Ethos

The Nissan GT-R LM Nismo: Winning by Losing at Le Mans

Did the front-drive Nissan fail or succeed?

Some race cars inspire love. Others generate hate. Nissan’s GT-R LM NISMO does both. It couldn’t be more polarizing if it were a nuclear-powered, transgender cyborg engineered to perform Masses and abortions on alternating weekends.

Created by the same team of contrarians who developed the equally provocative DeltaWing, the Nissan is an unapologetic “eff you” to a half-century of race-car convention, featuring a seemingly obsolete front-engine layout and relying on front-wheel drive.

The Nissan team cheers after its 
No. 22 GT-R LM NISMO, one of its three prototype cars at Le Mans, sees the checkered flag.

“When you do the same thing as everybody else, it’s easy to come up with reasons why a car didn’t work—not enough time, not enough budget,” Ben Bowlby, the car’s creator, said in early June, a few days before qualifying for the 24 Hours of Le Mans. “When you step outside the box, if you say you can do something, you’d better do it. Otherwise, you’re discredited. So I hardly ever have a good night’s sleep.”

“I’m glad people are pissed off at us. If we’re doing such a good job [generating publicity] running at the back, it just shows what a bad job they’re doing at winning.”

Bowlby has been showered with love from fans, on social media, and in the non-automotive press. But in Le Mans’ media center and garages, the Nissan with a cartoonish long nose and narrow rear tires was the subject of scathing commentary. “An ugly shitbox,” said one rival. “A technical disgrace,” scoffed another. Said a third, “The front suspension is all wrong, and I don’t think a smaller rear contact patch is the way to go.” But the biggest gripe about the unproven LMP1 car was the disconnect between Nissan’s large-scale public-relations blitz and its pathetic on-track performance. Nissan’s three prototypes were 20 seconds off the pace of the class-leading Porsches. “Is racing now just a marketing tool?” a critic asked contemptuously. “If I had a car as slow as that, I wouldn’t go racing; I’d go testing.”

However, Nissan’s global motorsports chief Darren Cox held his ground. “It hurts that we’re not faster, but we wouldn’t have built three cars if this was just a marketing effort,” he said defiantly. “I’m glad people are pissed off at us. If we’re doing such a good job [generating publicity] running at the back, it just shows what a bad job they’re doing when they’re winning.”

In designing the Nissan GT-R LM, Bowlby and chief engineer Zack Eakin realized that since the rules for Le Mans (and Formula 1 and IndyCar) are written for conventional mid-engine layouts, there are virtually no regulations restricting aerodynamic innovation on the front of a car. With the engine mounted in front of the cockpit, they were able to create large tunnels to channel air under the chassis and reduce drag. The engine puts weight on the front wheels, meaning more traction for the tires to harness the twin-turbo V-6’s power. An off-the-shelf energy recovery system (ERS) should have boosted total output to well past 1,000 hp, but it didn’t work as advertised and Nissan raced with a deficit of several hundred horsepower. The hybrid system’s weight acted like a boat anchor, and the lack of regenerative braking compromised the overworked front rotors.

Problems bedeviled the Nissans. One car missed the race’s start with a clutch-adjustment issue. Another hit an unidentified non-flying object at more than 200 mph, shredding the splitter and ripping off the front clip. By Sunday morning, one GT-R LM was out and the other two were regularly visiting the garage for repairs. Race engineer Ricardo Divila, a veteran of nearly 30 Le Mans campaigns, remained unperturbed. “Once you reach the halfway point, you’re in zombie territory,” he said. “Short of a silver bullet, nothing can kill you.”

Amazingly, the GT-R LMs lapped faster after 20 hours than they did during qualifying. A second car died tantalizingly close to the finish, but the third one reached the checkered flag, though it was 153 laps behind the race-winning Porsche 919 Hybrid. Eakin, standing on the pit wall with the rest of the exhausted crew, led the cheers. “We worked so hard to build three cars that not getting one of them home would have been really depressing,” he said.

For Nissan, Le Mans was what Divila called “a full-scale dress rehearsal.” Cox insisted two cars will enter the rest of this year’s FIA World Endurance Championship races, though the ineffective ERS means they won’t be competitive. “What’s the point of 2015? It’s 2016,” an upbeat Bowlby said. “I haven’t put this much effort into this project just so we could suck at the back of the field.”

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2019 Nissan GT-R

MSRP $110,540 Premium Coupe