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Le Mans: Why Audi and Porsche should be afraid of Nissan

After an encouraging 2015 entry, can Nissan worry the big guns in the 2016 Le Mans endurance race?

2015 heralded the return of Nissan to the world’s most demanding endurance race, having competed with the R390 GT car back in 1997, 1998 and 1999. But this year’s effort was no GT attempt; the hybrid, front-wheel drive GT-R LM Nismo car was here to challenge the LM P1 beasts dominated by Audi and Porsche.

Nissan was publicly bullish about its prospects before the race, but behind the scenes aimed merely to have at least one of its three cars finish finish the race. It very nearly got two to the line, but a suspension failure put paid to that possibility. 

Not one of the cars really gave any of its rivals much to worry about, but there were enough signs that suggest Nissan will learn from its mistakes and could be a much more fearsome competitor in 2016.

What, no hybrid power?

The Nissan GT-R LM Nismo appeared slow in a number of areas, mainly because its hybrid system was not fully operational. That meant it was not only using a mere 550hp of the 1,250hp total, it was also dragging around extra weight.

An extra 700bhp would make a serious difference on the straights. Moreover, the energy regeneration of the hybrid system during braking would have meant improved stopping power, allowing it to brake later before a corner.

The GTR-LM was reliable in the engine department, too, with its V6 proving flawless, and Nissan rightly pointed out the aerodynamics were bang on. As for the drivers, it was a solid effort, especially as 2009 Le Mans winner Marc Gene, the team’s number 1 driver, stepped down in place of Max Chilton and Jann Mardenborough – a younger, less experienced pair. 

Nissan achieved a very respectable 234 laps on its debut (Toyota’s bow yielded just 134), meaning it certainly has a great base on which to build. Nissan can now focus on the weaker aspects such as the clutch, which failed on the number 23 car, the front suspension of the number 21 car and strengthen key components – all things learned by doing the race.

Nissan builds engines for other teams

Nissan may have attempted a wildcard tactic and it needs work to succeed, but let’s remember a lot of the cars in the field use Nissan powertrains. In fact, 14 of the 19 entries in LM P2 have a Nissan engine. Meanwhile 30 per cent of all cars in Le Mans are powered by Nissan. In 2011 the Nissan 4.5-litre V8 engine won at Le Mans in 2011, 2013 and 2014. Suffice to say, it may be the new kid but it’s by no means lacking in expertise when it comes laying the foundations of success.

Real big spender

On multiple occasions we heard Nissan saying it wants to spend big for the 2016 race. Driver Marc Gene in particular seemed convinced Nissan now has an idea of what it needs to do to be competitive and a blank cheque will ensure there are no limitations on progress. For instance, the team isn’t even 100 people strong and so it was already behind the curve before it even started. Nissan’s pockets are deep and it can attract the extra expertise it needs.

Getting a grip

There were reports that claim the Nissan’s tyre choice didn’t give them the best possible advantage. Some suggest it was using skinnier-than-normal off-the-shelf rubber, rather than a specially designed compound, which would mean less cornering grip and reduced stopping power. 

Race pedigree

Nissan knows how to make a car go very fast. The Nissan GT-R, for instance, is heavier than a lot of supercars but you would never know when driving one – and certainly never question its ability once you lob it into a corner. Not only that, early GT-R cars achieved 49 wins in a row in a two-year and 10-month period in Japanese racing, with a gap of one race before the 50th victory was secured in 1972.

In terms of Le Mans, the R390 GT1 managed to finish 12th overall and 5th in its class in 1997. A year later the car was improved and all four cars finished, nabbing 3rd (its first Le Mans podium finish), 5th, 6th and 10th position overall.

Nissan, then, is no stranger to success and its reentry into Le Mans had its merits, at the very least adding a bit of variety to the proceedings. Audi and Porsche still dominate, but over the next few they may just be checking their rear view mirrors. 

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