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Nissan At Le Mans: The Story So Far, Part Two, The 1990s

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As the Group C era reached its peak Nissan were still shooting for success, and they looked to have the tools to do it too!

There was nothing whatsoever wrong with the pace of their Lola Chassised R90s and the factory team were about to embark on their biggest push yet for Le Mans glory.

The decade would see some of Nissan’s greatest success stories at Le Mans and some of their greatest disappointments too! And with them came their astonishing, and astonishingly loyal fanbase!

1998 24 Hours of Le Mans

1990

An astonishing seven Nissans were entered in 1990, five of them R90s, full factory cars representing the Nissan arms in Japan, Europe and North America. Courage Competition were Nissan equipped too, with an R89C plus a similar car entered under the Team LeMans banner once again too. The #23, 24 & 25 R90s were the first cars at Le Mans to be equipped with carbon brakes

#23 Nissan Motorsports International Nissan R90CP Masahiro Hasemi, Kazuyoshi Hoshino, Toshio Suzuki 348 laps 5th Overall

The car would lead the race, and would run consistently well up in the order – always inside the top 10 and coming home a strong, but ultimately disappointed fifth.

Nissan-1990-03

#24 Nissan Motorsports International Nissan R90CK Mark Blundell, Julian Bailey, Gianfranco Brancatelli 142 laps DNF

The #24 car would take Nissan’s first Le Mans pole position, Mark Blundell the man at the wheel of the #24 car, and here’s the in-car for an 1100 bhp powered thrill ride! 3:27.02 a then lap record.

The car would lead from the start and would stay in contention, despite an incident with Aguri Suzuki’s Toyota that left the Nissan with front end damage, until engine trouble in the early hours of the morning that would eventually lead to its retirement.

Nissan-1990-02

Nissan-1990-01

#84 Nissan Performance Technology Inc. Nissan R90CK Steve Millen, Michael Roe, Bob Earl Nissan R90CK 311 laps 17th overall


Problems with a rear wheel, then a front wheel, and then overheating left the #84 ‘American’ Nissan on a race long fight back, too far back to get a real result, a finish was at least some consolation

Nissan-1990-07

#82 Courage Compétition Nissan R89C Hervé Regout, Alain Cudini, Costas Los 300 laps 22nd overall (20th in C1)

The Courage run R89 was another car with a multitude of issues in the early part of the race, some accident damage too – it eventually made the top 20 – just!

Nissan-1990-05

#83 Nissan Performance Technology Inc. Nissan R90CK Geoff Brabham, Chip Robinson, Derek Daly 251 laps DNF

Nissan-1990-06

#85 Team Le Mans Nissan R89C Takao Wada Anders Olofsson Maurizio Sandro Sala 182 laps DNF

The simply gorgeous looking grey and white R89 was in repeated ignition trouble – a stop start effort doomed to DNF

Nissan-1990-08

#25 Nissan Motorsports International Nissan R90CK Kenny Acheson, Martin Donnelly, Olivier Grouillard
 0 laps DNF

The #25 car had been in engine trouble in practice and things didn’t improve for the squad on race day, an oil leak caused the transmission to jam as the cars came round on the formation lap, the car grinding to a halt in the Ford Chicane before taking the start!

Nissan-1990-04

1994

Nissan disappeared off the World sportscar scene in the wake of the FIA’s headlong rush to F1 spec engines – It would be four years before the white, blue and red colours would grace Le Sarthe again and, in truth, it was very much more red, white and blue, as Clayton Cunningham Motorsport brought their successful IMSA GTS Nissan 300 ZXs to the fray, the tube frame cars equipped with 650 bhp turbo sixes, the cars looking bulletproof and both running well in amongst the leading order.

Nissan-1996-02

#75 Clayton Cunningham Racing Nissan 300ZX Turbo Steve Millen, Johnny O’Connell, John Morton
317 Laps – 5th overall & IMSA GTS Class winner

1994 24 Hours of Le Mans

1994 24 Hours of Le Mans

The #75 car would end up matching Nissan’s best ever result at Le Mans overall 5th and a class winner to boot – Never out of the top ten the car ran as high as fourth overall.

#76 Clayton Cunningham Racing Nissan 300ZX Turbo Eric van de Poele, Paul Gentilozzi, Shunji Kasuya
25 laps DNF

Nissan-1994-03

The sister car also started well but was soon in electrical trouble that stopped the effort in its tracks before darkness fell.

1995

The infamous Skyline GT-R made its first appearance at Le Mans in 1995 just as the GT1 class was really taking off. This was, unusually of late for Nissan, an entirely Japanese affair, and the two, outwardly similar looking R33 Skyline GT-R LMs were, in fact, technically very different beasts.

Le Mans 24 Hours

#22 NISMO Nissan Skyline GT-R LM Hideo Fukuyama, Masahiko Kondo, Shunji Kasuya
271 laps 10th overall, 5th in GT1

Both cars had 2568cc twin turbo sixes but thereafter there was plenty of difference – #22 took a bigger restrictor and more weight with a near standard NISMO performance ‘box – it had a steady start but improved to move up the order steadily, into the top ten overnight and maintaining 10th overall at the flag, a very creditable performance against huge GT1, and WSC, opposition.

Le Mans 24 Hours

Le Mans 24 Hours

#23 NISMO Nissan Skyline GT-R LM Kazuyoshi Hoshino, Toshio Suzuki, Masahiko Kageyama
157 laps DNF

The sister car chose a smaller restrictor and less weight, plus an X-Trac sequential box. It was a package that seemed to work, the car running into the night as high as eighth overall, but then the new gearbox failed, the internals were changed and the car rejoined well down the order, but when the ‘box failed again it left the car stranded out on circuit.

Nissan-1995-01

1996

The Skylines were back for another try in 1996 – both though had larger 2.8 litre V6s, both now had the Nissan ‘box and were lighter too.
The game in GT1 though was moving on apace and though the Skylines had moved, they hadn’t moved far enough!

#22 NISMO Nissan Skyline GT-R LM Aguri Suzuki, Masahiko Kageyama, Masahiko Kondo
209 laps DNF

After a spirited fight up the order to the mid teens the #22 car suffered brake failure at around 7 am in the hands of Aguri Suzuki – the car into the barrier hard at the Esses and out on the spot

Nissan-1996-01

#23 NISMO Nissan Skyline GT-R LM Kazuyoshi Hoshino, Masahiro Hasemi, Toshio Suzuki
307 laps, 15th overall, 10th in GT1

The #23 made the finish, but the pace in the class had left the Skyline reeling – NISMO went home to condsider plan B!

Le Mans 24 Hours

Le Mans 24 Hours

1997

The 1997 effort was at an altogether different level – the R390 a GT1 car exploiting the then rather open rulebook to full extent, combining a car commissioned by NISMO and designed and built by TWR in the UK with the hugely potent twin turbo 3.5 litre V8 from the R89C.

Three cars arrived with the factory team, well tested and amidst high hopes of overall success:

Nissan-1997-01

#21 Nissan Motorsport/ TWR Nissan R390 GT1 Martin Brundle, Jörg Müller, Wayne Taylor
139 laps DNF

All three cars suffered gearbox overheating issues, and the #21 had four unplanned stops before an accident finally ended their race just before dawn.

Nissan-1997-05

#22 Nissan Motorsport/ TWR Nissan R390 GT1 Riccardo Patrese, Eric van de Poele, Aguri Suzuki
121 laps DNF

By then the #22 car had been out of the race for a couple of hours, another troubled run before the gearbox failed.

Nissan-1997-06

#23 Nissan Motorsport/ TWR Nissan R390 GT1 Kazuyoshi Hoshino, Érik Comas, Masahiko Kageyama
294 laps 12th overall, 5th In GT1

The #23 had major delays too, which counted it well out of overall or class contention, a transmission change, then a gearbox change too as the inherent design fault bit. The fighting spirit of the team though came through and the car came home in 12th overall, fifth in class, but Nissan went home bruised by this one!

Nissan-1997-02

#14 Pacific Racing Ltd. BRM P301 Harri Toivonen, Eliseo Salazar, Jesús Pareja
6 laps DNF

Included for completeness, this was an effort that looked doomed to failure, and it was, 24 minutes rather than 24 Hours before the engine blew on the Mulsanne straight for the last racing chapter in the BRM story!

Nissan-1997-04

1998

The 1998 effort numbered three entirely reworked R390 GT1s, a fourth R390, this a 1997 car with 1998 bodywork, plus a pair of Courage Competition WSC Prototypes with Nissan powerplants.

1998 24 Hours of Le Mans

#30 Nissan Motorsport/ TWR Nissan R390 GT1 John Nielsen, Michael Krumm, Franck Lagorce
342 laps, 5th overall

There was a pretty similar story for all four R390s, in particular the three full factory efforts with the cars running reliably, but not on the pace of the overall leaders. The final hour or so saw positional changes between all three Nissans but at the flag all four (including the #33 car) made it home, and all inside the top 10 – Really quite a remarkable result.

Nissan-1998-08

#31 Nissan Motorsport/ TWR Nissan R390 GT1 Jan Lammers, Érik Comas, Andrea Montermini
342 laps 6th overall

1998 24 Hours of Le Mans

#32 Nissan Motorsport/ TWR Nissan R390 GT1 Aguri Suzuki, Kazuyoshi Hoshino, Masahiko Kageyama
347 laps 3rd overall

1998 24 Hours of Le Mans

#33 Nissan Motorsport/ TWR Nissan R390 GT1 Satoshi Motoyama, Takuya Kurosawa, Masami Kageyama
319 laps 10th overall, 9th in GT1

The #33 car wasn’t to the same spec as its brethren, and wasn’t ultimately as quick, a gravel trap off, plus a collision with the #32 car in pit lane caused some delays, and the car lost its rear deck in the closing minutes of the race but still came home a fighting tenth.

1998 Le Mans 24 Hours

#13 Courage Compétition Courage C51 Nissan Didier Cottaz, Marc Goossens, Jean-Philippe Belloc
232 laps DNF

Courage Competition had a poor race this year, the #13 car suffering a half hour delay out on circuit as Marc Goossens repaired a broken accelerator cable, the car made it back to the pits but was out by dawn with a broken gearbox.

1998 24 Hours of Le Mans

#14 Courage Compétition Courage C51 Nissan Fredrik Ekblom, Patrice Gay, Takeshi Tsuchiya
126 laps DNF

The #14 car had no better luck. An off in the second hour, a flash refuelling fire, Oil leak, and finally a water leak putting paid to the effort just before midnight.

1998 Le Mans 24 Hours

1999

Nissan opted to switch from a GT1 platform to a brand new WSC – the R391, but then opted too to spread their bets with the factory team fielding a pair of their own new chassis plus a well proven Courage C52 powered by the older (but more race proven) twin turbo V8

#21 Nissan Motorsports Courage C52/ Nissan Didier Cottaz Marc Goossens Fredrik Ekblom
335 laps 8th overall, 7th in LMP

The factory run Courage had a conservative but highly effective race, never in the hunt for the overall win, but never that far away from the possibility of rising up the order – and that it did, slowly, gradually getting up into an 8th place finish.

1999 24 Hours of Le Mans

#22 Nissan Motorsports Nissan R391 Michael Krumm, Satoshi Motoyama, Érik Comas
110 laps DNF

The remaining R391 (see below) started well, running in the top ten but then hitting trouble. The pendulum would swing again thigh and a very strong recovery run, boosted by the withdrawal of the Mercedes, would see the car up as high as fourth before the engine let go.

1999 24 Hours of Le Mans

#23 Nissan Motorsports Nissan R391 Aguri Suzuki, Masami Kageyama, Eric van de Poele
DNS

The car didn’t make the race after a heavy shunt for Eric van de Poele after suffering a stuck throttle, the subsequent impact hurt the Belgian and broke the tub of the R391.

Nissan-1997-03

#13 Courage Compétition Courage C52/ Nissan Alex Caffi, Andrea Montermini, Domenico Schiattarella
342 laps, 6th overall, 5th in LMP

The highest finishing Nissan powered car was actually the Courage C52 run by Yves Courage, another steadily impressive reliability run saw the car gradually climb up the order to a creditable 6th place finish.

1999 24 Hours of Le Mans

GG

With thanks to John Brooks and to www.racingsportscars.com