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Catching Up With Darren Cox: As The World Sees The Nissan LMP1

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Marshall Pruett and Larry Webster spoke with Darren Cox, NISMO’s Global Head of Brand, Marketing and Sales, about the new Nissan LMP1 program he’s overseeing during a break while the brand’s Super Bowl ad was being filmed in late December at Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Tx.

Why launch this program with a Super Bowl Commercial?

Darren-CoxDarren Cox: Why the Super Bowl? I have been working hard for 10 years on Nissan Motorsport, and within major corporations, it’s not easy to spend money. We see less and less manufacturers spending proper money on motorsport programs. With Nissan with the NISMO globalization, we know NISMO has been a fantastic brand in Japan for 30 years and now we’ve decided that we’re going to globalize that brand and spread the love on the road car products. The perfect platform for NISMO to talk about road cars is motor racing, of course. We’ve always been racing in Japan and we’ve got a reasonably good heritage in the US. But then decision was taken on where can we go?  We’ve got huge heritage at the moment in endurance racing. Let’s go to Le Mans.

The Nissan ZEOD was always supposed to be a one-year deal and you’ve got to have stepping stones toward something big like the LMP1 program. Internally and externally. You’ve got to build relationships with partners, you’ve got to build a relationship with the ACO, the guys at Le Mans. You can’t just come in year one and be ready. Honestly, if we hadn’t started in LMP2, if we hadn’t done Garage 56 twice, we wouldn’t be ready for LMP1.

Back to the original question, Nissan North America decided they could do a Super Bowl ad based around a racing car. With all that effort you put in for 10 years with nothing, suddenly… you have an amazing opportunity like this. The enthusiasm of the executives within Nissan North America for the project has been significant. It will receive the Super Bowl effect. I think you’ll see a reawakening in all of motorsport.

Is it really that tough to get a racing budget?

We no longer do racing for racing’s sake. That is finished. The old theory of race on Sunday and sell on a Monday is nonsense these days. You’ve got to do something else, which is why Nissan’s GT Academy is so interesting and why the ZEOD was so interesting.

Our guidance on the LMP1 car was ‘I don’t want an Audi copy.’If you went and said, I’m going to do an Audi copy, we would be smashed because they have spent, let’s assume, $200 million a year, and they have been doing it for 10 years and a little bit more. Let’s say they have spent $2 billion on that program. They have got $2 billion in the bank in terms of knowledge.

We go in the first year, even if we’re spending the same as them, and we’re already $2 billion behind. From a racing point of view, you have to do something completely different. From a marketing point of view today in motor racing you have to do something completely different otherwise you will just get lost in the noise that is there.

By the way, the noise is getting smaller because fewer people are interested in motor racing. Therefore, we need to think of different ways to engage people. We’ve got a partnership with GoPro that will give us access to bigger and more disparate audiences, people that normally are watching surfing videos, skiing videos or biking videos will suddenly be presented with this video about car racing.

We need to be talking to the audiences where they are, not expect them to come to us. As a smaller point here this is why we’re going to do something with a car that looks like nothing else. Which is why it’s blood red. It’s not white or gray, it’s red. It’s, ‘hello, we’re over here, and look at us.’ I’m sure when you guys put a red car on the front cover you get a 10 percent boost in your circulation.

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But it’s just an ad isn’t it?

We’ve got a fantastic set of assets that we can use globally. If we weren’t in the Super Bowl ad, we wouldn’t have the kit that we’ve got here. The car will be in the ad for 12 seconds, 15 seconds maximum, but we’ve got rushes of five hours which will then cut into other assets. All the assets we are using will be used globally. It will be a global virtual launch.

Of course, there will be physical elements of it. The car will be at the Geneva Motor Show, for example. What is very exciting is if we play our cards right this car could be the most famous endurance racing car since the GT40 in the US. No one has really focused on a mainstream audience talking about Le Mans. For me, Le Mans is a fantastic brand. 250,000 people go there. We love it and we all watch it. To me though, it’s an underutilized brand.

I came to Austin last year and there was no activation from the brands, including us. I hope when we all come back here in September you’ll see something slightly different from Nissan. It’s a key market, but also what it does is get people interested in Le Mans for the following year. They might not want to go to Le Mans but they might come here, they might watch it on TV, or whatever it might be. We haven’t got to make the race famous again, it is famous, we have to make it relevant again.

In terms of fully blown manufacturers, chassis, teams and engines and powertrains, you’ve got four fully lit manufacturers going hammer and tongs. Our previous boss said to the world at the LMP launch event that we’re going to go and win Le Mans. There has never been, a more difficult time to win Le Mans overall. We’re going in and actually if we’re doing a good job, in theory we should be qualifying ninth, which is the first of the new blokes, because there are three cars from Porsche, three cars from Audi and two from Toyota.

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We are the underdogs. We’re the new boys, We haven’t spent $200 million. We haven’t been the fastest car in the WEC. We haven’t got mega-money and the heritage that Porsche have at Le Mans. But David beat Goliath, didn’t he? I think that’s what we’re doing with this car. This is David. Basically, Goliath had the wrong tools. David had the right tools. Have we the right tools?  We think we have. We don’t want to qualify ninth. Getting two of the three cars home at Le Mans would be a good start and being quick enough to be in the top three in qualifying is another, do those things and you give yourself a good shot at something. Then you’re in the lap of the gods.

You seem to have gone to a lot of trouble, and taken some very big risks, to be so – ‘different’?

The brief was, ‘Don’t build an Audi copy’ so, we were able to white sheet. Basically, it is very simple. There are three things we have had to do as a sport as we’ve had to slow cars down. How do we slow cars down? We’ve reduced the tire grip somehow. We’ve reduced the power, somehow, whether that be through fuel allocation or restrictors or whatever that might be. We’ve reduced the aero. Normally, a combination of the three.

We have reduced the aero on the back of the car because that’s where the weight of the car is. We’ve just gone, well, there is the tub, we’ll move the engine from there to there, that means you can change the balance of the weight distribution, therefore you can change the distribution of the center of pressure on the aero.

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Once you start there, that is pretty simple. The question is, should it be front or rear wheel drive? We had that debate as well. Actually, when you look at the packaging, using smaller tires in the back means your aero is easier on the back. And the best solution is the engine you see downstairs, which is a V6 twin turbo. A V6 twin turbo, four-wheel-drive [including the Flybrid system], and engine is in the front. It must be a GTR then. Then it’s just a marketing job made easy. We’ve got one of them, we’ll just call it that. If it was a diesel engine in the back we couldn’t have called it a GTR, could we?

Honestly, in life sometimes the stars align and it all happens. With this LMP1 project, all the elements came together at the right time. Right management team in place, we had the right objectives, with the right history, in terms of the projects we’ve done before, we had the right marketing guys, the right engineers. And it just worked. Sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn’t.

Why sports cars, and why LMP1 rather than GT?

If you’re going to be a bear, be a grizzly. Our history’s at Le Mans and there is a latent audience for it. We went to the NISMO festival and had 35,000 people come to Fuji just to look at old cars. We have got some history, we have just forgotten about it a bit. I think Formula 1 is in terminal decline. I think the single seater ladder itself is completely broken. Max Verstappen just emphasizes that point with his jump from karting to Formula 1 in one year of car racing. I don’t know much about NASCAR but I see them doing good work trying to recover a difficult situation. It’s not for us. The technology is not there. How is that innovative?

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If you just look at all your alternatives, our choice was actually obvious in the end. Le Mans is the world’s most famous race. But it’s a double-edged sword, it’s an opportunity or it’s not working. The World Endurance Championship could be a fantastic platform for brands. At the moment it’s not. The TV deal is not good enough, the promotion at the local events is not good enough. But the four big brands, at least three of them put in significant marketing money into it. It can only go one way.

So what else can Nissan contribute? 

We gave the ACO some ideas about how you change the championship. Why don’t you have a 20 minute qualifying race on Saturday, Mark Webber wheel to wheel with Jann Mardenborough? Ben would absolutely freak out because it would double his bodywork bill! Then you could be on terrestrial TV with your Saturday race. On Sunday you have a six hour race.

People don’t want to be bystanders, they want to be involved. If you close the garage doors, which is what the German brands do at Le Mans, you just lose your audience. We’ll do something else. In gaming, I realized these kids are engineering their own cars and one of the things you want to do is give them more information. But they get to the real world and no one is giving them that information. No one is talking about what the camber is or the caster or what the rake is, what the tire pressures are or anything. We need to do that otherwise we’ll lose the next generation of racing fans because they want information.

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What’s the biggest technical challenge?

Hybrid systems because we’ve been building the V6 twin turbos for a while, the wheels are round, the tires are round, the aero works or it doesn’t work. The KERS system, especially the direction we’ve gone, is brand-new. We are running for 8MJ. For me, it’s that system that is going to make it or break it.

It’s a very complex, 3D, seesaw. Anything in life is weight versus performance in some respect, whether that is reliability, durability, or whatever. There’s another component in terms of balance, you’ve got the balance between the megajoules and the fuel you are using. Do you want more liquid fuel or do you want more kinetic fuel, if you like? We think, the rules have been written, supposedly to say if you’re running 8MJ you’ll have an advantage. Which means that Audi have been doing a pretty good job with the 2MJ that they’ve got.

8MJ improves your overtaking ability. You want to be able to overtake on the straights. If you can fire the thing out of the corner and get past people on the straight, then that is a much better thing.

You don’t win Le Mans by being lazy. If you look at Ben Bowlby’s eyes at the moment or Chris Mower’s or any of the guys downstairs you can see that they’re putting their heart and soul into this thing.  I saw the car go past in the rain. I bet Ben is on the pit wall, because he’s looking at the rooster tail spray to see what was happening with the aero.

Why is a team running in the World Endurance Championship, a global series, while based out of Indianapolis?

The guys that are running IndyCar, the mechanics and the suppliers and everything else, they’re twiddling their thumbs after September. When was our program starting? Pretty much the end of their season. Why not use the guys that are there? A lot of IndyCar guys have done sports cars.

The other reason for basing it in the US is the weather. I bet if I go on weather.com now it is raining in Barcelona, it’s raining in Paul Ricard, it will certainly be raining at Silverstone, if not snowing. We’ve used the Arizona test facility a lot. We knew that we had to do a huge amount of testing this year as the new guys. That’s why we’re based in the US. Yeah. We’ve got Japanese DNA but we are a global company.

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What’s your plan for finding talent to drive the LMP1 cars?

One of my favorite quotes is Fernando Alonso when he won the World Championship. Someone asked, “What’s it like to be the best racing driver in the world?” He said, “I’m not the best racing driver in the world. There is a guy driving a bus in Mexico who doesn’t know he’s the best racing driver in the world.” So basically, we’re trying to find a Mexican bus driver. I have no idea what Ricardo Sanchez did before winning the Nissan GT Academy and that’s what I mean. So we’re doing a shootout with the last four years’ winners and maybe one more to find the best of the American winners at the GT Academy and work with these guys and try and promote them all the way through to Le Mans in ’16. If we find someone that’s good enough then we will do that. That’s the plan.

Marshall Pruett