The brief walk from the reception area at Dan Gurney’s All American Racers to the race shop demanded a quick mental recalibration. By the end of my visit to AAR in late September, a full cranial reboot was in order, and once again, racecar designer Ben Bowlby was to blame.
I was there privately, along with DSC Editor Graham Goodwin, two days after the World Endurance Championship event at Circuit of The Americas where Audi, Porsche, and Toyota battled fought each other with their cutting-edge LMP1 hybrids. Nissan’s new-for-2015 LMP1 machine had been the source of immense speculation since the program was announced in June at Le Mans, and during our first dozen steps inside AAR, the reality of what Bowlby and his mad cast of characters came up with foreshadowed the revelations that would fill the rest of my visit.
Leaving the reception room, we passed through a door, turned right, headed for another door, and during those 30-odd steps, something odd caught my eye. Composite specialists were working on a chassis mold for the Nissan’s floor, the bottom piece of the carbon-fiber tub where the driver sits, yet it contained a strange, tube-like indent from front to back. Could it be for a driveshaft? Why would a rear-engined prototype need to run a driveshaft to the front of the… Oh, wait.
Leaving the first building, we walked across the courtyard that connects the different units which house everything from AAR’s truly secret activities to the rolling dynamometer Dan uses for his line of Alligator motorcycles. Through the roll-up door and past the workbench-shrine preserved in honor of the late Phil Remington, we made a final left into the shop where the Nissan-powered DeltaWing was created. On my last visit to AAR, the room was empty. This time, it was a blur of bodies in motion. Dan’s son Justin Gurney greeted us just as I spotted a familiar face from the IndyCar paddock, someone who left a front-running team weeks earlier when the season drew to a close. As I’d learn in the ensuing months, most of the team would be filled by friends, former colleagues, and regulars from American open-wheel and sports car racing.
Curling our way up the spiral stairs to the makeshift engineering office, we were greeted by Simon Marshall who, as a renowned designer in his own right, forms a powerful creative think-tank with Bowlby and Zach Eakin. Sitting at a conference table in relatively tight confines, Marshall opened a poster tube and removed large, 3D renderings of the car, unrolling them in dramatic fashion while watching our reaction. My first question wasn’t about the car. I wanted to know about the poster tube which bore the name of a commercial printing company.
Yes, the top-secret, kill-on-sight Nissan LMP1 car had been sent, seen, and printed by an unsuspecting clerk in Southern California without the images making it onto Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook. Forget spy shots; the P1 car was hiding in plain sight outside the confines of AAR.
The blood-red car shown from overhead in the first rendering answered the most obvious question: The tub did indeed need a driveshaft running down the middle because with the long hood and exhausts exiting atop the car, ahead of the windshield, it was clear Bowlby had gone for a front-engine layout.
The Nissan GT-R LM NISMO LMP1, in stark contrast to the other rear-engined LMP1-H competitors, was ass-backwards (as my father liked to say), and it wasn’t by mistake. Modern rear-engined prototypes have suffered from a lack of weight, and therefore balance at the front of the cars. Rules allow small aerodynamic aids to slightly increase downforce, but not to the point where drivers have rocket-fast reactions when they turn the steering wheel.
With the move to a front-engine design, the forward weight bias issue is solved and, most importantly, it gave great freedom for Bowlby to come up with an aerodynamic treatment that was impossible for the rear-engined LMP1-H manufacturers to execute. If they chose to make the Nissan a puller instead of a pusher, what else had they done that defied convention?
Marshall showed us a few other angles before rolling up the renderings and taking us into the design office for a virtual tour of the car. With the GT-R LM NISMO LMP1 contained on an incredibly wide computer screen, and sans bodywork, the enormity of the design challenge was unveiled. Yes, the Nissan is front-engined, makes use of a 3.0-liter twin-turbo V6… but it’s also front-wheel drive.
(We’ll pause a few seconds to let that one sink in.)
An FWD LMP1-H design. Friends, that’s just batshit crazy. Some of the numbers being mentioned as possible combined horsepower and KERS power took the concept to the outer edges of reason. Marshall explained the early targets were in the 2000hp range with the use of an 8mJ “double” Flybrid system fitted to the car, but practical limitations lowered the bar to approximately 1500hp.
Take the carbon fiber tub, affix the Flybrid KERS unit beneath the raised floor under the driver’s feet, bolt the compact TTV6 to the front of the firewall, then attach the custom transmission/bellhousing unit in front of the engine, and, finally, you have one mightily modular prototype. The mechanical Flybrid system, which is now supplied by Torotrak, uses an array of reduction gears and a weighted flywheel to quickly store and release energy.
And with its semi-central location in the Nissan, it sends power to the front-mounted transmission through a driveshaft that runs through the engine’s V, and also sends its power rearward through the aforementioned driveshaft cutout in the floor.
As Marshall zoomed in and peeled away some of the digital layers, he simplified the model to highlight and explain another one of the Nissan’s keystone concepts: through-flow aerodynamics. On every other Le Mans Prototype, air hits the front of the car–some goes over the top surfaces, some goes around the cars, and the rest goes beneath the car under the splitter. The air going under the car travels up the splitter, creates downforce, and some of it is then diverted out the sides of the car behind the front wheels. The rest travels along the floor to the back where it meets the diffuser and exits. So the air traveling over, around, and beneath the car meets up at the back and rejoins like a group of lost friends, after being diverted in every direction by the car. Designers spend thousands of hours coming up with the best way to make aerodynamic downforce while minimizing drag, and drag comes from interrupting the air.
An LMP1-H punching through the air at 200mph is one giant exercise in disturbance, yet with Bowlby’s through-flow system, he’s found a brilliant method to work peacefully with the air as it envelops the Nissan via huge rectangular airflow channels that start at the rear of the splitter, wrap around the cockpit, and continue to the tail end of the GT-R LM NISMO LMP1. In practical terms, it’s the difference between the hull of an oil tanker making a mile-wide wake and the razor-thin interruption made by an America’s Cup yacht.
The basic size and shape of the Nissan is no different than the other LMP1-H creations, but with the front-engine design allowing Bowlby, Marshall, and Eakin to pack the car with all of its major systems in front of the tub, the sidepods which normally house radiators and other clutter, have been transformed into empty passages that exploit aerodynamic efficiency.
Items at the front like turbos and other systems have been elevated to make way for the tunnel inlets, and from a packaging standpoint, you won’t find a spare inch from top to bottom or side to side under the expansive hood. I’d feel sorry for the person who drops their car keys in the engine bay because it might never be found.
Dragging the 3D model to the left of the screen, Marshall took us to the back of the car, and it was there that we found another engineering solution that breaks new ground. The complex engine and Flybrid system at the front of the car works in unison to turn the front tires through driveshafts that look like bronze tree trunks, and with the sheer volume of engine+hybrid power potentially exceeding what the front tires can handle, the Nissan has been designed to send some of the hybrid power to the skinny rear tires if desired. How that power reaches the tires is the good part.
Picture the loooooong driveshaft extending from the front of the car to the back of the car, terminating at the rear axle line. It connects to a differential housing that scales upward, high enough for driveshafts to reach across and over the through-flow aero tunnels. Those driveshafts connect to individual gearboxes that also sit in tall housings. With the high differential housing connected to the high outrigger gearboxes via driveshafts, the rear wheels are turned by short driveshafts from the base of the gearboxes.
The entire exercise is done to prevent sticking driveshafts through the tunnels and reducing aero efficiency. Anyone other than Bowlby would have skipped the Herculean task and lived with the extra drag. Thankfully, he and Eakin, the team’s gearbox genius, chose performance over ease. Toyota played with RWD and AWD versions of its LMP1-H challenger during its development stage, so it’s hard to say whether the Nissan will start racing with FWD, AWD, or a blend of both options, but we do know the systems are in place to be utilized.
Marshall took considerable pride in explaining the rear-drive layout, and for those without a technical aptitude, all I can say is I giggled a little bit when it appeared on the screen because like everything else on the GT-R LM NISMO, the creativity at play connected with the same curiosity that drew me into the sport as a child.
Spec cars… cookie-cutter designs… they’re the work of the Devil. Bowlby’s Nissan, his DeltaWing, the wild V4-turbo Porsche 919… those are the cars that feed the soul and remind us to fight accepted norms, and whatever’s written in the rulebooks, with all of our might.
With a return flight home on the horizon, we concluded the virtual tour, made our way down the staircase, and found a new player in the process, a full-sized engine mockup. Outside in the courtyard, we found the first tub sitting atop a bench being cleaned and inspected. Its dimensions were revealing. Minus doors and a windshield, it was clear Nissan’s driver roster would be limited to those closer to sub-compact stature than 6-footers whose legs would rest on top of the engine.
The project was fascinating, and still a little ways away from reaching the point of having the first rolling chassis produced and headed for its first test. My wife greeted me after the one-hour flight home to Northern California, and she asked “How did it go?” My answer to her in late September hasn’t changed: “I might have just seen the coolest, craziest racecar design I’ve ever come across.”
A few months later, just prior to Christmas, I’d get to see the Nissan up close and in action.
After a bit of bartering at home, I negotiated a two-day, one-night trip to Circuit of The Americas where I’d been invited to document the GT-R LM NISMO’s first visit to a racetrack and, most importantly, the filming of Nissan’s Super Bowl commercial would take place.
With Nissan USA footing the bill, NISMO’s plans for a European launch for the P1 car were quickly replaced with a chance to be seen during the most-watched annual event in North America. The marketing and PR value was obvious, and with 150 people there to film and support the ad, the race team had an interesting situation on its hands.
The car, with veteran Nissan driver Michael Krumm on board, had already turned laps at their proving grounds in Arizona, but the trip to CoTA marked the first proper racing facility to log miles with the GT-R LM NISMO. While the race team wanted to cut loose with the car, the main order of business involved 50mph passes behind a Porsche Cayenne fitted with an articulated arm carrying a remote camera system. Forget pushing the boundaries of LMP-H technology: Driver Jann Mardenborough lumbered around in first and second gear in cold, damp conditions, while the director worked through his shot list.
Through Nissan USA’s relationship with Kevin Doran, Doran Racing team supplied a number of vehicles used during the Super Bowl shoot, including Doran’s JE4 Daytona Prototype. The chassis won the 24 Hours of Daytona in 2004, a mere 11 years ago, yet compared to the GT-R LM NISMO, looks like a leftover from sports car racing’s Stone Age.
Once the initial array of shots was completed, the race team pulled the car into the garage (which had housed Kimi Raikkonen’s Ferrari Formula 1 car during November’s U.S. Grand Prix) and went to work inspecting the vehicle after its maiden outing.
With the full crew assembled in the garage, it was interesting to see how much the program had expanded since my visit to AAR. Staff from the Panther Racing and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports IndyCar teams had been signed. Alex Job Racing, Level 5 Motorsports, and Starworks Motorsport team members were now in Nissan garb. Men from Aston Martin Racing, and later, Muscle Milk Pickett Racing, also joined the GT-R LM NISMO effort. It was a warm reception filled with a lot of good folks I’ve known for many years and, I must admit, it was a pleasant surprise to hear so many American accents within a program that will play on a global stage.
Next to the car sat a row of tables where engine support technicians, dressed in Nissan gear, sat in front of laptops with uniform “Cosworth” logos adorning the outside of their machines. Further down the row, chassis and drivetrain engineers reviewed the telemetry data and downloaded info from the runs, and generally kept to themselves. Mardenborough, who appeared to be bored stiff, sat off to the side and waited for further instructions.
Although the laps around COTA’s shortened loop, the same configuration used during the V8 Supercars race in 2013, did not take very long, and were mostly processional with the filming in mind, there was a great sense of curiosity emanating from the team.
Bowlby and Eakin rushed to the fence to see Mardenborough’s first pass, and while the glorious P1 car was partially blocked by two of Doran’s DPs, one major item was captured. A light drizzle coated the track just enough to produce spray when the cars went by, and after they turned more laps, Mardenborough was instructed to drop the hammer and power away from the Cayenne. Bowlby’s face instantly went from pensive first-time father in the hospital waiting room to proud parent.
Mardenborough shot by from right to left, heading towards the finish line and CoTA’s unmistakable uphill climb, Bowlby’s head swiveled, tracking the rain as it moved down the Nissan’s through-flow channels. He’d run simulations in CFD, but this was the first real-world example of how efficiently the through-flow system worked. We both watched as a perfect rooster tail of spray swept high into the air and it was exactly what Bowlby had expected: the water met in the middle and shot upward in a single, thin column, like a wispy white Mohawk behind the swan-neck mount that holds the rear wing. It was a thing of beauty.
“I feel like every woman probably feels after giving birth, Never again!” said Bowlby after his car came to a rest on pit lane.
A gift soon arrived in the form of a crate from gearbox manufacturer Xtrac. With its delivery falling well behind the team’s planned test schedule, the Nissan team was presented with an extraordinary challenge. Its new LMP1-H challenger could sit idle for months and wait on its transmission vendor or, as they soon chose, they could have their own unit cast and start testing while they waited on the final version. An outfit in Michigan produced the casting, which also carried the front suspension and steering, and serves as an integral load-bearing chassis component, and the Nissan team readily accepted the weight penalty that came with the piece. With the proper Xtrac unit onsite, Bowlby’s first interest was to have it uncrated and placed on one of the four digital scales built into the chassis setup pad. How much lighter was the Xtrac product?
“Top secret, mate, but it’s much closer to where we should have been from the beginning,” Bowlby said with a smile and clear sense of relief. Mechanics descended on the Xtrac piece and prepped it for installation once the day’s filming was completed.
The overall newness of the GT-R LM NISMO meant it was sent to CoTA without all of its incredible technology in place. The Super Bowl shoot would be done using the engine alone, and once the two-day Dec. 17-18 shoot was complete, the plan was to fit the KERS system and conduct serious runs Dec. 19-21 before taking a quick breather over the holidays.
More filming took place on that first afternoon, and among the Nissan crew members, the highlight of the experience was still one day away. The next garage over housed a variety of Nissan racecars and stunt cars, including a full JRM-built GT3-spec GT-R, and the car that racer/stunt ace Rhys Millen was going to barrel roll as part of the 100 shots edited into the Super Bowl ad. Even with the most sought-after, advanced LMP1-H car on the planet in front of them, the clear highlight of the filming process was the GT3 GT-R knockoff Millen was going to ride through the air entering Turn 13.
Daylight had been in short supply thanks to the ever-present clouds, and with the ambient light starting to fade, everyone prepared for night shooting. I went upstairs during that transition and spent an hour with Darren Cox who, as we’ve come to expect, was equal parts brand ambassador and NISMO evangelist.
How did the new car take its singular shape?
“The brief was, don’t build me an Audi, or a P1 copy,” he said. “The decision was taken, if you had a new sheet of paper, what car would you build? Let’s be honest, Audi have got $200 billion in the bank in terms of investing technologies. Porsche, basically, almost copied Audi in a lot of respects.
“Toyota have a Dome chassis with a Super GT engine. They all had something that they could then utilize. Everyone has the same idea. Actually, 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.
“Once you start there, that is pretty simple. Almost the craziest thing is, do we have a front or rear-wheel drive? That’s probably the biggest leap. Actually putting an engine in the front, when you look at the modeling, it’s pretty simple. The question is, should it be front or rear-wheel drive? We had that debate as well. Actually, when you look at it, the packaging, using the tires in the back are smaller which means your aero is easier on the back. A number of different factors of why you have the power through the front. It actually becomes simple. But it can’t become simple if you start with a diesel engine that is in the back and 10 years of history [using it there]. You would never think of putting an engine in the front.
“Then when you get innovative people sitting at a table together, and you go, hang on a minute, [put] the best [ideas] on a blank sheet of paper, it is genuinely what happened. We looked at a blank sheet of paper and the best solution is the engine you see downstairs, which is a V6 twin turbo, four-wheel-drive, the engine is in the front. It must be a GT-R 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? That’s why we ended up where we are.”
Preach on, Brother Darren.
One of Nissan’s PR representatives added to the discourse by laying out their plans for sharing the program with the world.
“We don’t want to be like the other manufacturers who are guarded, who keep everything under wraps and only tell you what they want to know,” he said. “We are going to be wide open. Come on in, see it all, tell your story however you want—guts and all, and we plan to do the same. Post our setup sheets online. Look at all the little technical details, the spring rates, or whatever. Make this your own car, learn from it, ask questions.
“We’re all adults here, and that’s how we’re going to treat everyone. There’s nothing that’s off-limits, and that might take some getting used to for some guys, but that’s how we’re going about things.”
The car barked to life as the director readied his team to film take after take of pit stops being performed. A problem with the Nissan’s battery restricted the shoot, and before long, activities were over and the crew began disassembling the front of the car to perform maintenance and ready the LMP1-H for Thursday’s running.
We were greeted by fewer clouds the next morning, but high winds made filming, and lapping, more of a struggle than expected. Once the weather improved, the GT-R LM NISMO was joined by Doran’s JE4 for an extended series of laps.
Perched on top of the Turn 1 photographers scaffolding, the sight of the cutting-edge Nissan being shadowed by the Doran DP was like witnessing a visual hate crime. The mile-wide cockpit on the DP was a stark reminder of how unimaginative rules bred dreadful designs that are just as ugly today as they were back then.
By mid-afternoon, the Millen barrel roll had taken place, and most who saw it said it wasn’t as violent as they’d imagined. Once the crumpled car was cleared, more lapping took place until the new gearbox surrendered. Specifically, the lower gears had given up, all of the slow speed acceleration and deceleration put undue stress on the internals, and despite halting the shoot for the rest of the day, Bowlby wasn’t overly displeased. His GT-R LM NISMO will eventually spend time behind safety cars at Le Mans where the same stresses will be placed on the transmission’s lower gears, and with the problems that cropped up at CoTA, a redesign was added to the list of priorities to address.
“This is exactly the kind of thing you want to have happen now,” he said. “Of course, we do not want to complicate the other plans going on with the commercial’s filming, but we can say that if it were not for the type of conditions we were under during the filming, we might not have experienced this issue until a later time. You’re never pleased when your car stops on track, but if there’s something to be learned from it, which we will, it’s not necessarily a bad thing.”
With my flight just 75 minutes away and the curtain falling on the Super Bowl shoot, I packed hurriedly and sprinted from CoTA to the Austin airport. With 1900 photos, some b-roll video, and a few hours of interviews locked away, I couldn’t wait to work on the content over the next month as the Super Bowl drew near. The element of surprise, however, was short lived.
While waiting for the conditions to improve on Thursday, the team polished the bodywork and rolled it outside for a few of us to photograph in natural lighting. We walked around the GT-R LM NISMO, shot inside it, and from every other vantage point that caught our interest. A few extra people appeared in the background from the garage next door, enough so to mention the fact to one of Nissan’s PR staffers. After a day and a half at the track, most of the people involved with the running of the cars and the filming were easily identifiable. Some of the folks that emerged during the open shoot were not.
By the following Monday, a drawing of the GT-R LM NISMO, done from the exact angle where some of the new people were standing was on the front page of Jalopnik. The drawing wasn’t a guess; although only Jalopnik and the people inside the Nissan program knew it. It was done from a photo, and rotated one or two degrees, those of us shooting the car had captured the same shot. All those who were at the shoot signed non-disclosure agreements, and most, but apparently not all had the camera lens on their cell phones covered with a Nissan sticker. It was always going to be risky by having more than 100 people at the track and expecting everyone to play by Nissan’s rules, and afterwards, more than one person said they were surprised it took so long for the car to hit the Internet.
And here we are today. The car was seen by hundreds of millions of people, the craziness has been confirmed, and we’ll soon know whether Audi, Porsche, and Toyota will have a Nissan GT-R LM NISMO nightmare on their hands.