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Monday, 1 June 2015

Nissan GT-R LM NISMO is (Almost) Ready for Le Mans


With Formula 1 appearing to be a bit of a basket case at the moment, more racing fans are beginning to look elsewhere for their kicks and cool cars. One of the best places to look at the moment is the World Endurance Championship, where we see freer regulations, a much bigger variety of hybrid technology (all of which is more advanced than F1's mandated system) and some brilliant close racing between multiple manufacturer teams in 1000-horsepower cars with distinctly different strengths and weaknesses. Ironically, while F1 features ~2 hour endurance races, WEC has been bringing us 6-hour sprint races, and is currently gearing up for The Big One in two weeks' time: the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Le Mans has always been a home for pioneers as well as speed freaks, and Nissan has been playing both parts increasingly over the course of this decade. First they started supplying engines to LMP2 teams and stuck GT Academy winners in them, then they co-created the crazy DeltaWing and evolved that into the ZEOD RC plug-in hybrid - which last year did the first ever all-electric lap of the 24 Hours - and now they've stopped beating around the bush and are going straight for the big prize with the fascinating, divisive and potentially revolutionary GT-R LM NISMO. Yesterday was the Le Mans official test day, the first time this crazy new racing Godzilla (which I like to call "Frontzilla") shared a track with its fellow competitors. How did it go? Does it matter and why? Just what is the big deal about this car anyway?

We'll start with the last question. The GT-R LM NISMO isn't just a big deal because its name is spelt in all-caps or because elements of it will appear in some form in the 2018 R36-generation GT-R road car, but because its layout is, to all intents and purposes, back to front. All its competitors are rear-mid engined, rear/all-wheel-drive cars. The only LMP1-class car ever to do anything differently in this way was a front-engined Panoz, and that car still had the decency to power its rear wheels. This car? It's as front-wheel-drive as a Micra. This baffles conventionally-thinking engineers, but the somewhat unconventional Ben Bowlby has seen the opportunities to exploit areas of the WEC rule book to gain advantages in an altogether different way to the likes of Audi, Porsche and Toyota. The rules regarding aerodynamics - always a crucial element of a modern racing car - are much more restrictive at the rear end than at the front, so by making the car front-engined, there was much more freedom to generate downforce. With a significant forward weight bias of 65:35, an identical centre of aerodynamic pressure and the same balance in tyre size front-to-rear as well, it becomes far more effective to power the front wheels than the rear ones. The original plan was to send excess power to the rear as well, to also take advantage of weight naturally shifting rearwards a little under acceleration, however the drive system they made to do that proved to be too fragile, so for now it's all front, all the time.

Naked Godzilla!! Latest iCloud hack scandal! #TheFappening
Technically it's front-mid engined, as the engine itself doesn't protrude past the front axle centre line. The engine itself is a 3.0 direct-injection twin-turbo V6 making over 500 horsepower (how much over is undisclosed), mated to a 5-speed sequential transmission. The reason there are only five forward gears is because there is so much torque across the rev range that they can manage without the added weight and complexity of a sixth one. The "VRX30A" engine is proving to be by far the most robust element of the car, which bodes well for when an adaptation of it reaches the next-generation GT-R road car. Less robust and far more powerful is the "flybrid" flywheel-KERS, which unlike any other hybrid system is purely mechanical, with no battery or any such ballast. Situated in a box under the driver's legs, a flywheel connected to the gearbox spins in a vacuum at the equivalent of mach two once it's been charged up by kinetic energy from the brakes, which takes around 3 seconds. In its current form, it then deploys around 700-750 horsepower when you floor it, also for around 3 seconds, meaning you get roughly 1250 horsepower on the straights. This must be a rather exciting sensation! Again though, there was potential for more - at maximum capacity the KERS was generating as much as 1100 horsepower on its own!! Alas, it's proven very unreliable in this configuration, so they've dialed it back to avoid it going off "like a bomb" again...

This means that, while they originally aimed for the 8-megajoule hybrid sub-class, they've only had time to develop a car for the 2MJ class. But just think! In 2016 after they've had a year to develop everything, we could be talking about a 1600+ horsepower all-wheel-drive racing car! Not since the turbo-crazed 1980s have we seen anything like that kind of power in a circuit racer.


It's not just emerging hybrid technology that's the headline here, though. Like I said earlier, the big plus of putting all the big bits in the front is the ability to gain an aerodynamic advantage. While other LMP cars vent the air from their front diffuser out behind the front wheels and down the side of the car, Nissan send that air into two huge "vacuum tunnels" that run down the sides of the car where you'd typically find radiators and such like in a mid-engined machine. In the two above pictures you can see the main tunnel element start behind the bronze-coloured drive shaft (upper picture) and run through to the tail of the car (lower picture). There are proper entry holes that attach to the floor of the car behind the front wheels, where air comes in from the front diffuser and under the body. Having such a smooth, clean air flow to generate a low pressure area without generating significant drag at the same time means you get both massive downforce and a high top speed, when normally having one compromises the other.
In fact, two Frontzillas set the two highest top speeds of the whole LM test day yesterday, the best being 336km/h (209mph)! The second Nissan managed 334km/h and all three Audis did 333km/h for equal-third highest top speed through the Speed Trap. The fastest Porsche (running in the 8MJ sub-class) did "only" 326km/h (202mph), surprisingly. Maybe they're chasing downforce the conventional way...


The other big advantage of low drag is greater fuel efficiency, because the car isn't trying as hard to punch a hole in the air. Combine this with a highly efficient and relatively un-stressed engine and the Nissan ought to be frugal, which matters in a 24-hour race (especially one with a limit on fuel usage rate). The less time you can spend in the pits, the better. This is also why Michelin's tyres will last for hours, not minutes. Unfortunately, due to one thing or another, they didn't have time to develop a qualifying-specific tyre compound together for this car, so don't expect Nissan to replicate their achievement of a record-breaking pole position in 1990. Speaking of 1990, the third, Le Mans-only car has a replica livery on it!! That's just cool. How come Porsche couldn't do that with a 917 livery?


While the raw lap times from the test day look tragic for Nissan - their fastest lap was over 20 seconds off the best overall time, set by a Porsche 919 - the truth of it is that they weren't shooting for fast times, instead trying to complete as much actual development testing as they could by splitting the test programme between all three cars. What's more, only the morning was dry and they spent much of that time dealing with electrical issues and adjusting the wing mirror design at the behest of the ACO. It's only been a year since the project even started, after all, plus they were set back two months when the main chassis failed a crash test, so they really haven't had as much time to refine the car as they would have wanted, nor the budget of the other three manufacturer teams. Instead, 2015 is more of a proof-of-concept year before the serious assault in 2016. This car was built specifically for victory at Le Mans, not for the overall WEC title, although they have signed off a more aggressive aero kit for the following five races on circuits without as many long straights as Circuit de la Sarthe. Either way, we've been assured that there's no point judging the car's performance in practice or qualifying. It's the race itself when the true performance will be revealed.

Alternatively, you can get a taste of the car for yourself right now, because an update for Gran Turismo 6 came out today which puts Frontzilla (and a brilliant Peugeot Vision GT concept based on the Pikes Peak car) in the game for free! While you wait for that to download, here's an onboard video of the real thing lapping the NCM Motorsports Park circuit next to the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Kentucky. This circuit features corners that mimic La Sarthe, so they've done most of their testing here.


Notice the lack of understeer! According to the drivers, you only notice that it's front-wheel-drive when you're trying to put power down out of slow corners, and even then you can adjust your line with a wider entry to roll the throttle on earlier, get the differential working and get the power down relatively hassle-free. After that the downforce takes over and it's like any other LMP car to drive, although with such little weight over the skinny rear wheels, trail braking is apparently a little tricky sometimes. The main handling advantage of front-drive cars - and the main reason why almost all mainstream hatchbacks are laid out as such - is that they are inherently stable at high speeds. If you find the car sliding sideways, just kick the throttle and it'll pull itself straight, provided you have enough road. This means the car is particularly easy to drive in slippery conditions compared to a rear-wheel-drive car, and as if to prove that point, at the end of the test day Jann Mardenborough was one of only two drivers (the other being in a Porsche) to be setting wet lap times under 4:00. Remember, they weren't shooting for fast times, just doing test runs. I hope it rains at Le Mans as much as it's currently raining in Swansea as I type this...


Cynics dismiss it as a backwards farce of a science lesson, but this car was created as a two-finger salute to the established players, on a much smaller budget, no less, with the mantra that the only way to beat the might of Audi is to do something unique (McLaren Honda will be familiar with this line of thinking). While the other teams stay secretive to avoid revealing small advantages here and there, Nissan have been completely open about this car from the moment they revealed it during the Superbowl, perhaps because they know nobody could copy it.

It hasn't all gone to plan, but it's not a tragedy. What they lose in outright traction by not also powering the rear wheels, they gain in simplicity and by extension overall reliability. What they lose in raw straight-line speed by running a 2MJ hybrid system instead of the planned 8MJ, they gain in lightness as they meet the 870kg minimum weight limit. It's still a stable car and competitive in a straight line as we've seen. It just means that there's even more to come for 2016, and for the time being we get to see if a front-wheel-drive Le Mans car can really work. Never has a front-drive car won outright, nor has one ever even entered in the top class, as far as I can figure out (an Alvis won the second class in 1928 but came 6th overall). Whether Nissan are likely to be the ones to change that or not, we should all be thankful that the rules in the World Endurance Championship's current regulations allow for something so completely different to compete directly with the big boys.


With a mix of youth and experience from inside and outside Nissan's existing stable of drivers, they also have the men for the job, although Marc Gene - the senior figure who was the first announced driver - has "stepped back" to an advisory role after 2012 GT Academy winner Mark Shulzhitskiy replaced him to become the first ever Russian LMP1 driver. Was Gene pushed into that role? Did he run out of sponsorship money or has he simply become disillusioned with the project? I do not have the answer for that. Anyway, other drivers include GT Academy winners from 2009 and 2011, respectively Lucas Ordoñez and Jann Mardenborough, along with long-serving factory drivers Alex Buncombe and Michael Krumm (the latter set that blistering 7:08 Nürburgring lap in the GT-R NISMO N-ATTACK road car), rising sports car stars Harry Tincknell and Olivier Pla from LMP2, Japanese SUPER GT500 driver's champion Tsugio Matsuda and Formula 1 refugee Max Chilton.
Fun Fact: Chilton actually holds the record as the youngest ever LMP1 driver, from back when he took the wheel of his brother Tom's Zytek during the 2007 Silverstone 1000km, aged 16. He will also be racing in America with Carlin in IndyLights between the remaining six rounds of the WEC.

They line up as follows:

Car #23
(GBR) Jann Mardenborough
(GBR) Max Chilton
(FRA) Olivier Pla

Car #22
(GBR) Alex Buncombe
(GBR) Harry Tincknell
(GER) Michael Krumm

Car #21 (Le Mans only)
(RUS) Mark Shulzhitskiy
(ESP) Lucas Ordoñez
(JPN) Tsugio Matsuda

So there you have it! If you want to cheer for innovation, openness with fans and sheer balls, cheer for Nissan. I leave you with more images, tech specs and a subtle spotters guide to tell apart the two red cars (hint: check the front spoiler). For more images than your body has room for, check out NISMO's Flickr page. If you prefer your pictures to move and make noises, check out their YouTube channel.






TECHNICAL SPECIFICATION

Configuration: Front-engine. Front-wheel-drive

Engine:  Nissan VRX 30A NISMO: 3.0 litre, 60 degree V6, direct injection gasoline twin-turbo

Transmission:  5-speed + reverse sequential gearbox with pneumatic paddle shift system. Epicyclic final drive reduction with hydraulic limited slip differential Tilton 3-plate carbon clutch assembly

Chassis:  FIA Homologated weight: 870 kg. Right-hand driving position 68 litre capacity FT3 fuel tank featuring electric lift and feed pumps. Mechanical flywheel ERS housed ahead and beneath driver’s feet inside the survival cell.

Bodywork:  Carbon-composite body panels. Polycarbonate windscreen with hard coating CFD and full scale wind tunnel developed ultra high efficiency bodywork geometry, adjustable rear wing.

Suspension:  Ohlins multi-adjustable front dampers and Penske multi-adjustable rear dampers, hydraulic rear anti-roll bar system.

Brakes:  6-piston front and 4-piston rear calipers. Driver adjustable brake bias.

Wheels:  BBS centre-lock, magnesium forged 18”x13” front and 16”x9” rear

Tyres: Michelin 31/71-R18 x 14”W front, 20/71-R16 x 9”W rear radials

Electrical: Cosworth engine control unit featuring: Engine control, gearbox control; Driver adjustable traction control, Anti-lag system control, lift-and-coast fuel conservation, Drive-by-wire throttle control and ERS deployment strategy control

Interior: NISMO 5-point harness Lifeline lightweight extinguisher system

Data / display system: Cosworth Electronics with NISMO steering wheel mounted LCD

Dimensions: Length: 4645mm / Width: 1900mm / Height: 1030mm

Minimum weight: 870kg

Full tank capacity: 68L

DAT AIR TUNNEL

LMP1, LMP2 and LMP3. Nissan supplies engines to the latter two and actually powers 30% of the Le Mans grid this year!


GOOD LUCK AT LE MANS!

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