Nissan’s Failed Attempt at LMP1 Innovation

I succumbed to the hype that revolved around the Super Bowl commercial where Nissan was poised to reveal their much-awaited LMP1 contender. Before the big reveal, reports circulated that the car had a revolutionary and innovative design, incorporating a front-engine, front-wheel drive system—highly unconventional for hybrid-power sports car prototypes. Nissan wanted to return to endurance racing’s highest class, aiming to join the ranks of their compatriots Toyota and German manufacturers Audi and Porsche. They backed up their venture with aggressive marketing, taking a $15 million commercial during America’s most-watched television program.

The commercial last February was meant to be the beginning but before the year could even end, it proved to be the apotheosis of Nissan’s ambitious project.

After the commercial’s airing, the buzz was created and Nissan revealed one by one the talents they recruited. They pulled in Tsugio Matsuda and Michael Krumm from Super GT as well as Max Chilton fresh from Formula One. LMP1 veteran Marc Gene from Audi took a test and development role. Olivier Pla and Harry Tincknell shone in Nissan-powered LMP2 cars in the previous year and were thus promoted to see what they can do with LMP1 machinery. Three of Nissan’s brightest GT Academy graduates were recruited: Lucas Ordonez, Jann Mardenborough, and Mark Shulzhitskiy. Alex Buncombe, who mentored the same three graduates in GT3 racing, also took post in the team’s three-car, nine-driver Le Mans effort. A strong mix of veterans and young talent were employed to spearhead the program and looked about set to join the fight at the top class of endurance racing.

And then trouble arrived. The car wasn’t ready for competition yet. They withdrew from the first two FIA WEC rounds for further testing. Strike one. They made it to the Le Mans 24 Hours but all three cars sputtered and stumbled—the lone contender that crossed the finish line was not officially classified having spent more time receiving repairs in the garage rather than racing on the track. Their hybrid system wouldn’t work properly and they lapped closer to LMP2 times instead of the heavyweights that they were meant to step toe to toe with. After the underwhelming performance at Le Mans, they withdrew from the remainder of the WEC season. Strike two. Just a few days ago, they announced their withdrawal from next year’s campaign. Strike three.

Three strikes and you’re out. The final nail in the coffin. The plug was pulled on the Nissan GT-R LM Nismo LMP1 program. A spectacular rise and fall in the span of a year.

Having personally bought the hype, I do feel disappointed. I’ve been a fan of Nissan in GT3 racing and I projected their success with the GT-R GT3 to the nascent LMP1 contender. The innovative car design was intriguing but risky. I thought they could make it work so I patiently waited for the car’s development.

The program faced lots of doubters early when details of its design surfaced. It will never work. It’s crazy. Alas, they were right. After a tumultuous year of numerous on-track testing (mostly private) that bore no fruit, the project ground to an underwhelming halt, a colossal failure as most people put it. Lots of money and time down the drain, wasted. They took the innovative route but ended up nowhere.

Despite my disappointment, I do acknowledge the effort put into the program. Doubters and critics were right in saying that it was a crazy idea and they predicted correctly that it wouldn’t work. But Nissan actually dared to roll their unconventional car out at Le Mans. The results were underwhelming, yes, but they raced it, completed laps and spent hours on the track despite the shortcomings of their hybrid system. Aside from this, they kept testing around tracks in the United States, continually fighting to make their system work.

It’s disappointing that all the efforts arrived to nothing. We, along with Nissan, only learned that the radical idea for their LMP1 car proved to be unfeasible. It was nonetheless a lesson that cost millions of dollars and taken away numerous jobs from crew members. Innovation is indeed risky and the cost of failure is high.

For Nissan, at least, it would prove to be difficult for the LMP1 program’s failure to overshadow the bright spots in this year’s campaigns across different sports car categories. They continued to dominate LMP2 as its most reliable engine supplier, powering Le Mans winners KCMG, as well as WEC LMP2 champions G-Drive Racing and ELMS champions Greaves Motorsport. In European GT3 racing, Nissan brought home the Blancpain Endurance Series Pro Cup title while in Japan, Nissan machinery swept the Super GT titles for GT500 and GT300. Finally, Nissan’s season started with an epic win for the GT-R GT3 at the Bathurst 12 Hour race, which was my personal favorite highlight of the Japanese brand’s year.

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