We uncovered the GT-R LM Nismo Le Mans prototype earlier today and you may be wondering, "Tons of cars have the engine in front of the driver, so what's the big deal?" Well, a quick survey of all the other Le Mans entrants in the past decade show that this is just not how things are done in the all-important LMP1 class.
The last LMP1 with a front-mid-engine layout, the Panoz LMP07, ran in 2003. It was a direct descendent of the Panoz LMP-1 that ran before it. Unfortunately, its best result was fifth place.
No car has won Le Mans with an engine in front of the driver since 1962. Since then, mid-engined cars have taken over, with the engine sitting right behind the driver for better balance, or so conventional wisdom goes.
Let that sink in for a second. It's been fifty-two years since the last front-engined car won at Le Mans. That's over half a century.
Once Ferrari's mid-engined 250 P won both Sebring and Le Mans in the same year in 1963, mid-engined designs with the engine behind the driver became the norm.
We're so used to a Le Mans prototype now being an all-wheel-drive hybrid with a mid-mounted engine behind the driver's compartment that it's all but unheard of to do anything else. Why mess with a winning formula?
Let's look at that Panoz result again, though. Sure, they had years of development in that car, starting with the GTR-1 that debuted in 1997. When the GT category that the GTR-1 was made for ended, the design was retooled into the open-top LMP1-class Panoz LMP-1 for 1999. The LMP-1 morphed into the LMP07.
Thing is, the LMP07 took its fifth place result in 2003 against the utterly dominant Audi and Audi-derived Bentley prototypes. The Panoz design had grown long in the tooth as far as the rapidly evolving prototype class goes. For Panoz to finish fifth in an old car is far more impressive than it sounds. Had they continued to develop the concept instead of going to race in sportscars in the GT classes, who knows what would have happened?
Interestingly, Panoz and Nissan haven't had the best relationship in recent years, with Don Panoz accusing Nissan of stealing the DeltaWing design for the ZEOD RC. With the similarities between the two front-mid-engined LMP1 designs, some have even wondered if Nissan's radical new design isn't another poke at Panoz.
There's another factor that makes the Nissan LMP1 a clear departure from the expected in LMP1. 1999 wasn't just the year that the Panoz LMP-1 debuted, but it was also a year that gave us flying Mercedes-Benz CLRs due to an aerodynamic design flaw that allowed the CLR to lift off at speed. One could argue that this contributed to the need for many LMP1 designs to funnel air underneath the car from a front wing to the rear diffuser, which produces more downforce that holds the car to the ground.
But what if there's an engine sitting low in the car and up front where that air would usually flow, as there will likely be in Nissan's design? This is why Nissan's plan to stick an engine smack-dab in the middle of the car in front of the driver is so wacky. To use a rear diffuser, they'll need to find some other way to feed it with air. Maybe air channels will run around the engine. Maybe the diffuser will be fed by the engine itself in a blown diffuser arrangement.
We don't actually know the particulars yet, but you can be assured that we'll all be waiting on the edge of our seats to learn how Nissan packaged everything in there. Le Mans prototypes are notorious for being smaller and lighter than you'd ever expect them to be in person. Due to the Nissan GT-R LM Nismo's unique layout, nothing has been this geekily exciting when it comes to a Le Mans car in, well, over a decade.
When Peter Orosz wrote up the history of the front-mid-engined Panoz LMP1 cars in 2009, he ended with, "All we need now is a team with the funding and the guts to follow through."
Thank goodness for Nissan's willingness to thumb its nose at the status quo.
Photo credits: Getty Images