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DSC Retro: Nissan At Le Mans In 1997 & 1998

By John Brooks

Our second feature offering in Le Mans Week from the DSC archive comes from John Brooks, writer, photographer and much more!

John’s archive from the days of GT1 is matchless, and here he puts the words with the pictures to look back at one of the Great Race’s ‘coulda, shoulda, woulda’ programmes, the TWR developed Nissan R390.

The second half of the final decade of the 20th Century saw at Le Mans the arrival of a bunch of SuperCars that still are breathtaking all these years later. I had a look at Toyota’s effort a week or so ago, and in the shadow of this year’s great race, it also appropriate to consider another contender of the time, the Nissan R390.

After the demise of Group C and IMSA GTP in 1992 and 1993, the rules were structured to make the GT category more in tune with road cars, so the Japanese manufacturers responded by building GT versions of the Nissan Skyline GT-R, the Honda NSX and of course the Toyota Supra LM. These true road car evolutions were outclassed by the McLaren F1 GTR at Le Mans in 1995; not entirely unexpected given the philosophy behind Woking’s finest.

Frustrated by the multiple successes of the F1 GTR on the tracks during the BPR era of 1995 and 1996, Porsche brought a gun to the knife fight with the introduction of their 911 GT1. So it was clear that to have any prospect of success, a supercar would have to be designed and built and in double quick time too. There was only one way to achieve this task and get the project ready to run at Le Mans in mid-1997. Get the car designed and built by one of the specialists and who better than Tom Walkinshaw Racing? TWR had a record second to none in running motorsport projects for manufacturers, especially at Le Mans, where their outright wins in 1988 and 1990 for Jaguar had passed into legend.

So when Nissan wanted an answer to the question of what to do next in pursuit of victory at Le Mans the answer was to engage TWR. In addition to TWR’s experience on the track, the company still had the services of Tony Southgate, who had designed the successful Jaguars of the Group C/IMSA era. As Project Leader for TWR, Southgate came up with a state of the art chassis and bodywork made of composite materials, carbon fibre and kevlar.

Adding complexity to the whole project was the requirement to produce a road car that could be sold to the public. TWR Design was headed by Ian Callum, designer/creator of the Aston Martin DB7 and he styled and oversaw the production of the Nissan R390 road car, the fastest and most expensive road car ever produced by Nissan. Unlike the Mercedes-Benz GT1 project, Nissan created the road car first and thereby conformed to the spirit as well as the letter of the regulations. It was all in vain though, as the rules changed just before the start of the season allowing the road car to be produced any time during the calendar year. Mercedes-Benz showed their contempt for the process by unveiling their street-legal version of the CLK GTR in late December, months after the FIA GT Championship had been run and won.

Callum made styling references to the rest of the Nissan product range and heritage, using the twin front grills that gave a subliminal message “Nissan” and also the headlights had their origins in the 300SX. There were only two examples of the R390 built for the public highway, with a 0-60mph time of 3.3 seconds and a top speed of 220moh, all at a price tag of $1 million.

Nissan, or more accurately, NISMO rummaged around the back of the engine storeroom and found the V8 that used to power the 1990 Group C Le Mans entries. This 3.5 litre twin turbo V8, codenamed VRH35L, had been extensively updated since its previous visit to La Sarthe to cope with the new demands imposed by air restrictors, especially in the area of friction reduction. The engine had two overhead camshafts per bank of cylinders with 32 valves in total. There were 2 IHI turbos and the power “over 600bhp” was sent to the rear wheels through a transversally mounted six speed sequential gearbox designed and built by X-Trac. Tyres were provided by Bridgestone.

The final piece of the jigsaw was to assemble the team for the attempt on the world’s greatest race. Nissan had failed in their previous attempts on the French classic, most notably in 1990 when despite having the best car, political in-fighting and lack of co-operation between the British, American and Japanese teams (yes three separate teams!) they conspired to lose the race to Jaguar and TWR. This time things would be different.

While Tony Southgate headed up the TWR side of the operation, Tom Walkinshaw himself being on Grand Prix duty with Arrows, Kunihiko Kakimoto was Nissan and NISMO’s man in charge. For the race, there were 115 members of the team, 40 from TWR and the rest from Japan.

The team had a very strong pool of drivers available to them. Number 21 had TWR’s favourite son, Martin Brundle, with Jörg Müller and Wayne Taylor, a late substitute for the injured Mauro Martini, joining him behind the wheel. Number 22 was crewed by Riccardo Patrese, Aguri Suzuki and Eric Van de Poele. The third R390, number 23, had Eric Comas, Kazuyoshi Hoshino and Masahiko Kagayama on driving duties.

The attraction of the World’s Greatest Race is attested by the number of entries, always in excess of the track’s licensed limit. 1997 was no exception with 86 applications which the Selection Committee of the ACO whittled down to 76. These were invited to turn up at the beginning of May to see who would go forward to the race itself. One entry dropped out, six were granted exemption by virtue of 1995 results, so 69 cars scrapped for the 46 places on pit road during race week itself, some six weeks hence. Oh, and of those 46, four would go home early, all nice and clear.

For factory teams such as Nissan, this system gave a few sleepless nights, as if they did not achieve the right level of performance on the day then it was no race after all that effort and expense.

The cars were split up into two groups, one running on Saturday, the balance on Sunday. Everyone in the paddock was given a reminder of the ever-present dangers in the sport when an accident on Saturday claimed the life of the promising young French driver, Sebastian Enjolras. There was little enthusiasm for running during the rest of the day. The timesheets were topped by the McLaren F1 GTR of JJ Lehto with 3:45.973. The #22 Nissan was around three seconds back but comfortably in the race.

The pace hotted up on Sunday and as usual, the teams all put on stickier rubber as the clock ticked towards the end of the session and no one wanted to be left standing when the music stopped. For #21 there would be no worries as Martin Brundle was in outstanding form, scorching round in 3:43.152 to record the fastest time of the weekend. To complete a good weekend for the Anglo-Japanese team #23 was also in with ease. Quiet satisfaction and a job list of improvements to be made were the conclusions taken away – next up, the race!

Fastest in the Pre-Qualifying Weekend, the mood in the TWR Nissan camp would have been reasonably confident. Or it should have been: those of us on the outside had heard that there had been a successful three-day test at Magny Cours and all was plain sailing.

The more observant (not me, I hasten to add) would have questioned why the exhaust system had been re-routed from back to side, not something lightly undertaken. The answer lay with the annual dust-up between the ACO and TWR over an interpretation of the rules.

It is completely obvious to anyone who glances at the Nissan R390, it is a road car that has been converted to track use. So like all road cars it will have a luggage compartment somewhere and by the 1997 ACO rules, this space had to have a volume of at least 150 litres. At this point the story becomes hazy. Some accounts say that TWR “forgot” this requirement; I would suggest this unlikely, knowing the people involved. A more likely tale is that the original version of the luggage space was flexible but the ACO intended it to be rigid and as anyone who has disagreed with the ACO can attest they can be really rigid when the mood takes them. All that is clear is that the technical department of the ACO, headed up by Daniel Perdrix had TWR move the exhausts.

Seasoned observers speculated that the affair was the latest chapter in the long-running saga of disagreement between TWR and Alain Bertaut. Mr Bertaut’s title as President of the Stewards of the Meeting did not reveal the extent of his influence in every aspect of Les Vingt-Quatre Heures du Mans. Getting on the wrong side of this all powerful man could have dire consequences for any aspiring competitor at La Sarthe, as TWR and Nissan were about to experience.

The Dog and Pony Show in the Place des Jacobins came and went, teams posed and photographers snapped. Then it was time to hit the track on Wednesday and Thursday to establish the final pecking order. After the fine performance in May, much was expected.

Wednesday brought disappointment though, with the cars lining up 7th, 15th and 17th on the timesheets. Oil on the track, heavy traffic, blah, blah blah… TWR was too good for those sorts of excuses. Perhaps I should have paid more attention to the press release.

R390 GT1 Project Director Kunihiko Kakimoto was optimistic after first qualifying at Le Mans. “Our cars specifications were greatly modified since pre-qualifying and we did not have enough time to test thoroughly. I am convinced that the cars will perform perfectly tomorrow, just as they did in Pre-Qualifying.”

Prophetic words…

Thursday was better, Eric Van de Poele put his R390 on the second row of the grid with a third fastest time of 3:45.324. Four places back were Martin Brundle and the third Nissan was 21st after a troubled second evening. This was not the performance that had been anticipated. The team had slipped by two seconds, whereas the Joest Porsche LMP had improved its time by a similar margin to 3:41.581. The figures did not stack up: something was going seriously wrong.

As the field streamed away from the line to commence the twice round the clock classic it was assumed that things would get better for the race-hardened TWR team. Van de Poele in #22 pushed to the limit during the first two hours, leading the race on lap 14 and running in the top five overall for the first three hours, while matching the pace of the other front runners, the Porsche 911 GT1s and the TWR Joest LMP. Then the problems began.

“The car was running absolutely perfectly and was as fast as many of the lighter prototype cars, which was encouraging. Unfortunately, after I had handed over to Aguri Suzuki, there was a split in the gearbox oil cooler. There is a long way to go and even with these problems I am sure we can finish strongly,” was how Eric Van de Poele saw it.

The news was no better for #21 which suffered a repeat of clutch problems that had afflicted it during the pre-race warm-up session. After a 1 hour 44 minute pit stop to replace the clutch the R390 restarted in 35th place. Within an hour the car was back in the pits to have a faulty gearbox oil cooler replaced.

All the cars were suffering from the same problem. The re-routed engine exhausts were causing the gearbox oil coolers to overheat to the point that the solder on the tanks were melting. This was not a problem that could be sorted out with a quick fix. It was a disaster for Nissan and TWR.

A bit of preventative maintenance meant that #23 mitigated the worst effects of the oil cooler issue and the R390 ran in the top ten until around 1.00 am when the afflictions that had done for the other cars finally prevailed. “I heard a big noise and I knew something was wrong with the gearbox,” said Erik Comas. “It was thought at first only a change of ratios was needed but the whole gearbox was ultimately changed. At the same time the brake discs and pads, as well as a side panel, were all changed.” Two hours later Kagayama took the car back into the race but any challenge from #23 had evaporated. At least they were still running.

During the middle of the #23 pitstop, Auguri Suzuki brought in #22 with “a serious gearbox” problem. Spares were running out and the car was retired to conserve resources for the remaining two R390s.

At 4.24 am Jörg Müller limped back to the pits with accident damage to #21, adding to the transmission woes. He explained later: “I agreed with my engineer that we’d go for a few quick laps to try to make up some time, but I hit the apex on the first chicane and ran over the kerb damaging the underside of the car. The damage in addition to the gearbox cooler problems made it impossible to go on. It has been very frustrating because without the gearbox trouble the cars have run perfectly and have been very fast. We could have been celebrating a good result here.”

What might have been… two Nissans down and the sun was not yet up.

Comas, Kagayama and Hoshino persisted with #23 dragging the car from 24th to an eventual finish of 12th, this despite another gearbox change at 12 noon. The transmission problems made the car hard to drive as Kagayama disclosed: “Second gear is very difficult to select and so I have only been using gears three to six. As the other Nissan cars have retired now we are keener than ever to finish”.

Getting across the finishing line was some small reward for all the hard work of the team. A finish at Le Mans is always a kind of victory, it helps soothe the emotions.

It was left to Kunihiko Kakimoto, to sum up, the race for the team: “I believe we proved the Nissan car’s impressive performance and potential by obtaining the top pre-qualification time. During the race, we encountered difficulties that we had not previously experienced. It is however very encouraging that car 23 could complete the race by overcoming all the difficulties. With the experience we accumulated this year, we believe we will be a strong contender for an outright win at this classic race in 1998.”

So Nissan and TWR would be back in 1998, things could only get better, surely?

A new year brought fresh inspiration to the Nissan and TWR R390 project. The disaster of the 1997 Le Mans race was analysed and the car underwent a transformation. The length of the R390 grew by 13 centimetres, the rear wing was repositioned and the aerodynamics were altered to improve airflow over the rear. Most importantly the transmission was changed. The X-Trac casing was retained but all the internals were now from Nissan themselves. The brakes were also new including an ABS system.

There were three ’98 spec cars and one ’97 chassis entered by Nissan Motorsports. The driver line up also changed with #30 having John Nielsen, Franck Lagorce and late replacement, Michael Krumm; #31 had Jan Lammers, Erik Comas and Andrea Montermini. Nielsen and Lammers were both former winners with TWR and Jaguar. The #32 was an all Japanese affair featuring Aguri Suzuki, Kazuyoshi Hoshino and Masahiko Kagayama returning to La Sarthe to race once again for Nissan. A good balance of speed and experience with no weak links in the team.

The fourth R390 was the ’97 car that Patrese, Van de Poele and Suzuki had led the race with. It had been updated with the new ’98 spec gearbox and bodywork. It was run for Nissan by Nova Engineering and had another all-Japanese crew, Satoshi Motoyama, Masemi Kagayama and Takuya Kurosawa on driving duties.

As in 1997, there was a Pre-Qualifying Weekend held during early May and the three factory cars all got through comfortably enough. The session was reduced to just the Sunday and cars either ran in the morning or afternoon. Damp conditions early on meant that the scramble for positions happened in earnest during the final 30 minutes of the session. When the dust had settled Franck Lagorce in #30 ended up second overall with a time of 3:40:926 and Aguri Suzuki was third, precisely one-hundredth of a second behind him in #33.

In the afternoon session, Erik Comas ended up fifth with 3:40.778 for #31. The real excitement lay with #33 which was out of the race until the last lap of the session when Satoshi Motoyama put in an absolute flyer to squeeze out the Zakspeed Porsche. He was calm about his achievement: “I was radioed from the pits that it was the last lap, which meant I had one final chance to attack, but I tried not to think about it and just did my best.” He had also earned a drive in the race itself.

Once again the teams and drivers lined up for the portrait session in the Place des Jacobins with Nissan getting some very welcome support from the crowd. The question was: Would the R390 be quick enough to stay with the new generation of GT1 cars from Mercedes-Benz, Porsche and Toyota? It was thought that they would be reliable because the work that had been done in the previous 12 months would ensure that there would be no repeat of the horrors of 1997.

The simple answer was no.

Bernd Schneider claimed pole position in his Mercedes-Benz CLK-LM at 3:35.544, a whole 7.8 seconds faster than the 1997 GT1 best. Lagorce in #30 managed a lap of 3:40.649 with Lammers getting down to 3:41.621 in #31, Suzuki 3:42.397 in #32 and Kurosawa bringing the ’97 spec car in at 3:45.293. So the Nissans would line up in 10th, 13th, 14th and 19th. Would that do? Would the reliability card be enough to bring the project the success that it so desperately needed? The answer to that question was different depending on who you asked.

1998 was indeed a year of transition in how manufacturers went racing at Le Mans for 24 hours. Until that point teams would nurse cars along to get to the finish, although of course there had to be a certain amount of speed. Major manufacturer participation in the race had ended in 1993 with the passing of the 3.5-litre Group C cars and for the next four years, the race would be won by private teams, even though there were varying degrees of back door support.

For 1998 there were full-blown factory efforts from Porsche, Mercedes-Benz, Toyota, BMW as well as Nissan, all of whom developed new cars. It was also a time when the quality control practices that had been established in Formula One and World Rally became fully established in endurance racing.

The R390 had improved by around 5 seconds a lap year on year but it had been derived from a street car, however extreme, and that did put certain compromises on ultimate performance. The CLK-LM, 911 GT1 98 and the GT-One were pure racing cars and that would give them a speed margin over the Nissan.

Talking to Allan McNish about this period he said that 1998 was the year that everyone was forced to race flat out right from the beginning of the race; with the pace of the new GT1 cars there was no alternative. There were too many good cars around and in his case the Porsche was relatively easy to drive at the maximum and it was bullet proof.

So tenth place on the grid for Nissan was probably as good a performance as could be expected, behind 2 Mercedes, 2 Porsches and 3 Toyotas and a couple of LMPs. Another way of looking at the massive leap in performance on the previous year was to consider that in 1997 only the top two cars qualified in the 3:40 to 3:45 bracket. For 1998’s race there were 22 in that time zone, with a further 7 in the next category up, 3:35 to 3:40. This was the essential problem that the R390 faced, 1997 levels of speed were just not quick enough.

The race got underway and the Nissan quartet played no part in the early battles for the lead Brundle’s Toyota and Schneider’s Mercedes leading Martini in the BMW and McNish in the Porsche. At the one hour point, the R390s were all on the lead lap and in the top 20.

In the second hour, things began to swing Nissan’s way as on the 19th lap as Bernd Schneider’s CLK-LM stopped just past the pits. A problem with the power steering oil pump meant that the whole engine lubrication system failed and the car was retired on the spot. A few laps later and Jean-Marc Gounon brought the sister Mercedes into the pits suffering from the same terminal condition; two leaders down and out.

Next, it was BMW’s turn to have an embarrassing failure. Both LMPs were withdrawn before the fourth hour with wheel bearing failures predicted: no one wanted to risk a massive accident, so that was another two leaders out.

So now it was the three Toyotas and the two Porsches battling for supremacy. Then the Toyota armada hit problems, Suzuki in #27 had a transmission problem that dropped them down the order as did Helary in #28 who had issues with the brakes as well as the transmission.

At the fourth hour #30 was 4th, #31 5th, #32 9th and #33 11th. This was getting interesting for Nissan.

Into the dark, the #30 kept up the chase but the #31 lost six laps having to replace the front hub carrier. The other two R390s were chugging along, just not able to live with the Porsche/Toyota express. Just before midnight the #29 Toyota had gear cluster problems and the stop to rectify this cost four laps, leaving #30 third, three laps down on the Porsches. Number 31 lost more time when Lammers fell off the track at the Porsche Curves, repairs dropping the car out of the top ten and put it eleven laps down on the leader.

Rain fell on part of the track during the darkness of the early morning, the wet/dry conditions made driving especially difficult on such a long lap. Masemi Kagayama skated off at Porsche Curves, inflicting severe damage on the #33 R390’s left-hand side. Repairs took an hour and a half, pitching the car down to 24th.

Nissan number 30 lost 15 minutes in the night with a fuel pump problem, which promoted #32 to fourth. There were sundry other delays including #32 and #33 colliding in the pit lane, all of which meant that the R390 squad were not in a position to capitalise when the two Porsche 911 GT1 98s hit problems; Müller having a spin, damaging the Porsche’s undertray and McNish’s engine suffering a water leak, costing both cars time in the pits.

Further niggling problems to #30, such as fitting a new rear wing and screwing up the flat bottom dropped the car further down the order. #32 was running fourth, which became third in the final two hours when the surviving Toyota gave up the ghost and the lead to the two Porsches and a podium beckoned for the team.

And so that’s how it turned out, third place and podium finish for the Japanese trio of Aguri Suzuki, Masahiko Kagayama and Kazuyoshi Hoshino. Adding to the sense of relief that Nissan’s management must have felt in getting some sort of reward the other three R390s into 5th, 6th and 10th places.

So much for the good news.

The reality is that this was a disappointing performance from the team. Salvaging a third place was a just reward for all the efforts of TWR, NISMO and Nissan but all would admit that they all had aimed for the top spot on the podium and except for a few hours early in the race in 1997 never looked like getting there. Two weeks after the race a brief press release was issued:

Tokyo … Nissan Motor Co., Ltd. today announced that the company, upon mutual agreement, has decided not to renew its two-year contract with the British engineering firm TWR at the end of July as planned. Under the contract, Nissan jointly developed the Nissan R390GT1 with TWR and participated in the Le Mans 24-Hour race in 1997 and 1998.

Activities under this Le Mans project that have been carried out in the U.K., will be transferred to Nissan Motorsports International Co., Ltd., (NISMO), Nissan’s motorsports arm in August.

The dream was over and this time it was also the end of TWR and Le Mans. Nissan returned to La Sarthe in 1999 with the R391 prototype but a massive accident involving Eric Van de Poele on Wednesday practice meant that only one car started and this retired early on. The R391 did get one more outing defeating the Toyota GT-One in the Fuji 1000 Kilometres later that year.

Away from the tracks, Nissan was facing all manner of financial problems and new boss Carlos Ghosn had no hesitation in stopping a costly racing programme that had only yielded one victory in five years.

The Nissan R390 was an elegant car conceived to win Le Mans under one set of circumstances but failed to keep pace with the developments in the rules and the cars that the likes of Toyota, Mercedes, BMW and Porsche were prepared to make.