Monday, 29 June 2015

Nissan at Le Mans - a little more detail

Back in January, I have to admit that I was eagerly anticipating Nissan’s arrival in the 2015 World Endurance Championship, in particular because it represented the arrival of a fourth manufacturer in the LMP1 class at Le Mans. For several years, Nissan had been a successful supplier of engines to LMP2 teams and as their numerical domination of the category became clear, the marketing folk began to grasp the opportunities of motor-sporting success, and rumours of an entry into the top category began to circulate.

Simultaneously, the Nissan GTR Nismo started to make its presence felt in GT3 racing, particularly in the Blancpain Series; in the 24-hour races at Spa, the Nürburgring and of course at the Bathurst 12 hours, where Katsumasa Chiyo, Wolfgang Reip and Florian Strauss brought the car its first major endurance win at the beginning of this year.

Then there was the growth of the Nissan GT Academy scheme, bringing new drivers into the sport from their armchairs and Playstation consoles – whether purely on altruistic grounds or as a marketing exercise, it doesn’t really matter: the fact remains that it was a success.

Meanwhile, there was the DeltaWing and its successor, the ZEOD RC, which were not necessarily blessed with success on the track at Le Mans, but which undoubtedly captured the imagination of the public. I am told that the Nissan brand-awareness generated by the DeltaWing at Le Mans in 2012 was second only to that of the winning Audi; not only surpassing that of Chevrolet and Aston Martin in the GT class, but also of Japanese rival Toyota.

Then there was the marketing. Not only was it up-beat, but it was also open and, it seemed, honest; driven to a large degree by the infectious enthusiasm of Global Motorsport director Darren Cox. When news of the car’s unusual front-engine, front-wheel-drive configuration broke, I was intrigued. The diversity of Le Mans would surely be enhanced by this.

First pictures of the car were equally intriguing: I understood that the downforce was supposed to be generated at the front, but the proximity of the cockpit to the rear wing would surely disrupt airflow and I began to find those who criticised the concept just as convincing as those who justified it. Of course it was a disappointment when delays to the project were announced, especially when it became apparent that the car would not race at either of the first two rounds of the WEC.

The disappointment turned to alarm as rumours began to surface that the drivers were not happy with the car either. Marc Gené’s decision to step down from driving duties at Le Mans, and the fact that, at the Test Day, some of the drivers did their qualifying laps in Ginetta LMP3 cars all added to a sense that the claim that the cars would be on the pace of a non-hybrid P1 car – or even on the pace of 2013 P1 cars – seemed to be more than a touch optimistic.

Despite all this though, the three cars arrived, and although none of them achieved the minimum qualification time, they all started the race. With the race underway, the lap times were consistent – at around 10% slower than those of the leading Porsches and Audis.

Inevitably, the cars spent a lot of time in the pits; only one of them was still around at the chequered flag, and it was unclassified, having spent nearly eight hours in the pits, covering just 61% of the number of laps completed by the winning Porsche.

Nevertheless, I think it is still worth looking at some of the detail, for with the focus on the battle for overall honours, it may get missed otherwise.

Car No. Drivers Qualifying Best Race
Laps Race Ave. Lap Time
21 Ordoñez/Shulzhitskiy/Matsuda 3m 38.691s 3m 37.863s 115 3m 40.362s
22 Tincknell/Krumm/Buncombe 3m 36.995s 3m 35.888s 242 3m 38.745s
23 Mardenborough/Chilton/Pla 3m 37.291s 3m 36.525s 234 3m 38.848s

In my view, all the drivers are heroes, and the following is neither to condemn nor to criticise: they all deserve nothing but praise. All I am doing is recording their performances:

Car No. Driver Average Lap Time Laps
Longest Stint
21 Lucas Ordoñez 3m 42.660s 37 12
Mark Shulzhitskiy 3m 40.653s 45 12
Tsugio Matsuda 3m 39.396s 33 12
22 Harry Tincknell 3m 38.387s 88 11
Michael Krumm 3m 39.434s 95 12
Alex Buncombe 3m 38.565s 59 12
23 Jann Mardenborough 3m 38.579s 87 12
Max Chilton 3m 39.924s 72 12
Olivier Pla 3m 38.339s 75 12

Some readers may remember that following last year’s Le Mans 24-hour race, I gave a complete run-down of the average lap time of each driver in the LMP2 category (it’s here, if you want to look back). It should therefore come as no surprise that those members of the Nissan LMP1 driving squad who were driving LMP2 cars last year are roughly in the same positions in this chart. What perhaps is more noteworthy is the fact that four of the top ten LMP2 drivers last year were in the GTR-LM Nismo this year; and under the circumstances, gave a good account of themselves.

It will not have escaped their attention though that they were lapping no faster this year than they did in 2014 at the wheel of their P2 cars. The entire team must now regroup. There are still five rounds of this year’s World Endurance Championship remaining and while the cars cannot be expected to be contenders for overall victory in the 2016 Le Mans 24 hours, they must at least be in the hunt... and that means finding at least twenty seconds per lap.