Nissan GTR-LM Le Mans Preview
We Have A Very Long Bonnet for a Starship
Story by Rajan Jangda of ChequeredFlagMedia.com
Photos by Rajan Jangda
12th May, 2015
…or if you’re into Star Trek, Star date -27 02185.5. I find myself stepping off a thoroughly modern District Line Underground train (tube as they call it) on to a thoroughly un-modern station called Parsons Green. The station itself being the last remaining relic of an era where trains went ‘choo choo’ instead of ‘ta-tunk ta-tunk’.
So why am I here? And why on earth has the paragraph above found it’s way on to The Motorsport Diaries? Well I’d somehow managed to get invited to Nismo’s London preview event before the Le Mans 24hrs and this was the last chance for the media to interact with the key figures at Nismo’s Le Mans team before they make their way to the Haridwar (name of a holy city in India that translates into ‘Gateway to God’) of Motorsport: The Circuit De La Sarthe.
The figures assembled for the event were Darren Cox (Global Head of brand for NISMO), Ben Bowlby (Technical Director) and Motohiro Matsamura (COO of Nismo) from the company side. They were joined by drivers Max Chilton, Jann Mardenborough and Harry Tincknell.
Also joining them was Mark Shulzhitskiy, a finalist from the 2013 Nissan GT Academy replacing Marc Gene who had stepped back from his race seat. Also present were members of the motoring and motorsports press, most notably Craig Scarborough (@ScarbsF1 on Twitter) and Martin Haven (he’s the bloke that waffles on the TV).
The set was the familiar red GTR-LM show car in a dark but brightly light studio. The show car itself appeared to have more parts from the fully functional counterpart, most notably the front splitter. The format for the day was pretty simple, with various team personal allocated a table and the media free to move from table to table depending on whom they wanted to speak with. The emphasis was meant to be on the personnel, but you try telling that to aero-obsessed journalists when there’s an LMP1 car within the same four walls.
I on the other hand am a photographer, and as mentioned in previous write ups you’re probably going to get a different interpretation of the events as my primary focus will be on generating images in a dark environment that don’t look like they’ve been taken using a matchbox and two film reels. So I often found myself focusing on the car a bit too much: when Darren Cox started speaking on the mic to the assorted press, I found myself still focusing on the car and accidentally in the background of the NISMO Periscope feed.
Now obviously the most common question the team were getting was, “Why is the car front wheel drive?” Darren Cox tackled this in one fell swoop by simply showing the YouTube video from the NISMO.TV channel. Suddenly half the room had half of it’s planned content and questions slashed!
I found myself at a table with Harry Tincknell and Max Chilton along with Downforce Radio’s Adam Johnson and ChequeredFlagMedia’s Aleks Kruz, who were talking about the differences between what they are used to driving and the GTR-LM. Max Chilton is of course a refugee from the collapse of Marussia F1 last year but did have some prototype experience. More on that later. Harry Tincknell on the other hand was the current reigning LMP2 champion of the Le Mans 24hrs, where he triumphed in the Jota Sport entered Zytek Z11SN with Simon Dolan and Oliver Turvey. Funnily enough that car was Nissan powered.
Harry Tincknell explained that the car felt good to drive and had a lot of grip and downforce. I didn’t catch the most of it as my main focus was trying to make people look normal under light without using flash! Things got interesting when I went back to get more shots of the car, as with the media distracted by the personnel, the car was perfectly vacated for some close up shots. Right next to the car was Harry Tincknell filming an interview.
A familiar figure then joined me next to the car: none other than Craig Scarborough who was taking his time to look at every detail of the car even if it was a show car. Before discussing the antics of a certain Formula 1 team, he had a go at taking a seat in the car even though it was a show car and notably more spacious inside than the real thing. Despite this it was pretty clear what a squeeze the cockpit was. It would appear that the drivers have to sit in a ‘this bathtub is too short’ type of position, their knees almost directly behind the steering wheel and their shins very tightly squeezed under the dash.
We were then joined by Ben Bowlby who began to blow my mind with the technical specifics of the car. One thing that was notable from his and the teams body language and tone was confidence. Recently a few snarky writers/fans have been laying into the project with pessimistic views, but the attitude of the team suggested otherwise. The team has made significant progress since their first test sessions in Florida at Palm Beach International and Sebring Raceways. The Motorsport Diaries was there as both the 2015 Audi R18 e-tron quattro and the Nismo GTR-LM shared track time that weekend. You can find both of our NISMO stories from that weekend here: “Fighting at the Front” and “Tough Break for the Nissan GT-RLM”. With their significant upgrades and improvements, they are clearly confident heading into Le Mans!
Ben took some time with me to discuss the various systems they had tried while getting the front wheel drive system perfected. There were a lot of nuggets of info such as the car being designed to be as close as possible to a bullet with the only perforation being the cooling and also that the only hot-zone was the front due to the unique positioning of the exhausts. Also, in order to combat the issue of torque steer when there’s over 1000 bhp trying to grip the track surface out of corners, they had to make the front tyres as wide as they possibly could under the rules and also applied an intelligent diff system that used a weighing scale type of algorithm to distribute the power to the wheels… it was also down to driver management too.
Again it’s worth noting that I wouldn’t have caught the full conversation as, being a photographer I was trying to photographically take advantage of the shot. One thing that was very clear is that the team come across as if they believe that front wheel drive is an advantage. You could almost say that they know it is an advantage, such was the confidence coming from them.
Ben then told us about testing in the wet and showed us a few shots from his phone of the airflow patterns left by the dirt and spray on the car while showing us a short clip of the cars going past in the wet during those tests at Bowling Green, Kentucky, USA. It was at this moment he revealed that the cars were doing 309 kph in the wet. This was later backed up by Max Chilton who told us that they were easily doing 200mph.
Another question answered by Ben was about the rumour of them running without the rear wing. He told me that the rear wing was only there for balance as the rest of the car produces a high amount of downforce. In addition he also hinted that they were in it for the long term, again the confidence was very surprising.
After this lengthy conversation among the five, Ben departed and Max Chilton joined us as Aleks Kruz tried his hand at sitting in the car, his shins firmly squashed against the dash… he had this hilarious expression on his face for a while, almost as he thought to himself, “Damn! I’m stuck!”. He did manage to get out and then it was Martin Haven’s turn who managed to get assistance from Max. Both had taken about 30-45 seconds to get in the car, then Max showed us how to do it in around 5-7 seconds while wearing jeans and smart shoes.
He then told us that the real thing is a much tighter squeeze despite the pedals being further down and that they would probably be chipping their helmets a lot while making the driver changes. He was also kind enough to explain how they were going to go about doing their driver changes and expressed how different the car was to anything else he’d driven, describing it as a truly bizarre car.
As mentioned before, Max is no stranger to LMP1 cars: he shared the Arena Motorsports Zytek 07S with his brother Tom when he was just 16 in the 2007 1000km of Silverstone. A suspension failure cost them a certain podium behind the two Peugeot 908’s, possibly even second place given that one of those Peugeots retired. He himself mentioned this while in casual conversation.
Just before the time ran out I managed to catch Jann Mardenborough with whom I’d had a previous exchange on social media. He had tweeted that he was going to have to wait seven hours for a flight and I suggested “find a place that’s the most directly in the middle of the terminal and start making snow angels on the floor” which he had found amusing. Turns out that he had managed to change his flight for an earlier one, in doing so he told me that he managed to leave his wallet on the kiosk counter!
Just before the media was herded out of the studio I just about managed to catch a shot of the seemingly elusive Mark Shulzhitskiy, barely recognisable because he was the freshest face in the team.
We now look towards test day on Stardate -27 02280.00 Ahem… I mean May 31st.
Bonus Photo Gallery