Nissan’s announcement of their LMP1 return for next year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans will put them back in the chase of Le Mans victories as a constructor for the first time since 1999.
Since the lone Nissan Motorsports’ lone Nissan R391 LMP challenger bowed out of the ’99 event with electrical issues their involvement with Le Mans has been almost entirely as an engine manufacturer. A one-off role in the back of a Rollcentre Racing Dallara in 2005 pre-dates their current LMP2 omni-presence with a Nissan engine concealed beneath the bodywork of a dozen cars set to battle for class honours in this year’ field.
It has been a meteoric rise to numerical prominence for the marque, having only returned to Le Mans in 2011.
It did it, however, in style.
V8 Nissan motors powered both the winning Greaves Motorsport Zytek and the Signatech Nissan Oreca. While Karim Ojjeh, Olivier Lombard and Tom Kimber-Smith lifted the silverware for victory among the three drivers of the works supported Signatech car was Lucas Ordonez, the pathfinder for Nissan’s other major current program in racing – the Nissan GT Academy.
The following year there were two Academy grads on the grid – Jordan Tresson stepping into LMP2 – and a total of 14 Nissan engines. Their involvement continued to grow the following year to 15 engines, the VK45DE powerplant sweeping the top four places in the class in the back of three different brands of chassis.
In the meantime Nissan, and their in-house motorsport creators, NISMO had become firm supporters of the Automobile club de l’Ouest’s Garage 56 program.
The Nissan DeltaWing, a project born out of a failed concept to become the new-for-2012 Indycar Series design. A production based engine, derived for that found in the Nissan Juke, was placed in the car, now painted black and emblazoned with the Nissan name.
Starkly not looking like a race car the DeltaWing had always divided opinion, right back to when Chip Ganassi had taken the covers off his favoured Indycar design. At Le Mans, however, the ‘Batmobile’ (as the black livery and huge central tail fin leant to its naming) captured the imagination of the Le Mans racing audience. The machine’s early demise after being swiped off the track by Kazuki Nakajima in his LMP1 Toyota only helped cement the car’s place in Le Mans history as did Satoshi Motoyama’s forlorn attempts to embody the spirit of endurance racing and fix the car by the side of the track as the team – and the ever present fan-cam – watched on.
This year Nissan returns to Garage 56 at Le Mans with the Nissan ZEOD RC. The petrol-electic hybrid is designed – just as was the DeltaWing – by Ben Bowlby and the similarities in the design have not escaped Ganassi, Don Panoz and their lawyers. However, the closed cockpit machine carries an all white livery, lending it a (almost certainly deliberate) cleaner look that it’s spiritual predecessor.
Nissan’s entry into hybrid racing at Le Mans – the company is also the leading producers of electric road cars – paved the way for their return to the top class at Le Mans to battle against the houses of Audi, Porsche and Toyota, fighting to follow Mazda as the only Japanese brand to have won overall at Le Mans.
The Nissan GT-R LM NISMO will become the latest chapter in Nissan’s relatively short, but extremely varied history at Le Mans.
Unsurprisingly their major programs have coincided with the periods in which greater numbers of manufacturers joined the chase for overall Le Mans glory.
A succession of Group C cars brought Nissan to Le Mans for the first time in the late 1980s. However, as the brands GTP-ZX Turbo was dominating the IMSA GT Championship in the US the line of Nissan cars at Le Mans that began with the R85V struggled to match the Porsches, Jaguars and Sauber-Mercs of the era.
The R85V – which debuted at Le Mans in 1986 – only finished 16th for the trio of Japanese drivers Masahiro Hasemi and Takao Wada and Brit James Weaver, the man now part of Rob Austin’s BTCC set-up.
R85 successors the R87, R88, and R89 all failed to break into the top ten, though an Allan Grice, Mike Wilds and Win Percy driven R88C moved the benchmark result for the marque up to 14th.
The various iterations of Nissan’s 1990 challenger proved to be the best of their Group C entries.
Two versions of the R90C arrived at the Circuit de la Sarthe that year – the R90CP and the R90CK.
With large inlets cut into the front bodywork and rear wing endplates integrated into the flanks of the car the Japanese designed CP looked more like the IMSA contestant cars that were just ending their reign of dominance. The CK – out of Ray Mallock’s workshops in the UK – was a lower looking machine with a line of air intakes contained to the very front of the car and headlights placed side-by-side in the clusters rather than one above the other as in the CP.
Four of the British massaged cars were entered alongside just one car from the NISMO works and despite the presence of multiple IMSA champions Geoff Brabham and Chip Robinson in one CK and Mark Blundell’s taking of another to a the highest top speed on the newly chicane-punctuated Mulsanne Straight it was the all Japanese crewed CP that scored the best race finish.
Hasemi, Kazuyoshi Hoshino and Toshio Suzuki completed 348 laps to finish fifth behind a pair each of Jaguars and Porsches.
That result was matched by an IMSA GTS Nissan 300ZX (the production model their earlier US car borrowed its name from) entered by American Clayton Cunningham Racing in 1994. The combination of IMSA champion Steve Millen, John Morton and future Corvette driver Johnny O’Connell won their class by over 50 laps.
Nissan – under the NISMO banner – returned as a team the following year with a pair of Nissan Skyline GT-R competition in the GT1 class just as the category began to morph towards the fantastical creations that would see out the century.
As teams found loopholes to exploit to pass off purpose built racers as production based designs (cars technically had to have boot space) Porsche created the Porsche 911 GT1, Panoz the Esperante GTR-1, Toyota the GT-One and Mercedes the CLK LM (the flipping CLR the second generation of GT1 Merc).
Nissan’s entry into the class came with the TWR designed R390 GT1, debuting in 1997 with typically underwhelming results given Nissan’s past at Le Mans. Of the three cars entered only one finished, Hoshino, Érik Comas and Masahiko Kageyama finishing 12th overall.
The second year of the program, as GT1 took over the upper echelons of Le Mans, brought with it the best overall result in Nissan’s Le Mans history to date. Not for the first time it was an all Japanese line-up that posted the finish in question Hoshino, Kageyama and Aguri Suzuki finishing third behind a Porsche 1-2.
Backing up ’98 as Nissan’s best year at Le Mans two more R390 finished fifth and sixth for line-ups including Jan Lammers and Michael Krumm, then a new recruit to NISMO’s teams in Japan.
The fourth R390, featuring DeltaWing folk hero to be Motoyama, finished 10th completing Nissan’s finest year at Le Mans.