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Thursday, 24 December 2015

Sayonara, Frontzilla - Nissan LMP1 Car Officially Axed

2015 Nissan GT-R LM NISMO testing in Kentucky back in May
Nissan Motorsport - better known as NISMO - did a lot of winning this year. They won the Bathurst 12 Hours, the first time a Nissan has taken victory there since Gozdilla itself, the BNR32 Skyline GT-R, dominated in 1992. They flattened their domestic competition in SUPER GT by winning both classes (with a 1-2 in GT500). They won the Blancpain Endurance Series PRO Cup and, would you believe it, managed to win every single race of the Nissan Micra Cup (fancy that!).

Basically, they haven't been short of reasons to pop open a bottle of bubbly in 2015... and yet, in one very big and very public way, they have failed catastrophically...

See, the jewel in NISMO's racing crown this year was their first ever LMP1 car - and their first top-class sportscar entry since 1999 - the wild, crazy, experimental GT-R LM NISMO. You may have seen it in Nissan's Superbowl commercial. They were going to take on the big boys in the biggest, toughest race of them all: the Le Mans 24 Hours. More than that, having already pioneered new engineering concepts in the special experimental class, they were going to shoot for victory with a car that defied every convention possible. Its engine was in the front, it was front-wheel-drive, it had gigantic aerodynamic flow-through tunnels flanking the cockpit and featured an all-mechanical "flybrid" KERS that could deliver devastating power to all four wheels when the driver exited a corner... or at least, in theory. What actually happened is that, despite originally promising a full World Endurance Championship campaign, the car didn't show up until the pre-Le Mans test day, having missed the first two races as well as the "WEC Prologue" official pre-season test in March. Having made such a big deal out of the car and been more welcoming to its supporters than any other team by some considerable margin, racing fans were excited to see what this daringly different machine could do against the likes of Audi, Porsche and domestic rivals Toyota.

What they ultimately saw was an unfinished, underdeveloped design that failed to qualify; the fastest of the three cars lapped a full 20 seconds slower than pole position around the 8.5-mile Circuit de la Sarthe. In the race, they were thus demoted to starting behind the LMP2 cars, and took a long time to get past them before ultimately meeting trouble of all kinds. The retro-liveried #21 car's suspension failed, it lost a front wheel at the bottom end of the circuit and became undrivable (without destroying the driveline) as a result. The #22 car spent hours in the garage as the team tried desperately to create a working car again. The #23 car was doing best of the lot despite missing the start with a clutch problem... until it agonisingly broke down and caught fire with less than an hour to go. In the end, only the #22 car was able to limp across the line to gratify the mechanics who had worked tirelessly throughout the whole event. Where did it place, you ask? Worse than last - it was so many laps behind the winner that it wasn't officially a classified finisher. Oh dear...

"OK then, I'll humor you" - chequered flag man, probably
Where did it all go wrong? Well, sort of everywhere if we're honest. The first major setback the public became aware of was the car failing its first official crash test so badly they had to spend two months building a new chassis. That was two months they couldn't afford to lose. The real problem, however, was just how complex and unusual the car was. The centre of aerodynamic pressure and front-to-rear balance of both weight distribution and tyre size were all designed to be in sync with each other, which was very clever and would make the front-driven layout work by balancing the car on its front axle. Like the DeltaWing and ZEOD RC that team-and-technical boss Ben Bowlby had designed prior, the car would work properly if every single element was in perfect harmony, and that never really happened for "Frontzilla."

The clever Kinetic Energy Recovery System made by Torotrack wasn't just grossly overweight, it was also chronically unreliable. When it fails, the brakes cook themselves in moments because the heat energy isn't being scavenged anymore, and fuel consumption is thrown completely off-kilter as the 3.0 twin-turbo V6 engine no longer has hybrid assistance. Mind you, even the old-fashioned bits weren't perfect, such as the initially very fragile 5-speed gearbox (through which the KERS delivers its extra power to the front wheels), or the doors that shattered in the first crash test. The car was awkward to drive, too, and drivers took a while to get their heads around how to extract performance from the front-wheel-drive prototype, the likes of which there has never been before now.

The gearbox is in front of the engine, like a Citro├źn Traction-Avant
In a way, though, you could track the slippery slope of this car's development by focusing on the KERS. Audi already use a flywheel-based system, but Nissan's was unique in being completely un-electric. Heat energy was gathered by a device in the front wheel hubs and stored as rotating energy in a weighted flywheel that spun in a vacuum, which then sent it via reduction gears and the normal transmission to the wheels as horsepower and torque. What's more, because traction control is allowed in LMP1, any power that the tyres couldn't handle was diverted to charging the KERS under acceleration. The original target for combined engine-and-KERS power output was a sensational two thousand horsepower, because hell, why not aim high? In testing, the KERS alone could peak at 1100bhp, which combined with the ~500bhp engine meant the car actually had the potential for over 1600bhp for up to three seconds at a time as the KERS discharged its energy. This was hundreds more than rivals and would've made it one of the most powerful racing cars of all time. In reality, it couldn't do that without a major failure of some kind, so the power went down to 1250bhp combined - roughly on-par with rivals. Similarly, while Nissan intended to use a full-fat 8MJ hybrid system, by the time they were testing at Le Mans it was downsized to 2MJ... and still failing persistently. First the system was going to power the rear wheels via a driveshaft running through the car and epicyclic gearboxes to clear the giant aero tunnels, with excess power being rerouted to the front wheels... then it was decided to only make it power the front wheels alongside the engine, due to more fragile parts.

In the end, the cars qualified and raced with no KERS at all. Aside from the worsened fuel consumption and high brake temperatures, this meant they had less than half the power of the Porsches, Audis and Toyotas at the points on the circuit where they should've had that massive extra boost. It also meant that, without drive to the rear wheels, the car struggled to even put the engine's power down properly on corner exits compared to its rear-wheel-drive competitors. After Le Mans, Nissan tried what they could, but ultimately ditched the system altogether as it was fundamentally unworkable in the time and budget they had.


The project itself has now gone the same way. We were told after Le Mans that they would pull out of the WEC until their car was fast enough, with the possibility that it would race at the rounds in Texas and Japan in September. This possibility did not happen. Instead, they would come back next year with a new hybrid system and renewed optimism! But, er, that hasn't worked out either. The plan was that NISMO themselves would create an F1-style battery-based KERS, similar to what the all-conquering Porsche 919 had used to win Le Mans and the overall championship with its monstrous straight-line speed and 8MJ hybrid system. This would give them the boost and harmony they needed for a full campaign in 2016.

Alas, while the Germans could make it work, NISMO could not. Their system wasn't just underperforming, but it was recently revealed that production is delayed until next March and it wouldn't have gone in the car until the eleventh hour. Oh, and the 2016 chassis has just failed its crash test too. By this point, the founder of the project (and creator of GT Academy) Darren Cox had already left not just the team, but resigned as NISMO's marketing boss after a ten-year stint at the company. An overworked Ben Bowlby was reduced to just being technical director as Nissan brought in high-level employee Michael Carcamo to be team principal and knock them into shape in a bid to turn things around... but as it turns out, it was already too late to save the project. By now it's speculated to be as much as 5-8 months behind schedule, and after an embarrassing show at Le Mans, the bigwigs have had enough and decided that it will not be possible to catch up with Porsche and Audi next year.

And so, despite testing earlier this month, Nissan announced yesterday that they were killing the project completely... and would you believe it, they've bollocksed that up as well; employees at the project's base in Indianapolis were notified by email that they had lost their jobs three days before Christmas, and many of them only found out when Nissan Global released an official statement to the media. A fitting end to a project where it seems every good idea was badly executed.

Just like the Nissan LMP1 project - slipping unstoppably downwards until the end...
So what have we learned?
Nissan wanted to be different. They believed that it wasn't possible to beat the dominant force of Audi by doing the same things as them, because by definition you were already a step behind. The machine it created wasn't just exploiting the extra freedom for front-end aero in the regulations, it was a two-fingered salute to the establishment and an engineering experiment we were all invited to follow in great detail. Their intentions and their attitude were nothing but admiral, be it for their openness, their sense of fun or just their sheer bloody-minded boldness.

In the end, their experiment has failed to deliver on track... and worst of all, the first manufacturer to beat Audi at Le Mans since 2009 used a car that did copy their established philosophies, with only minor technical differences that anyone could've tried. How galling is that?!

But y'know what? There actually are positives to take from this venture. In fact, there is one way in which Nissan did outclass Porsche and Audi.

Obviously it wasn't on the track, although Frontzilla did set the highest trap speed during the pre-Le Mans test days and show impressive stability in the wet. No, NISMO excelled off the track. How do I know? Because despite everyone's expectations being lowered step by step throughout the year, this team gained instant respect for doing what they were doing. Even the people who "knew" it would never compete for victory this year admired it for being different, and only those who are prejudiced against front-wheel-drive ever spoke out against it. When it was announced that they wouldn't be racing in the opening WEC round at Silverstone, they went there anyway and let fans walk right into their garage to poke around and sit in a full-scale model. At Le Mans, they had a slide. No other team in the 92-year history of Le Mans has ever turned up with a slide. On their YouTube channel and this website, you could learn everything you could possibly want to know about how the car works and why, as well as how it was all going. They kept fans engaged on social media and weren't afraid to be open about the problems they were tackling all the way up to and during Le Mans. You could even drive the car yourself in Gran Turismo 6 and it was used in the early phases of GT Academy this year.

And then there's the team. The men and women on the ground who made a Herculean effort to get the cars going, fix them and get them out again, staying awake for far more than 24 hours in the process. They earned the respect of everybody that watched them work, and I've read that endurance and IndyCar teams are now interested in giving many of them them jobs next year in the wake of their blunt dismissal.


A moral victory doesn't come with a trophy or prize money, but despite the chaotic year they've just endured, the people behind this car can be rightly proud of themselves for how they've been. What's more, with marketing boss Darren Cox now out of the picture, there's a chance we may not see clever publicity of this sort from a factory outfit again. It would be easy to beat up on this team... but it would also be unfair.

All of this makes it sad that the higher-ups at Nissan didn't give them a chance to see out their project to the end. By lacking the very attitude their engineers have showed in abundance, they've denied us the chance to see if it could've been turned around with a working hybrid system, refined management and continued perseverance.

Instead, it will remain an unfinished dream, one of motorsport history's great what-ifs.
Sayonara, Frontzilla-san.


Sources: Road&Track, Motorsport.com, NISMO on Flickr

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