This year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans could go down in history as one of the greatest David and Goliath battles in the race’s 92-year history. Since 2000, Audi has won every race but two – and one of those losses came from its Volkswagen AG stablemate Bentley, which used Audi technology in its Speed 8 racer’s 2003 win. Audi R18s have won every race since 2011, and its mid-engined rear-wheel drive layout has been the norm in the all-important Prototype class cars for decades.
But this January, Nissan chose the Super Bowl to introduce two new cars, and one of them has the potential to turn the status quo at Le Mans on its head. One of those cars was the new Maxima, designed to return the former “four door sports car” to its performance roots. The other, more interesting car was the Nissan GT-R LM Nismo, a car that stands out as radical even in the billion-dollar stable of Le Mans prototypes. The car may be new and unproven, but come June 13-14, a victory for Nissan means that Le Mans might never be the same again.
Speaking with Racer, Nismo president Darren Cox said his orders from Nissan were simple. “The brief was, don’t build me an Audi, or a P1 copy,” he said. What he and his team did was the exact opposite. In a world where Le Mans prototypes were in danger of becoming dangerously homogeneous, Nissan has engineered a hybrid front-engined, front-wheel drive racer that makes over 1,250 horsepower and weighs less than one ton. It’s the most interesting entry Le Mans has seen in years, and if it’s successful, it could open the door for a whole host of new shapes and powertrains in future races.
Though the GT-R LM Nismo shares its name with Nissan’s GT-R supercar, the two don’t have much in common aside from using a twin-turbo V6 powerplant. Surprisingly, the LM’s engine is actually smaller than the road-going coupe’s. Its 3.0 liter twin-turbo engine was tuned by Cosworth, and delivers around 500 horsepower to the front wheels. To augment the tiny V6, the LM uses a Kinetic Energy Renewal System (KERS) to draw power from the wheels and deliver an additional 750 horsepower to all four wheels when the front ones just can’t take it anymore.
To put all that power down, there are 14-inch wide tires up front, with slimmer nine-inch rubber in the back. While even weight distribution is the ideal for every car, the LM’s front-heavy layout might work to its advantage at Le Mans. By putting the car’s engine, driveshaft, radiators, and electrical bits all up front, it left the designers room to create a highly aerodynamic shape that keeps the car planted firmly to the ground while its weight works to minimize the risk of oversteer.
Historically, Le Mans has been a hotbed for new and unusual cars. In 1950 American racer Briggs Cunningham built a bizarre cigar-shaped body over an otherwise stock Cadillac chassis and called it “Le Monstre.” In 1976, NASCAR sent two stock cars across the pond to race. Then in 1991, Mazda took its rotary-powered 787b to victory, making it arguably the strangest car ever to win at Le Mans. After disappointing results from the earlier (and equally radical) Deltawing, the company is ready to shake things up again, and it looks like the GT-R LM Nismo could be the car to actually do it. For 15 years, Audi’s technical prowess and fantastic cars have represented the pinnacle of modern racing. Come June 13, Nissan will be looking to overtake, and not only beat Audi on the track, but stake its claim on the future of racing.