Nissan says its new hybrid Le Mans racer, which will compete in the famous 24-hour race in 2014, will provide crucial information about extracting high performance out of electric motors and batteries that will be of benefit to its road car division.
The Japanese manufacturer has been invited back to Le Mans next year in the prized ‘Garage 56’ slot set aside for experimental technology. The new car, unveiled on the eve of last weekend’s 24 hours and bearing the name Zero Emissions On Demand (ZEOD), will be powered by an internal combustion engine and electric motors.
Nissan will test various powertrain combinations before settling on the final specification. The car has been built to be flexible and accommodate several different power iterations during testing. It will, however, use the same core battery technology as used in the Nissan Leaf EV (albeit with uprated battery units to cope with the higher power demands) and will utilise regenerative braking to replenish the energy of the batteries.
Although Audi and Toyota have pioneered hybrid systems in top-level sportscars, Nissan's experimental racer will not be bound by the regulations laid down by the Automobile Club de l'Ouest and so will be free to push the technology more adventurously.
The Audi R18 e-tron and Toyota TS030 utilise hybrid power in short bursts. Depending on the final specification of the powertain, the drivers of ZEOD could be able to switch between electric and ICE power as desired. Project chiefs are keen to see the car complete an entire 8.5-mile racing lap of Le Mans on EV power alone. The car’s super-efficient aerodynamics means it should be capable of about 185mph on the Mulsanne Straight, and Nissan’s calculations suggest it could lap Le Mans quicker than a Ferrari 458 GT2 car, meaning a sub-four minute lap.
“To stand out you need to be different, but not just for different’s sake,” said Darren Cox, Nissan’s global motorsports director. “The low drag, light weight concept is exactly what the road car industry needs to pursue, so it is all relevant technology.
“We already know about battery technology through cars such as the Leaf, but getting electric motors to run at high performance for long periods, that’s the breakthrough that we’ll learn on this.”
The new car adopts the novel narrow-track front axle concept seen on the open-topped DeltaWing, a Nissan-backed project that competed at Le Mans last year, but company chiefs stress that “every last nut and bolt” on its closed-cockpit 2014 challenger is new.
The DeltaWing collaboration ceased earlier this year, with the racing team behind the original car now going it alone in US sports car racing. However, the new Nissan ZEOD is the work of the DeltaWing's designer, Ben Bowlby, who has now been appointed director of motorsport innovation at Nissan.
Bowlby said: "Audi and Toyota are running pure KERS solutions, but we’re looking at using electric technology in very different ways. We have a couple of different options we’ll be testing – one where we’ll switch between electric and petrol power with the push of a button.
"This is an intensive development program that we are also going to showcase to the fans – they’ll get to see us test the different options over the next twelve months. Some ideas will work, some won’t, but this is all about taking risks and not just building what everyone else is doing."
Nissan executive vice president Andy Palmer said: "We recognised the opportunity that Garage 56 offered and brought the DeltaWing to Le Mans. But realising what this meant and what the future could hold, Nissan has been incredibly bold by going back with this extraordinary new car, not only with a narrow track concept and extreme low-drag dynamics, but also combining our future directions for road cars by using our battery technology.