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Twenty years ago, the Nissan R390 GT1 was built for the grueling demands of the 24 hour Le Mans endurance race. This powerful machine was largely forgotten by history but it lives on today thanks to McLaren. The bespoke automaker bought the rights to the R390’s engine and brought it roaring back to life.

The Nissan R390 GT1 race car on a paved road
Nissan R390 GT1 | Ker Robertson via Getty Images

Nissan built a powerhouse

In 1987, Yoshikazu Ishikawa designed the first Nissan signing purpose-built for racing. The VEJ30 failed to meet expectations and was redesigned the following year. Yoshimasa Hiyashi further refined this new version which was named the VRH30. A second racing engine, the VRH35, was developed alongside it.

In 1997, the automaker paired with Tom Walkinshaw Racing to develop the VRH35L. This engine was developed with Le Mans in mind, and Nissan pulled out all the stops. They created a car with an iconic design that never got the appreciation it deserves. Several distinctive features make the R390 unique, but its poor racing performance doomed it to obscurity.

Only one Nissan R390 GT1 road car was ever built to make the car eligible for Le Mans. It underwent a VIN and color change, leading to a persistent rumor that there was a second R390 floating around. The sole R390 road car is now being stored at Nismo’s Zama warehouse. If offered for sale today, the car would be worth more than $2,000,000.

The R390’s racing career was short-lived

Nissan built the R390 Gt1 with a purpose. The car was designed to be a grand touring contender in the 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race. Nismo partnered with Tom Walkinshaw Racing, famous for its work with McLaren)  to develop the R390.

The R390 allegedly had a top speed of 220 mph. However, this claim was never officially verified. The car would, unfortunately, meet its end before it could take home any wins. In 1998 the GT class Le Mans rules changed. This was in an attempt to curb the abuse of loopholes that manufacturers were taking advantage of. Unfortunately, rule changes meant that the R390 no longer fell within regulations.

McLaren knew a good thing when they saw it

Nissan Motorsports Nissan R390 GT1 | Stu Forster/Allsport via Getty Images

The VRH3h weighed just over 374 pounds. It featured two IHI turbos. The street-legal R390 has over 550 lb-ft of torque and a redline of 4400 rpm. In the earliest stages of development of the MP4-12C, McLaren bought the rights to the VRH35. They worked closely with Ricardo to rebuild the engine exactly to their specifications. This engine reborn was named the M838T.

The M838T became the center of the P1’s hybrid drivetrain. A 4.0-liter powers the 720S. McLaren developed the M840T, which amps the power up to 710 hp with an 8,500 rpm redline. The engine has come a long way since its racing roots.

Even with Nismo’s contributions to the racing world, the two brands could not be more different. The historical bond between the two is an interesting footnote in automotive history that’s worth exploring. This engine provides a perfect platform to explore preconceptions and biases.


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