloody difficult. Those blokes out there with the four rings have been doing it for 15 years, they’ve spent three billion dollars and they are a machine.”
“So if you ask why do we do what we’re doing, this is Year One of a multiple year program for Nissan and this is our first baby steps and we will improve going forward.”
Nissan is adamant its innovative car design isn’t just for grabbing headlines, it will really work. Its front mounted 3.0-litre, twin turbo V6 and front wheel drive leave ample scope to manage air flow under the car and in qualifying it was fastest in a straight line despite lacking the power of other rivals.
“For this track our car is incredibly slippery, the drag rate is pretty much zero as you can see from our straight line speeds, and it shows this concept works,” said ex-F1 driver and current Nissan pilot Max Chilton after qualifying.
“I think we all know it’s well down on power and when we come back next year with more power we will completely show it works.”
Just why the GT-R LM is down on power is the fact that lacking normal development time, its hybrid energy recovery system is only a fractionally functional part of what has been designed. The mechanical ERC system is meant to use two flywheels – one for each axle – developing eight megajoules but at the moment just the front axle is benefitting to the tune of two megajoules.
“In some respects we would have taken another year to work it out in private testing and bring a fully functional and developed system in the car,” technical director Ben Bowlby said. The outcome would be 820kW burst to supplement the V6-engine’s 410-odd kilowatt current output, he reckons.
“But we were in front of everybody and it was a given we were coming to come to Le Mans, a given we were coming with three cars and that maximises the steepness of the learning curve.”
“We could have gone and bought a Williams hybrid power unit off the shelf like Audi but then we’d be just copying Audi, I suppose.”
Just delivering a drivable package to the nine Le Mans drivers has been challenging enough with braking issues being sorted out, and also bespoke Nismo fuel saving technology such as a coasting function activated by GPS in parts of the circuit where no throttle is needed. Or, more scarily for the drivers, other parts of the circuit depending on whether it worked properly.
Then there’s the issue of front wheel drive, and the fact the rear tyres are far more narrow than those at the front. Not surprisingly perhaps, the drivers don’t see these as problems.
“I’m asked a lot if the drivability’s like a front wheel drive and to be honest, in mid to high speed corners the thing has so much downforce you don’t notice it,” Chilton said.
“You can feel it at low speed and that’s where we’ll have to work on it for next year. Especially when we get the four wheel drive active, we won’t notice it.
“Lots of us drivers when we first saw [the car] we thought with the skinny rear tyres we would have a lot of oversteer issues but we haven’t, it’s usually our fault not washing off enough speed under brakes.
“But at high speed the rear end is planted so the concept does work and we’ll keep developing it over the race and come back for the next couple of years and show that it’s going to work.”
That confidence, and the confidence of the rest of the team in the GT-R LM concept indicate that while the car’s first Le Mans appearance may be premature, it might also be premature to write it off as unworkable.
The Nissan GT-R LM Nismo's next race is the Six hours of Nurburgring on 30 August 2015.
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