Nissan spent a fortune on its four-wheel-drive Group A rally machine. Neat, compact and bristling with gizmos… it flopped. John Davenport tells why the Sunny couldn’t stand the heat
When the Group B dinosaurs disappeared overnight in 1986 there were few four-wheel-drive GpA cars around to fill the evolutionary gap. Lancia, like the magician it was, produced the Delta HF and was away on a five-year world championship-winning steak. Lancia was eventnally overwhelmed by offerings from Toyota, Mitsubishi, Ford and Subaru — but not by Nissan. Its Sunny GTI-R proved distinctly underwhelming.
Nissan was a company with a long and proud rallying tradition, yet it had let the GpB era pass without developing a turbo or a four-wheel-drive car. Its ‘small’ contribution to the tech-fest was the normally aspirated, front-engined, rear-wheel-drive 240RS. It was never going to be a winner, despite the efforts of drivers Timo Salonen, Mike Kirkland and Shelchar Mehta. It even failed to win its target event, the Safari.
The bright new world of GpA offered Nissan a chance of salvation, and it tried several possibilities: for the Safari, there was the 200SX, a 3-litre V6-powered conventional car; then there was the tiny 998cc March Turbo that made appearances during 1988 with Per Eklund; and there was the Bluebird SSS-R, a twin-turbo 4WD powered by a 2.6-litre V6 that was used in racing and rallying. None of these, however, was quite the ticket.
What was needed for WRC success was a 2-litre turbo 4WD made in 5000 units to qualify for homologation in GpA and GpN. Nissan’s designers came up with exactly that in 1988. It was based on its mass-produced Pulsar model which, on its launch in Europe, was known as the Sunny.
Nissan’s rally success in the past had come by developing and building the cars in Japan and sending teams out to handle operations on the Safari, Monte Carlo or RAC. But with the increasing complexity of the WRC — 14 events spread round the world — it realised that a modified approach would be needed: a base in Europe was essential. Nissan called in Howard Marsden, the architect of its success in Australia, and who more recently had run its GpC programme in Europe. Marsden proposed to use the existing Nissan Motorsport Europe HQ at Blakelands in Milton Keynes and the recruitment of a specialised team to run the new car. But all development and build would take place in Japan.
One of the team’s first acquisitions was Dave Whittock. His task was to run the test team. This was a major undertaking since Nissan had decided that, during 1990, it would test the new car on the actual roads — and in as near the actual conditions — of every rally that it might tackle. The list Whittock was given included the Monte Carlo, Portugal, Safari, Acropolis, 1000 Lakes, San Remo and RAC. During that year, and on into ’91, his team went to rallies, took intermediate times on stages and then, after the rally was finished, got to work driving against the clock on those sections.
“On the Safari,” says Whittock, “to get the conditions as near as possible to reality we drove big chunks of the route just an hour or so after the event had gone through.” Stig Blomqvist was contracted to do this. He was attended by a host of technicians from Nissan in Japan and engineers from Dunlop Japan and Kayaba, the suspension company.
The Sunny GTi-R was, in many respects, ahead of its time. It was fitted with ABS and variable power steering that became more direct as speed increased. It also had ATTESA. This charming acronym stood for Advanced Total Traction Engineering System for All. Not all these systems, however, were sophisticated or predictable enough to find favour with the drivers in all circumstances, and a switch was provided for them to override ATTESA. Several things emerged straight away from the testing. The Sunny was competitive, it handled well and coped with rough and smooth conditions with equal dexterity. But it had two problems. The biggest of these was its intercooler. It was mounted over the top of the engine and was intended to take cold air from a large scoop on the bonnet. Sadly, the space available below the intercooler was small. On slow stages, the heat from the engine, turbo and gearbox would try to rise up through the intercooler and exit via the scoop which was placed in a low-pressure area. Ingenious engineers can solve most problems, but on this occasion mere ingenuity was not enough. GpA rules allowed a different intercooler to be fitted but did not allow the outer shape of the car to be altered or for the engine to be moved within its compartment.
In 1991, Nissan spent weeks in wind tunnels exploring ways of increasing the flow through what was soon irreverently dubbed the ‘interwarmer’. The best thing it came up with was a pod covering the spotlights that altered the airflow over the bonnet and increased the pressure at the scoop. The pod would be fitted day and night
“You could go like hell for about four or five kilometres on an Acropolis stage and then the car would gradually lose power,” says Whittock. “The temperature sensor for the air going into the engine would knock back the fuelling to suit the amount of oxygen available and pouf went 60bhp.” Towards the end of 1991 a car was entered at the Bettega Memorial event staged at the Bologna Motor Show. “We packed the intercooler in dry ice, and the thing went like a bomb — but the stage was only a couple of minutes long…”
The other problem that raised its head during the test period could be described in one word: Dunlop. Despite having a car with good geometry and decent suspension, the rubber emanating from Japan lacked grip and, much worse in the days before ATS mousse, were very prone to puncture. Dunlop lagged far behind what was on offer from Pirelli and Michelin. But the Nissan/Dunlop relationship was impregnable. Whittock : “It was a shame that they did not use some of the knowledge and expertise of the British Dunlop guys at Fort Dunlop. For Japanese, their approach to testing was pretty haphazard. They used a cigarette packet to compare the depth of ruts in a test road. And if the tyres got too hot on a 15km stretch, they would suggest shortening it for subsequent tests!”
But it seemed that no-one was too keen at this stage to report back to Japan that anything was less than perfect Meanwhile, Marsden had been recruiting and, at the end of 1990, he persuaded Charles Reynolds to leave his job at Prodrive — he had been co-ordinating its rally programmes for 10 years and was just starting to run its Subaru effort. Reynolds was put in charge of the new NME team, and by the time he arrived, a lot of people and structures were already in place. But Blomqvist still needed a team-mate. It soon became apparent that, despite the enormous sums of money being spent, there was insufficient budget to hire a Kankkunen or a Sainz. Enter Welshman David Llewellin, who had just nailed his second successive British rally title with a Toyota. Despite his lack of wider experience, Nissan deemed him perfect for what it saw as its long-term plan. With his regular co-driver Phil Short unavailable, Llewellin was paired with the experienced Peter Diekmann.
The road car production run was scheduled to finish early in 1991 and consequently Nissan went for an April 1 homologation date. This meant the Safari would be the GTi-R’s debut event. In any case, it gradually dawned on the men at Milton Keynes that this rally was the main reason for the programme. Francis Yukawa, a marketing man from Japan, was its driving force. “He was convinced that we could win the Safari on the car’s debut,” says Reynolds. “Even if the car had been 100 per cent, I could never have been sure to win the Safari just like that.”
Whittock, too, was sceptical and conveyed his doubts to Yukawa after a ceremony in Nairobi at which a bottle of sake was broken to bring luck. “I told him that it was impossible to win first time out and he got quite stroppy with me. He was sure that we were going to win; I was sure we were doomed not to.” Trouble was brewing.
Despite adding Kirkland’s local talent to its line-up — and employing 155 people in 65 vehicles, two helicopters and two aeroplanes — the Nissan Sunny did not win on its debut: Blomqvist was fifth, Kirkland seventh and Llewellin was eliminated in a road accident Not bad, but not what was ordered.
The Acropolis was another trial: Llewellin was ninth after being towed in from the last stage, while Blomqvist’s engine cried enough 10 stages from the end. The only other events tackled in 1991 were the 1000 Lakes — Blomqvist and Llewellin finished eighth and 10th respectively — and the RAC, from which both men retired after setting one fastest time each. Llewellin did win the British Championship Audi Rally some weeks before the RAC but he was not recalled for ’92.
Despite there being no solution to the ‘interwarmer’ in sight, plans were laid for a full season in 1992. Francois Chatriot was drafted in for his Tarmac expertise, while Reynolds had signed a young , Tommi Mäkinen taking, as he put it, “a bit of flyer”.
Monte Carlo brought no joy, both new drivers finishing in the bottom half of the top 10. Blomqvist, the acknowledged Swedish Rally expert, could only make third overall on that event, while in Portugal, Chatriot was sixth and Mäkinen crashed.
The only good thing that was happening was in GpN. During 1991, Marsden had approached his friend Robin Herd and persuaded him to have a hand in a GpN development programme out of NME. The car was handled by Billy Gwynne in the ’91 Mintex Rally Championship and the lessons learned enabled NME to build a GpN Sunny GTi-R for Belgium’s Grégoire de Mevius with which he won the ’92 WRC Production Cup.
But devastated by the lack of results from the GpA cars, and realising that it could not make the Sunny GTi-R competitive without another production run of 5000, Nissan management decided not to do the Safari. Furthermore, it announced in April that it was shutting down the programme. Reynolds and most of the workforce departed, and a bewildered Whittock was left with the rump of a team, and a ‘programme’ for Blomqvist and Mäkinen to do the 1,000 Lakes and RAC. Even Tommi could not work his magic in Finland, and though he set one fastest time on the nine stages he completed, both cars retired. On the RAC, he was eighth, while Blomqvist crashed out towards the end. And that was that.
But not for NME.
Whittock was summoned to meet Han Tjan, the Corporate Affairs Director of Nissan Europe, which had a significant investment in the Sunny GTi-R project Between them they devised a Formula Two programme for the frontwheel-drive, normally aspirated Sunny. Whittock went back to Milton Keynes to find out what parts and knowledge could be carried over to the F2 car, and this became a much more successful programme, albeit with lower targets.
As for the GTi-R, it was virtually wiped from the European rally map. And by a curious stroke of fate, the road car was introduced to Britain in the very week that the GpA rally programme was canned.