Nissan is taking on Porsche, Audi and Toyota at the Le Mans 24 Hours this weekend with a radical front-engined prototype
Matt Burt
10 June 2015

Had Nissan decided to return to the top class at Le Mans with a conventional racing car – that is to say, one with an engine in the rear sending power to the rear wheels – its return would have been greeted with much enthusiasm.


However, it is mounting an assault on the famous endurance race with a car that has flipped perceived wisdom, putting the engine in front of the driver and sending a prodigious amount of power to the front axle, and this has provoked reactions of astonishment, praise, amusement and even a touch of confusion.

Since lifting the dust cover from the GT-R LM Nismo, Nissan has become the most talked-about manufacturer in endurance racing. (The company has people who monitor this kind of thing.)


Not all of the exposure has been comfortable reading. Naysayers wondered if inherent understeer would leave the car struggling.

Others scoffed knowingly when it failed its initial crash tests, forcing the postponement of warm-up races at Silverstone and Spa, and when it lapped Le Mans almost 30 seconds slower than the pace-setting Porsches during last month’s test day.

But Nissan’s motorsport chiefs – led on the sporting side by Darren Cox and on technical matters by Ben Bowlby – have got used to the Marmite reaction to its project.

They’ve seen it all before with the similarly radical ZEOD project, which ran at Le Mans last year. In fact, they positively encourage the glare of publicity, exposing their team’s inner workings via social media in a manner that has rarely been seen in modern motor racing.

Mind you, they are deflating public expectations for this weekend’s race. Simply making the grid is an achievement for a project that was only signed off by Nissan’s board in April 2014.

Since then, Nismo has built the team from the ground up. The LMP1-class car has been designed and developed, three race-ready examples built and nine racing drivers signed, among them three graduates from Nissan’s GT Academy training scheme: Jann Mardenborough, Mark Shulzhitskiy and Lucas Ordonez.

It’s a tight enough timeframe, one made more acute by the ambitious technical layout. Bowlby, renowned as one of the sport’s keenest lateral thinkers, explains the reasoning for putting the engine in the front: “The brief was that if Nissan was going to do LMP1, it had to be innovative. Audi is 15 years and billions of dollars into this, so why bother to go motor racing when one team is so tightly dug in?

"The Le Mans rule book has plenty of scope for innovation if one is bold enough. It was clear to me that there was an extremely intelligent solution in moving the engine to the front and making it front-wheel drive, with front-wheel brake energy recovery that deploys to the rear axle.”

When dreaming up his LMP1 car, Bowlby noted that the current crop of Le Mans prototypes are limited in their rear-end designs.

“To limit the performance of rear-engined, rear- wheel-drive cars, the rule makers have constrained the sizes of the rear wheels, wing and diffuser, and the result is that the aerodynamic efficiency at the back of the car is quite poor,” he explains.

“However, the front has always been considered relatively free, so we thought: why not turn the rules on their head and make a car with lots of downforce at the front? Not only does this give us greater freedom within the rules, but front downforce is generated more efficiently, with less drag. Moreover, with the front end doing most of the work, we could trim out the rear wing and save even more drag, which is invaluable at Le Mans.”

Making a forward aero balance work effectively requires a significant shift in overall mass towards the front of the car. In the GT-R LM Nismo, the engine is in front of the driver, the gearbox is in front of the engine and the mechanical flywheel energy recovery system (ERS) is also near the prow.

“We realised that if we packaged a narrow-vee engine at the front and pushed the chassis back, we can make the back of the chassis into a nice teardrop shape and flow the air around rather than outside the whole car. That gives a drag advantage,” says Bowlby.

Astonishingly, the GT-R LM Nismo has visited a wind tunnel just once, to confirm the data from Bowlby’s computer simulations. Although the prototype looks like no other GT-R, it bears enough of a technical link with the road car to make its name more than a marketing stunt.

“The car is truly a GT-R,” says Bowlby. “It is powered by a twin-turbo V6, although the engine is downsized from 3.8 litres to 3.0, and the use of direct injection is the other main difference. But it has the same maximum rpm, the same even firing and the same vee angle.”

The low-end torque and flat power curve of the engine (“Turbocharged V6 engines are something of a Nismo speciality,” says Bowlby) mean the car needs just five forward gears, reducing wear and tear on transmission components.

Bowlby says the team has seen outputs as high as 1100bhp from the ERS on the dynamometer, which could in theory provide the car with a staggering 1600bhp from its combined power sources. Note ‘in theory’: the lack of development has prompted the team to run a downgraded version of its hybrid system in this year’s race, meaning less than optimum power. 

Still, the lap times from the test day don’t really give an accurate indication of race pace. Nissan didn’t ask Michelin to make a qualifying tyre, because it will use every track session to develop the GT-R LM Nismo.

Cox says a promising result would be “hanging on to the coat tails” of the other hybrid prototypes, although inclement weather could play to the strengths of the Nissan, which is inherently stable and super-fast in a straight line.

On the subject of shaking things up, Nissan’s publicity assault across all forms of media is not without its challenges. Bowlby says: “I was asked whether this open-doors approach distracts us from the engineering activity, but we’re over that. Of course, we face lots of challenges, but if we had done a copy of an Audi from scratch, we also would have faced thousands of small problems.”

Cox emphasises that the project is not a publicity gimmick, and pushing forward the on-track performance will always take precedence. He believes other manufacturers will follow. “Unless we give more access, the sport is in terminal decline,” he says. “When the barriers are up, people are getting less and less interested.”

It’s unlikely a crew from one of the three GT-R LM Nismos will climb onto the podium on Sunday afternoon, but it’s worth remembering that Audi, Porsche and Toyota all experienced growing pains when they embarked on their Le Mans projects. In that respect, at least, Nissan is like its rivals.

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Comments
11

10 June 2015
While welcoming Nissan trying something new, it is a B awful looking car ! It makes the Nissan Juke appear pretty. I wish Le Mans would return to having a better selection of sports cars. I remember when a Mini-Marcos, or a Triumph Spitfire or a Panhard or Alpine could be on the track along with prototype Ferraris or Fords.. Guess it won't happen, but I fear WEC could go the way of F1. A big up to the guys who raced the Mini-Marcos !! Can you imagine it....!!

10 June 2015
I would love to see Nissan do well at LM this weekend in this but the writing is very much on the wall with the times they set in testing. To finish the race at all let alone hang on to the back of the prototypes will be a good result for them. Also Greenracer I know what you're saying, but I can't see it going the way of F1 - if anything WEC is going to become even more popular due to the boredom of F1 and WEC's less restrictive rules of development. Also if more famous ex pro's join WEC, eg Button, then it'll get even more publicity.

10 June 2015
I think it is unrealistic and premature to write off a new approach if it doesn't work the first time out. The fact is that, unlike most other racing series nowadays, innovation of a kind is still allowed at Le Mans. Indy cars used to allow all sorts of things until that was dumbed down. Same with NASCAR and touring cars. Now the vehicles are practically indistinguishable for one-another in the various series and the world is poorer for it. I hope Nissan sticks with the program!

10 June 2015
Personally I don't approve of Bowlby's designs. He is clearly focused very much on designing cars which are targeted at maximising aero efficiency within the rules, hence the Delta Wing and this front drive thing. But I would argue, racing rules are written to ensure there is fair competition between competing cars and the reason they are racing in the first place is that there is some prospect that the things manufacturers learn could then be applied to road cars, so we all benefit.

Bowlby's cars are just too extreme and "rules specific" to really apply to road cars.

All the delta wing car proves is that a small, light, aerodynamic car with a small engine can be fast, something Colin Chapman proved 50 years ago.

The Nissan may well prove that using the front end of a car to produce downforce is best, (if you are then prepared to design an car with an extreme layout that massively compromises the rest of the car in safety, for being useful for carrying passengers/luggage and ultimately being impractical to drive on real roads), but I think most aero engineers already knew that.

I can understand the technical challenge of maximising efficiency within the rules but if this produces cars like Bowlby's then I just don't see their relevance to anything other than being fast on a race track, which isn't much use to the vast majority of us.

In addition, if the Nissan does turn out to be faster than anything else, they will just amend the rules to slow it down!

Racing is supposed to improve the breed, not be an end in itself (in my opinion).

It's all a bit too much like navel gazing for my liking.

10 June 2015
I hope they'll reach saturday night.
We'll see it there.

10 June 2015
I think you have to applaud Nissan for exploiting the rules to the max and having the bottle to do this. It will certainly add more technical interest to this year's Le Mans. And if it finishes, it will definitely be the first front drive car home. Would be interesting to know when the previous one finished - have there been any since the mini Marcos days? I suspect these days that no Le Mans cars have any road relevance, but Nissan's effort may have more than most given the predominance of front drive road cars.

10 June 2015
And how many of those front drive road cars have the entire engine and gearbox sitting behind the front axle line and extending almost back to the middle of the car? Anything learned from this car (that couldn't be learned from a "proper" car, [oh dear I'm ranting]!) will only ever apply to this car.

10 June 2015
is it only me who thinks it's a development mule for a batmobile?

11 June 2015
The sickle is great but it didn't really explain Amy technical reasons for going fwd.

11 June 2015
The sickle is great but it didn't really explain any technical reasons for going fwd.

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