As rules in Formula One become more and more restrictive, an increasing number of manufacturers are now electing to race at Le Mans to develop new technologies. Nissan is one of those. This year, the Japanese manufacturer's engines will power half the field in the increasingly competitive LMP2 class. This year also sees the arrival of the exciting Garage 56 project – the Nissan Deltawing.
The car was originally designed to potentially be this year's new Indycar, but after losing out to Dallara's new chassis, the project found a second life as a sportscar racer. Backed by American Dan Gurney and his All American Racers company, it was announced that the car would run under the “Garage 56” rules at the 80th running of the 24 hours of Le Mans.
Garage 56 rules means that whilst the car is not eligible to race in a distinctive class, it is simply a show of the rapid developments in technology in racing, and to give an indication of how future racing cars could look. Whilst the Deltawing's appearance may not have appealed to all fans so far, the importance of such a project is not being underestimated by anyone, particularly Nissan who backed the project in recent weeks.
The car experienced some issues through the designing and development phase however, as seen with the fact that Michelin were asked to produce unusually thin front tyres for the radical looking machine.
Nissan themselves are branding the car as “the most revolutionary car to appear in motorsport for a generation.” A finish for the car which has comically been branded as the Batmobile by some fans could be a challenge despite an extensive test programme however. That is certainly not down to anything lacking from the driver line-up though, with sportscar aces Marino Franchitti and Michael Krumm sharing the car alongside Satoshi Motoyama.
Nissan will still be strong favourites for victory in the LMP2 category, with their engines powering two of the leading cars. Sky F1 commentator Martin Brundle makes a return to Le Mans after an absence of eleven years. Formula One commentary duties have kept Martin away from the 24 hour race in recent years, but with no clash this year he makes a long awaited return. He'll be joined in the car by his son and GP3 racer Alex.
In the last few years, Nissan has been involved with the Playstation Gran Turismo Academy competition. It aims quite simply to turn computer game racers into professional racing drivers, and two men who have benefitted from the programme will be on the grid this year.
Spaniard and the first Gran Turismo Academy winner Lucas Ordonez will return to Le Mans after making his debut at the track last year. He'll be hoping to go one better than in 2011 where he finished second in the LMP2 category. He'll complete the line up alongside the Brundles in the #42 Greaves Motorsport car.
Frenchman Jordan Tresson was the second winner of the Academy and will complete a boyhood dream by competing in the historic race for the first time this year. He'll be hoping for a similarly successful race to that Ordonez enjoyed last year and will be joined in the car by last year's LMP2 winner Olivier Lombard and Franck Mailleux in the #23 Signatech Nissan team.
The 24 hours of Le Mans is as much about fuel economy and reliability as it is about outright speed, and Nissan will be hoping to use the same mixture that saw Nissan engine cars take a one-two finish in LMP2 last year. The second class of prototypes is famously renowned to sometimes be something of a high attrition race as the event goes on. However, such is Nissan's domination in terms of numbers this year it is likely that only a disaster will stop the Japanese marque from celebrating a second consecutive class victory once the flag falls on the 17th June.
It is clear that Le Mans is now once again becoming an important arena for manufacturers to show off new technologies that may one day find themselves on everyday road cars. That is why Audi is hoping that their four wheel drive E-Tron Quattro will take the first victory for a hybrid car. Toyota too is hoping that their brand new for 2012 hybrid prototype will prove to be successful on their first visit back at Le Mans since 1999.
With the GT class proving to be as well supported by the likes of Ferrari, Porsche, Aston Martin and Corvette as ever – this year's race has the making of being a classic. Despite Peugeot's withdrawal from sportscar racing at the start of this year, there are signs that the 80th running of the Le Mans 24 hours will be one to remember. Don't miss it.