Nissan wants to take overall victory at Le Mans this year. That isn’t anything new to any company involved in motorsports, but Nissan is going about it in a unique way ... it wants to claim victory in the 24 Hours of Le Mans with a front engined, front-wheel drive car.
The last time a front engined car ran at Le Mans was a Panoz in 2003. The last time one won at Le Mans was a Ferrari in 1962. The last time a front wheel drive car ran at Le Mans was 1928 (an Alvis). The last time one won there was ... well ... never.
The primary reason purpose-built race cars went to a rear-engine layout is weight. Constructors figured out they could lose a lot of weight by eliminating the drive-shaft from the front of the car to the rear axle. And the main reason they didn’t just go with front wheel drive is probably because every performance enthusiast thinks front wheel drive is so lame.
OK, so maybe there are weight transfer issues that seriously impact handling, too ...
Anyway, Nissan has decided to put the engine back in the front of the car, putting about 65 percent of the car’s mass ahead of the driver, and negated the weight gain by running a steel rod to the back to drive the wheels. The result is the GT-R LM NISMO, in reference to three of the most revered names in auto performance (GT-R, LM for Le Mans, and NISMO — Nissan’s performance division).
The reason for the switch in thinking is, according to Nissan, the unpredictability of the race.
“The rules are open to interpretation — as I think we’ve proved — but the race always throws surprises,” says Technical Director Ben Bowlby, the car’s creator. “There are so many potential variables beyond your control — extreme heat, torrential rain, slow traffic, spilled oil and coolant. A big part of the challenge is acknowledging that and designing a car with a wide operating range.”
Another reason is aerodynamics, which the rules seriously impact by restricting the amount of downforce builders can use at the rear of the car. Not so much with the front.
“The rules have evolved to find ways of limiting performance by making it difficult to generate very efficient downforce at the rear of the car,” explains Bowlby. “However, the front has always been considered relatively free. Not only does this give us greater freedom within the rules, but front downforce is generated more efficiently, with less drag. Moreover, with the front end doing most of the work we could trim-out the rear wing and save even more drag, which is invaluable at Le Mans.
“Having the weight, aero and tire balance on the front (the front tires are wider than the rear, also unlike other race cars) also means you have a car that’s inherently very stable, not one that’s sitting on a knife-edge,” he continues. “We can generate more traction and run at higher speeds before experiencing aquaplaning in extreme wet conditions. Providing our drivers with a fast, stable car that’s more forgiving and helpful in those typical Le Mans moments when the unexpected happens was one of our strategic imperatives.”
Power is provided to the GT-R LM NISMO’s by a gasoline-fed twin-turbo 3.0-litre V6 putting out an estimated 550 hp, which is relatively sedate by today’s Le Mans prototype car standards. It uses a Kinetic Energy Recovery System (KERS) mechanical flywheel to recapture energy lost during braking and using it to boost power by 1,100 hp (measured on the dyno), which Bowlby claims would put combined horsepower somewhere around 1,600 (now that’s more like a LMP1 car!). Power is delivered by a five-speed manual gearbox.
“Unfortunately, due to the project’s extremely challenging timeframe — less than a year to form the team and design, engineer and develop the car from scratch — we’ve had to be pragmatic and scale things back with the hybrid system for this year’s Le Mans,” says Bowlby. “That’s the flipside of innovation: it hurts when all the pieces don’t quite come together in time. However, we are going to learn a huge amount about getting the maximum from the V6 petrol engine in this year’s race, and you can be sure we’ll be back at Le Mans with full force in 2016.”
But does all this “backwards” thinking make for a potentially winning formula?
“The driving position is very far back behind the engine, so it feels unusual the first time you sit in there (as you can see much more of the front end of the car than you usually would),” says Michael Krumm, NISMO’s most experienced driver and the one entrusted with the shakedown of the GT-R LM NISMO through its development. “Initially to your surprise, you find it’s very sharp on turn-in and the traction is extremely good. We’re putting a lot of horsepower through the front wheels, so I expected it to have loads of wheelspin, but it pulls really well.
“As long as you are under acceleration, the rear end of the car will always be stable and cannot suddenly spin you around,” he continues. “That is particularly helpful in wet conditions. Also, there are certain types of corners where this ‘pulling’ of the car can actually create more grip than a conventional rear wheel driven car.
“At Le Mans, we’re going to be quicker and slower than other cars in different places on the track,” concludes Krumm. “When you get onto the straights it just goes and goes and goes. We’re going to reach really good top speeds at Le Mans. Usually when you drive an LM prototype you accelerate quickly, but then you hit a bit of an aerodynamic brick wall; the GT-R feels really slippery through the air.”
One thing is certain — as it did with Audi’s diesel and Toyota’s hybrid projects, Nissan’s front-engine/front-drive program is going to make the 2015 24 Hours of Le Mans one of the must-watch races in motorsports history.