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Nissan goes back to front
Le Mans challenger reverses convention with FWD | By Gary Watkins

Nissan has unveiled a World Endurance Championship LMP1 contender that stands motor sport convention on its head with a front-engine, front-wheel-drive layout.

The new GT-R LM NISMO, Nissan’s first challenger for outright Le Mans 24 Hours honours since 1999, has been designed by a Ben Bowlby-led team around a Cosworth-built twin-turbo V6 mounted ahead of the monocoque. This allows the air from the splitter to be channelled through the car, rather than out of the sides as on a conventional rear-engined P1, for aerodynamic gain.

The GT-R LM retrieves energy from the heavily loaded front axle and is designed to deploy it at the rear wheels, which are nine inches in width rather than the maximum 14 in the name of drag reduction. Full details of the hybrid system have not been released, but it is an open secret that it uses a fully mechanical system developed by

Flybrid Automotive, which is now under the ownership of UK transmission specialist Torotrak.

The starting point for the concept is an attempt to exploit the freedoms allowed in terms of front-end aerodynamics, at a time when the rules at the rear of the car are becoming increasingly restricted.

“If you begin to think about how you could differentiate yourself aerodynamically when the rear diffuser is so strictly controlled and the rear wing has to fit within a tight ‘box’, you realise that you would have to spend an absolute fortune in detail work and fine-tuning,” says Bowlby, who also led the design teams on Nissan’s DeltaWing and ZEOD RC ‘Garage 56’ experimental racers at Le Mans. “It is much easier to find the downforce to make the difference at the front of the car.”

The decision to put the drive from the petrol-powered V6 engine through the front wheels was influenced by a need to move the weight distribution forward in line with the increase in front downforce and to save overall weight in order to accommodate a current LMP1 car’s heavy hybrid systems.

“Making weight savings is extremely difficult with a big, powerful hybrid,” adds Bowlby. “It is probably the biggest challenge that the manufacturers face in designing and building these cars. We could have done that, it was totally possible, but a DTM car or a Super GT GT500 with a front-engine and rear-wheel-drive has a 50/50 weight distribution. So we said, ‘Okay we will use our relatively low-powered internal combustion engine to drive the front wheels’.”

Nissan has opted to recover energy solely from the front axle because, according to Bowlby, “you want to do that where you have a lot of downforce and weight”. Deploying at the rear “seemed like an intelligent thing to do”.

That has resulted in the choice of nine-inch rear tyres from supplier Michelin for a car that Bowlby admits has been designed purely as a “Le Mans special”.

“We are running at such high speeds for such long times at Le Mans that drag is very important,” he explained. “In the overall equation it looks like a decent trade-off.”

Nissan has admitted that it might not run the rear hybrid system in year one as it seeks to achieve the minimum weight of 870kg.

“Right now, the last thing we need to be doing is skinning everything down to make the minimum weight,” said Bowlby. “We might choose for a year to retrieve from the front and deploy from the front, but in a lower megajoule class than we will ultimately run in.”

Nissan is setting relatively modest targets for year one of its return to the top flight of sports car racing. Nissan global motor sport boss Darren Cox said that the team’s aim is to look “credible” in 2015. “Our aim is to get to the finish at Le Mans and see where we come,” he said. “Based on last year’s numbers we are going to be credible on pace, but until the flag drops we won’t know.”

Nissan has so far announced approximately half of the driving squad for its two entries for the full WEC and the additional car for Le Mans. Marc Gené, who finished second in the 24 Hours last year for Audi, will contest all eight races along with LMP2 graduates Olivier Pla and Harry Tincknell and former Nissan GT Academy winner and GP3 racer Jann Mardenborough. Nissan veteran Michael Krumm, the first driver to take the wheel of the GT-R LM, will contest the first three races up to and including Le Mans, while Tsugio Matsuda and Lucas Ordonez have been nominated for the third, Le Mans-only car.

Le Mans entry revealed

Porsche GT driver Nick Tandy has been promoted to the German manufacturer’s prototype squad to race its latest 919 Hybrid at Le Mans and in the Spa WEC round. The Briton has been brought in along with new GT factory driver Earl Bamber to share the third car with Force India F1 racer Nico Hülkenberg.

Mike Conway has been confirmed as part of Toyota’s WEC line-up, which has been reshuffled for 2015. Kazuki Nakajima will contest all eight races for the first time and will share with reigning world champions Anthony Davidson and Sébastien Buemi, while Conway will take his place, as he did on three occasions last season, as team-mate to Alex Wurz and Stéphane Sarrazin.

Additional Le Mans cars entered by Porsche and Nissan, as well as Audi, mean there will be 11 manufacturer P1 entries for the 24 Hours on June 13/14. They will be joined by three privateer P1 cars: Rebellion Racing will enter two of its ORECA-built R-Ones to be powered by the AER turbo V6 in place of the normally aspirated Toyota V8; and the ByKolles team, formerly Lotus LMP, will field a solo CLM P1/01 powered by the same AER engine.

There will be no ‘Garage 56’ experimental racer at Le Mans in 2015, because no suitable entry was received. The entry is thus split between 14 LMP1s, 20 LMP2s, nine cars in GTE Pro and 13 in GTE Am.

* Toyota has given the green light to a return to the World Rally Championship after an absence stretching back to 1999. It will rejoin the series in 2017 with the Yaris WRC developed by Toyota Motorsport GmbH in Cologne. It will spend the next two seasons developing
a car the team has been testing since March last year.

Roy Kennedy

Long-time race team owner Roy Kennedy died on February 13, at the age of 77. Kennedy ran cars in the British F3 and European F2 Championships in the 1970s, managed the successful Burke Ratcliffe Racing Thundersports operation during the 1980s and later resurrected Roy Kennedy Racing in the British Touring Car Championship, running as an independent in the early 1990s.