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Pre-Le Mans Q&A With NISMO's Darren Cox: "We are as prepared as we can be"

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DSC was able to have a one-to-one sit down with the face of NISMO Darren Cox in London today, to ask some burning questions about the LMP1 programme before the team head to La Sarthe for the Test in just over two weeks time.

Overall how do you feel about the whole LMP1 project heading into Le Mans?

Darren-Cox“I think anyone who says they are happy in motorsport aren’t pushing hard enough. From where we started from in April last year, we’ve made a huge effort and impact on achieving our objectives. As with any programme, time is at a premium, and of course we want more. The ACO aren’t going to move Le mans to December, there’s another one next year, but we’re all up for competing this time round. We are as prepared as we can be, we are very happy with the people we’ve got, and contrary to rumours, we’ve got great working relationship across all the different functions. We’ve Japanese and UK based engineers working well.

I’ve been trying to think of how difficult this has been. It’s twice as as difficult as Honda entering into F1 for example. They had to produce a good engine, and give it to a team which is well established, with two world champions. They’ve got a bunch of engineers and infrastructure there too. Whereas we’ve had to build an entire programme from scratch in 10 months.

Whatever happens in 2015, the effort that we’ve made from ’15 to ’16 will be massive. We’ve got the main development curve still to come. It will be a learning year, as it was for Porsche last year, and they finished with only one car, which ended up 11th at Le Mans. They learnt a lot last year, and look at them now, they’re some people’s favourites.

We need to follow that trajectory.”

What’s been the biggest challenge so far in the development of the GT-R LM NISMO?

“I think the KERS system; it’s been a massive challenge for us. That’s a challenge which has in effect meant that we’ve got loads of advantages heading into next year. These days the KERS system is so integral to the car that when that’s not working you have to stop everything else. We’ve lost a number of days of testing because the KERS system wasn’t working as it should do.

The reason why we are annoyed about that, is because every time we send the car out it goes faster. We’re not anywhere near the law of diminishing returns in terms of development yet, because we learn so much each time we send the car out. I can only imagine where we’d be if we would have had an extra five days back from November to use again after what we’ve learnt.

Nissan GT-R LM NISMO

Issues with our hybrid system were expected though, because KERS is such an Achilles heel for so many teams in lots of different types of racing. The engine may be in a different place to everyone else, but it’s still a racing car. Our engineers have been there and seen that, tackled problems before. So they’re going to work to fix it.”

So the cars will definitely be running under hybrid power at Le Mans?

“Yes, 100%, there will be hybrid systems running in our cars.”

How about the third car, when is the debut of that going to be?

“The third car will run before Le Mans; it will appear at the Test Day, we will have three cars there.”

What about Marc Gené’s decision to step back for Le Mans, what’s the story behind that?

“It was a joint decision. It was a knock-on effect, because we didn’t do the first two races, our test schedule was disrupted, and because Marc is the busiest out of all of our drivers, he couldn’t get enough time in the car. Between us we decided that because we couldn’t give him extra time behind the wheel, and since we’ve got to ship them to Le Mans for the test so soon, he’ll step back and be in the garage helping our young drivers.

Gene-Nissan

His experience is very important nevertheless, and he’ll be back in the car after Le Mans. It’s a shame but it had to be done.”

So what are your expectations of Mark Shulzhitskiy in replacing him?

“Everyone raved about Jann’s (Mardenborough) performance at Le Mans last year, when actually it was the year before that was the standout. But if you look at Mark’s times behind the wheel against his two teammates last year, his average over 20 laps suggested that it would be more than wise to put him in an LMP1 car – if you were running a junior programme.

I’m someone that, as a racing fan, appreciates other people doing a good job. I think the best thing Porsche have done is put Earl Bamber and Nick Tandy in their third car. Effectively that’s what we have done with Mark, we are confident in him. There’s no ego there, he fits in with the team, he won’t cause any problems. If we say: ‘stay off the curbs’, he’ll stay off the curbs, if we say: ‘go backwards through Mulsanne,’ he’ll do that too!

Mark-Shulzhitsky

But in all seriousness, it was a no-brainer. He’s done his rookie laps already, and we’ve got three rookies in our roster. Our rookies have to do 10 laps on test day, so with Mark driving we don’t have four. In a sporting decision, we’ve borrowed an LMP3 car from Ginetta, and all our rookies will complete their required 10 laps in that. It means we can get that out of the way so they don’t have to do track learning in the P1 car.”

What’s your plan for him after Le Mans then, if Gené is back in the car?

“We haven’t made any decisions yet on the racing lineup after Le Mans. We don’t want to put any extra pressure on them, we want them to perform at Le Mans and then see where we are. With Mark it’s the same.

I think our biggest problem by the end of 2016 will be keeping our drivers. I think the group we’ve got is fantastic, we are very happy. But we’ve got so many other types of motorsport which we are involved in; one might do Super GT, one might do GT3, one might do V8 Supercars. That’s our philosophy, we don’t believe in keeping every driver on one track.”

So what is your strategy for the Test Day? What are you expecting?

“We need data. We’ve got no idea for instance, what our tyres are going to do. We need more information, it’s not just about doing a load of laps, we have a split strategy across the three cars. One will be doing setup, one might be doing longer runs to test tyres, one might be doing fuel strategy stuff. Don’t judge us on our pace on the Test Day. We’ll let the track rubber in and see where we are on Saturday afternoon.”

Nissan GT-R LM NISMO

And Le Mans, what’s your hope for the race as we stand now?

“We want laps on the car, with half an eye on 2016. The more laps we get done, the more data we have for next year. We’ve got to make the most of it, and try to make it to the end. We’ll know where we are at the end of our first driver stint, because we’ll have gone through out first fuel and tyre stint. Who knows? Who knows where the others are? We’ve got small tyres on the back, maybe they’ll last a stint, maybe they’ll last nine, who knows? As a fan I’m excited, it’ll be fascinating.”

Will the cars all run in red?

“Watch this space. We don’t want to do what our competitors do, and be rigid with the look of our car. As you’ve seen with the Manchester City livery, we’re open to new things. We’ve also seen so many fan-made designs on the internet that we love, so who knows? It would be good to surprise a fan, and say: ‘that car will be your design.'”

So after Le Mans, what’s your testing programme going to look like, and will we see a different aero package?

“The new aero package is done. Ben (Bowlby) finished and signed it off this morning. Now it goes in production, and we plan to use the third car as a test car going forward; during which, it’ll run some of the systems for 2016. That’s why Marc Gené is involved, he’s one of the best test drivers around.

We hope to also do more work with Michelin to learn more about possible developments on the tyre side. There’s a lot to work on with electronics too. There’s so much to do after Le Mans in terms of testing, with a focus on next year. We didn’t want to overload ourselves at Le Mans this year.”

What are your expectations for the second half of the WEC season then?

‘We just want more data, we want to learn more. I think Fuji will be our best chance for a good result, with that long straight. This car isn’t a Le Mans special, it can get downforce, we will have good showings on other tracks too we hope.”

Stephen Kilbey