While sampling the new Acura NSX GT3 race car, we had the chance to sit down the man behind the new racecar — chief engineer Lee Niffenegger.
Automobile Magazine: What is your career history with Honda?
Lee Niffenegger: I’ve been with Honda for 20 years. I was Honda R&D for 13 years. I transferred to HPD in 2010 but I was involved with motorsports from the time I started at Honda. I worked on Super Touring cars and the previous NSX in World Challenge (WC). I also worked on the TLX GT program with RealTime Racing (in WC).
AM: What are your current responsibilities at Honda Performance Development (HPD)?
LN: Pretty much 100% of my time is on the NSX GT3 and has been for about the last 18 to 24 months.
AM: Tell us about the timeline of the NSX GT3
LN: The first race was Daytona 2017. The timeline was dependent on the road car because we had to wait for that development. There was investigation into other categories, not just GT3. We were trying to negotiate some of the road car technology (hybrid all-wheel drive, etc) but it was settled to do GT3, which doesn’t allow some of that technology. The GT3 program started with HRD (Honda Racing Development) in Japan. It was then decided to transfer it over to HPD because of American Honda’s extreme interest and from a brand image aspect.
AM: Where are the cars and engines built?
LN: The engines are built at the Anna (Ohio) plant, near the PMC (Performance Manufacturing Center) in Marysville. They’re built by the same team that builds the road car engines and are 100% stock internally. The race engines do have some external machining because there is no hybrid system due to regulation. They also make changes to mount an alternator, as the road car doesn’t run one. The engines are then sent to us for final prep. The space frames are built at PMC and then modified by J.A.S. Motorsports, our technical partner, just outside Milan, Italy. They also do the final assembly of the car, sort the roll cage, etc.
AM: What are the similarities and differences between the NSX road car and GT3 car?
LN: The steering rack is stock, as well as the headlights, taillights, door handles and engine. All the body panels are carbon fiber, where the road car only has a carbon roof. The race car uses a production engine and turbochargers. The road car’s gas engine has 500 hp. The race car has 10% more power, at most (depending on balance of performance — BoP).
AM: How much does the NSX GT3 weigh?
LN: The minimum homologated weight is 1,240 kg (2,734 lbs) but then there’s the weight from all the stuff each series requires. Minimum weight is 1,285 kg (2,833 lbs) with SRO (WC rules) and IMSA has us, presently, at 1,300 kg (2,866 lbs). The road car weighs 3,803 lbs.
AM: What have been some specific challenges during the development of the car?
LN: To be honest, the biggest challenge was understanding the FIA — what they’re looking for! It was a new path for us to deal with. I think the FIA is used to working with companies who have done it a couple of times. The biggest struggle was simply getting integrated with the FIA’s processes and making them understand that we didn’t understand because we hadn’t done it before. Other than that, it was pretty much just developing a race car.
AM: Modern race cars seem to be less analog and more digital to drive. From your engineering involvement and the driver’s feedback you receive, how does the NSX GT3 drive?
LN: We’re still figuring out what the car likes. The target is to make it a ‘gentleman driver’ car — so a non-pro is able to drive the car. It’s one thing if you have your hot shoe, factory driver in the car. But if you tune the car around one person who likes a certain thing and you make the car only go fast one way and no one else can drive it then, in our opinion, we’ve failed.
AM: How tricky is the car as far as setup for various tracks? Is that something the teams and the drivers struggle with or is it a relatively friendly car to get in the ballpark as far as setup?
LN: We’re honing in on what the car likes for a wide range of tracks. We’ve gotten some of our systems down to where we have enough adjustability with the ABS, TC (traction control), and throttle maps to get our setup window sorted. The car has been getting better and the drivers are happier.
AM: Talk to me about the overall maintenance regime of the car.
LN: The gearbox is an Xtrac and it’s very durable. As far as the engine, we haven’t set our recommended mileage limit yet. The Audi and some of the other naturally aspirated cars have around a 20,000 km (12,427 mi) rebuild schedule and some other cars are as low as 8,000 km (4,971 mi). We’ll be somewhere in the middle, I assume.
AM: As an engineer, you must hate dealing with the BoP politics.
LN: That’s one of my main jobs! Honestly, I don’t hate it. If there wasn’t BoP then it would turn into an arms race — nobody could afford to go racing. I think BoP has gotten a lot more transparent and a lot more data driven. As an engineer, I appreciate that. It’s better than somebody just taking a guess. We can then understand why they’re doing what they’re doing, even if we don’t necessarily agree with it.
AM: Talk to me about the IMSA setup with Acura and the NSX GT3 being somewhat of a factory-entered car.
LN: There are some guys from the HART (Honda of America Racing Team) — 4 guys — that work with Michael Shank Racing. They had the opportunity to get involved with the program. That’s really the (factory) involvement — it’s 4 guys volunteering their time to help out and learn.
AM: What are you most proud with the NSX GT3?
LN: From where we started to where we are now, we’ve made huge strides. Again, there was getting through the FIA (homologation process) — navigating those waters. That was a big accomplishment. The car is not quite where we want it just yet. Part of that is working with the series and part of that is us learning about what the car likes. Unfortunately, we haven’t had the results we’d like to have other than the first race at Daytona (5th place). I remember some of the Audi Sport guys telling me that our result was pretty awesome for our first time out — they expected us to break! We expected to break!