Nissan quite cleverly made sure that the nation was watching when they revealed their GT-R LMP1 car through a super bowl ad. It was designed to catch our attention when a lonely racing driver was away from his son for most of his early life, reminiscent of Harry Chapin’s lonely life ballad “Cat’s In The Cradle”. But life lessons aside, let’s take a look at this new Japanese born racer and determine if it truly is “Godzilla” in the high tech world of LeMans style racing. I was in attendance at the Chicago Auto Show to see for myself.
A first look at the drivetrain and the overall layout of the Le Mans Prototype car raises questions that have us scratching our heads. Let’s start with the most obvious one, front wheel drive. Front wheel? Really?
Even the road going GT-R monster is being hinted to follow in the LeMans cars footsteps and although the GT-R is an all wheel drive car, it’s not quite like the GT-R LMP1. This racing car is designed as a unique hybrid system that distributes its power to the rear wheels, all four wheels, or the front wheels as needed. But it still doesn’t explain why NISMO chose to have the petrol engine powering primarily the front wheels.
Virtually every car built today that millennial’s purchase are front wheel drive. That produces what’s known as understeer, assuming they have driven the cars fast enough to feel it.
Understeer, particularly power throttle understeer, can be an evil and irritating characteristic. Understeer, or “push”, if you’re a proponent of NASCAR jargon, is when a car is pushing “wide” or you are turning your wheels into a corner and putting the throttle into it and it just wont turn. Your wheels are turned into the corner and you now you can’t turn far enough to avoid that wall that’s staring you in the face.
No worries, hold the brakes longer into the corner ( known as trail braking ) and then apply the throttle. It’s not as fast as straight line braking but it gets you through the corner. It’s a method of driving that causes the front end to turn into the corner by braking into it. Oval track cars are set up this way and even though they are rear wheel drive, it allows the rear to be more stable while carrying speed deeper into the corners.
The problem with front wheel drive, at speed, is it’s the main ingredient for understeer. The front wheels are working over time with the steering, add to that front end weight because of where the engine is placed, and now you have power that causes the front wheels to ever so slightly spin.
It’s hard not to have a great degree of faith in Nismo. Surely they have a trick up their sleeve. Either that, or they are about to make a big mistake and head back to the mainland to design a faster way to deliver Sushi. I doubt, however that this is the case.
Another concern that has this Samurai warrior under the microscope is where the engine is placed. Remember the Panoz being a front engine Prototype? That didn’t work out so well, but were talking prototype series here. Placing the main powerplant it in the middle one would think would make the most sense, giving the car closer to a 50/50 weight distribution. These hybrid power units are heavy, with Nismo’s unit making up half the weight of the car.
The GT-R LMP1 power is coming from a 3.0 liter twin turbocharged V6 and a lot of speculation was going around that it would basically have the same engine as the R35. No, the road legal R35 has a bigger displacement, but with smaller turbos. The petrol engine in the GT-R LMP1 is paired up with an Energy Recovery System (ERS) that harvests energy from the brakes and converts that energy into electric energy that boosts engine horsepower.
All of this is connected with a five, yes five speed transmission. This system is powered to either all wheels, the rear wheels, or the front as I mentioned earlier. One thing I can I can tell you for sure is that the front wheels are a massive 14 inches wide while the rear are a scant 9 inches.
This whole system has an astonishing output of 1,250 horsepower. It’s competition is intense. The Porsche 919, may have the best driver lineup in the World Endurance Championship, and that car is specified as 750 horsepower with both the petrol and electric engines in play; the same story is with the Audi R18 Quattro TDI with 712 horsepower. Right now the only car with nearly as much power is the Toyota TS040 with 986 horsepower, which placed third in last years 24 hours of Le Mans.
It’s not the horsepower numbers that you have to consider, but rather, how to get that horsepower to the ground. Nissan seems to feel that through a complex system of torque vectoring via a computer it can deliver the horsepower to the appropriate wheels at the appropriate time. Formula One may be complex, but nowhere near as tricky as the LeMans hybrids.
The cars aerodynamics are going to have to play a tremendous role in how the car performs around turns if it wants to keep understeer at a minimum. Faced with this conundrum, who else should you call other than Ben Bowlby who designed the Delta Wing, another strange looking, but quite effective design. The old adage of” If it looks fast, it probably is” doesn’t seem to apply in the modern era. These days you can never make a decision on how well the car is going to handle based on looking at it, ten foot winged tuners included. Speaking of wings, nothing says “I am a prototype racer” more than todays dorsal fin connecting to the rear wing to create the “delta wing”.
I had the opportunity to see the car at its Chicago Auto Show reveal and noticed that the front splitter extended out so far that if it was the same color as the show floor, I would have mistaken it for an extra step. The rear diffuser is a complex design with slits in the wheel well to manage air out of the back of the car. When I walked around the back, GTR signature tail lights are to remind Porsche and Audi that a new kid is in town.
The cabin is sitting farther back than any LMP1 car, the reason being the engine is placed forward of the cockpit resulting in a 15 foot long racing car. For now, Nismo has revealed that Marc Gene will be driving the car. No he won’t be driving for 12 to 24 hours at a time, but he did win Le Mans in 2009 with Peugeot, you know those little French cars? If you don’t, you should, they were gorgeous.
Hopefully, this front wheel drive Samurai warrior is going to live up to its GTR name. For those who are Nissan fans, the R36 GT-R is being developed alongside the Nismo prototype. You could either look at that as positive or negative but you would be hard pressed to convince current GTR fans that front-wheel drive is the answer.
There’s no way to know if the GT-R LMP1 will be the best or the worst car in the 2015 World Endurance Championship line up. If it’s not everything Nissan has promised it to be, it could be money down the drain, and a whole lot of people disappointed that daddy was away from his son for nothing.