Nissan designer Ben Bowlby stands in a drizzle as his latest outrageous creation, the Nissan GT-R LM Nismo, plows down the sopping straight in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Its twin-turbo V-6 screams as it passes in a blur, a fountain of water shooting into the air. Bowlby looks on like the father of a toddler just learning to walk: very proud, and very anxious.
“It’s not going fast enough,” he says.
This seems like an absurd statement to make about a racecar that has been clocked at upwards of 190 mph on this new track, built by Chevy near their Corvette factory (and frighteningly close to the Museum of the American Sinkhole). Especially when you consider all of this Nissan’s intrinsic challenges. To whit: the engine is in the wrong place, and it drives the wrong wheels: front and center in the nose, and spinning tires just fore of its mounting point.
“We’ve disrupted the whole of everybody’s image of what makes a fast car,” Bowlby says.
Racing needs this kind of disruption. As Formula One has become prohibitively expensive and economically striated, and bullied into mechanical monotony by its domineering rulebook, it's fans are bored and its rating eroding. The Le Mans LMP1 series—the name stands for Le Mans Prototype, top tier—is far more varied, exciting, and inviting.
Each of the major automakers coming to Le Mans is running a very different engine: Audi has a diesel, Porsche a turbocharged V4, Toyota a naturally aspirated V8 hybrid, and Nissan this fore-mounted twin-turbo V6. There are restrictions on the dimensions and minimum weight of the cars, but their shapes can be profoundly different. And where F1 does everything it can to keep fans and other outsiders away from the precious and epicentral paddocks—the last time we visited one, we had to sign a non-disclosure agreement and be stripped of our phones—the Nissan team allowed us to take photos of anything.
“Our car is so different from everyone else’s,” young British driver Harry Tincknell says as we snap away, “there’s nothing that anyone else can copy.”
The car’s fundamental weirdness is an experiment, meant to produce benefits that will outweigh its limitations. Like all front wheel-drive cars, it’s grippier in poor conditions like dust or rain, giving it what Bowlby calls, “a broad envelope of stability with high performance.” Since the cars that run in the series have traditionally been rear wheel-drive, the rulebook has a load of restrictions for creating and negotiating down-force and aero in the rear, but very little to say about the front.
“This allows us to take advantage of the fact that front down-force can be made with very little drag,” Bowlby says, “so our speed in taking corners rises with less penalty on the straights.” And the narrow V of the engine, and positioning of all of the mechanical components in a line at the front of the car allows for the incorporation of a full aero tunnel along the sides of the car and out the vacated rear, providing a useful course of flow for otherwise interfering vectors.
“We put a GoPro in the thru-duct using water as our medium to see how the air is moving. In the rain, there’s no spray from the front of the car at all.” Bowlby points as the car screams by again, bearing him out: nothing but a narrow rooster tail shoots from its flat, hollow rear. “We’ve managed to have a very smooth shape,” he says admiringly. “And, it looks like the Batmobile.”
All of this clean-sheet change creates a bit of havoc for the drivers. “The first time you put a driver in the car, it’s a nerve-racking experience,” Bowlby says. Team driver Tincknell agrees. “Coming from what I’m used to, it’s quite different. You sit further back. The stability is very high. And it’s quite exciting when you see the flames shooting out of the hood of the car.” He points at the GT-R LM’s exhaust exits, which protrude from the hood, directly in front of the driver’s bubble-topped canopy. “That’s usually out the back.”
“The first time you put a driver in the car, it’s a nerve-racking experience.”
In discussing the risks of all of this elemental change, we remind Bowlby that Nissan’s brand statement is Innovation that Excites, and ask how this plays out in the team’s, and his own, decision making. “This design came from a clean sheet of paper. So by nature you want to always change the whole thing,” he says. “We plan to keep moving forward. We just have to make sure that everyone is up for the pain that innovation brings.”
Follow Brett Berk on Twitter at @stickshift_vf