If there’s any phrase that best describes the bizarre Nissan GT-R LM Nismo, it’s “work in progress.” We sat down with the team’s chief engineer Zach Eakin and driver Max Chilton earlier this year to ask what was going on with the car, exactly, and what they were working on next.
[Full disclosure: Nissan wanted us to check out their new cars at Le Mans so much that they flew me out there, paying for flights, hotels, food and even throwing in a few souvenirs. So, we used the opportunity to ask what was going on with the LMP1s this weekend.]
According to Eakin, there are several things that are working well on the car: aerodynamics, the V6 Nissan engine, and the drivers. Those have all been working great. Even though the drivers weren’t as used to this car as they would be with more traditional cars, they were still doing great. The team collectively dropped five seconds between Wednesday and Thursday’s practice sessions.
What’s a little more evident this weekend is that the car is down on pace. While the Audis and Porsches turned fairly consistent laps around the 3:20 mark (with a few outliers like André Lotterer’s ridiculous record-breaking 3:17.475 in-race lap time), the best time in any of the 3 Nissan LMP1s was 3:39. That’s an eternity in a lap of La Sarthe.
During the race, the number 23 car kept having clutch issues. It started late to replace a clutch, and even after then, it’s been experiencing abnormal clutch wear. Likewise, it’s been hard on brakes, at once point going off at Arnage with its brakes smoking. Fortunately, the team thought to bring plenty of spares for the car’s brakes and has been managed by swapping them out more frequently. That being said, the car just pulled over with flames coming out of the hood due to a terminal gearbox issue.
Nissan’s earlier retirement was the number 21 car, which had a left front suspension failure overnight. The other two may come back in with issues somewhat frequently today, but they’re technically still in the race. Number 21 was the retro-themed car whose door was stuck open earlier.
The number 22 car was running well until it hit debris on Mulsanne overnight. Whatever that broke or unsettled started a flurry of mechanical woes, but it’s still going, and Nissan hopes it lasts just a little while longer to make it to the end. If one car makes it out of their three, they’ll consider it a success.
Eakin pointed out a few of the reasons why Nissan is just looking at this weekend like one big test. For one, they’re a new team, and don’t even have 100 people working for them yet. They’re slowly hiring people one by one to fill out the team.
If you want to work on a project like this, Eakin mentioned that they try to hire someone out of Formula SAE every year, as he believes it’s some of the best training for new engineering talent, particularly if you want to go into motorsports.
Secondly, there’s just not a lot in common with other race cars in the GT-R LM Nismo’s design. It was a true clean sheet design “unlike most contemporary designs,” explaind Eakin.
Porsche’s new LMP effort, he explained, was a lot like Audi. They hired aggressively from Audi and Formula One teams to get staff that was familiar with a mid-engined hybrid Le Mans prototypes. They also started earlier.
“We took a very brave approach,” said Eakin. In some cases, he explained, the team “found people who can build fast front-wheel-drive cars with downforce.”
Staffing is one of their big hills to climb, as they’re having to look at people with experience outside of the usual Le Mans prototype designs to make the radically different GT-R LM Nismo work. Eakin even mentioned doing a couple of interviews (and making an offer to one of those candidates) over Skype at Le Mans to fill some of those spots. Juggling team growth while trying to race the car is insanity, plain and simple.
Time, though, is the team’s biggest nemesis. With only eight months of development, the team is a full five months behind where Porsche was when they entered Le Mans as a new team—plus they’ve got a wildly ambitious car design unlike anything else on the grid.
“Whatever design you come up with, 8 months is not a huge amount of mileage,” explained Chilton. “It’s frustrating because we don’t have it all yet, but we know we will in the future.”
“We have a lot to learn on car setup,” explained Eakin. They blamed an overly conservative setup for their slowest practice times. They first set up to avoid bottoming out on the bumpy surface of Circuit de la Sarthe, but they started dropping it down little by little to test out the optimum ride height and suspension settings for this track.
Managing both how drivers want the car to behave as well as how drivers can make the car do what they want is critical. Although they are confident in their nine drivers to be adaptable enough to hop into the new car and do fairly well with it, they also need to make sure they’re all quick and that the feedback they’re giving is valid.
“Are we making progress or did we just change drivers?” asked Eakin. This is a common concern of his, as he mentioned that a driver’s first three laps are where he gets used to the car again, and the lap times always drop.
Max Chilton is one of those nine drivers, who’s supposed to help the team refine the LMP1 to be competitive (and eventually win, they hope). While the only front-wheel-drive experience he has was in a classic Mini as a kid and later with a Mini as a first car, the team praises his ability to hop into a new car and adapt, regardless.
To drive the car, he says that you need to be slightly aware that it’s front-wheel-drive, but that only manifests itself at low speeds and with entry understeer and power understeer on corner exits. It’s a real help in wet conditions, so perhaps this year’s dry Le Mans was a bummer for the yeam. If you ever find yourself out of shape in the wet, Chilton says that the car “pulls you in the right direction.”
The car’s hybrid system may also change in the future, although they’re stuck with their 2 megajoule system for the rest of the year. 2MJ is the smallest class of hybrid systems allowed in the World Endurance Championship, where Nissan will continue to race and develop this car.
While Eakin said it was “too early to say about next year,” Nismo head Darren Cox hinted at a move to an 8MJ, all-wheel-drive system for next year. While the largest 8MJ systems give the car more hybrid power, they’re also heavier. It’s harder to get the weight distribution on an 8MJ system right, so we’ll see if that comes through, or if they go for another smaller system as a compromise.
What went wrong with the hybrid system Nissan has at Le Mans? It was front-wheel-drive only, for one. Instead of diverting some power to the rear wheels as initially planned, they disconnected the rear parts of the all-wheel-drive hybrid powertrain to take advantage of the fact that there was less drivetrain loss when that power gets diverted to the front wheels.
“It’s best to wait another year until we want to decide if the concept is valid,” explained Eakin. “One of the toughest things with folks is looking forward. You have to think about next year—not just the problems affecting us now.”
Why are they at Le Mans if they’re just more likely to break down and turn slow laps, you may ask? Well, it’s because there’s only one way to get seat time in for the world’s most famous race: by entering it. Having three cars and nine drivers’ worth of feedback, though, should at least help them in the future.
Photo credits: Rajan Jangda (top), self (brakes)
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