FEB 06th 2015

Thank Frankel it's Friday: Nismo's Le Mans challenger and other 24‑hour oddities

There is nothing, repeat nothing, I don’t like about the new Nissan GT-R LM Nismo Le Mans car. In the ugliest era of Le Mans cars to date, I love the way it looks. It’s not pretty but at least I doesn’t look like it’s run into a wall. I love the fact it can deploy up to 1250bhp and I wonder where that places it on the scale of the most powerful cars ever to race? It is surely a record at Le Mans and in all sports car racing (eclipsing even the 1100bhp Porsche 917/30 Can-Am car) but what about F1? You used to hear dizzying figures from the 1980s turbo era, but did a car ever actually race, rather than qualify, with more than 1250bhp? I rather doubt it.


But most of all I love its boldness and the fact that I simply don’t understand why it’s been designed that way. In all logic, the idea of a front-engined, front-drive racing car with 1250bhp seems as sensible as a rhinoceros with ice-skates. But logic there must be, first because its British designer Ben Bowlby is anything other than an idiot and second because Nissan signed it off. This a company with massive unfinished business at Le Mans and a keen desire to beat Toyota to become only the second Japanese team to win the 24 hours. It is not, you would have thought, going to back a white elephant.

This is what is so fabulous about sports car racing. F1 is so regulated that almost all of each car comes effectively pre-designed, but at Le Mans you can put your engine where you like, fill it with petrol or diesel, drive the front, back or all four wheels, have a hybrid system with batteries (Porsche), super-capacitors (Toyota) or a flywheel (Audi), or no flywheel at all. It is an engineer’s formula that has, over time, created some of the most interesting, eclectic and just plain bonkers racing cars ever created. Here are some of my favourites.

1. 2012 Nissan Deltawing
Ben Bowlby’s ‘here’s one I did earlier’ Le Mans car that looked more like a Land Speed Record breaker than a racing car. Designed for make up what it lacked in raw power with light weight and phenomenally low drag, it occupied the Garage 56 slot at Le Mans for technically ineligible cars and was doing well before being nerfed into a wall by a passing Toyota prototype.


2. 1979 Dome Zero RL
Over the years, many manufacturers have recognised that Le Mans is a track like no other and that designing a car specifically to do well there rather than anywhere else should make sense. In theory. The Dome Zero RL was another extreme aerodynamic solution to the unique high-speed nature of Le Mans and, like the Deltawing, featured an uncommonly narrow front track. However despite a strong line-up of British drivers, it was neither sufficiently quick nor reliable to realise its aims. Still, it did look mad, which was something.


3. 1997 Panoz Esperante GTR-1
Nissan is not the only manufacturer of the modern era to consider that placing the engine ahead of the driver is the way to go for a Le Mans car. Don Panoz did too, or at least he insisted it was designed that way to make a connection between it and his otherwise unrelated Esperante road car. And it might have worked had the car been equipped with an engine worthy of its Reynard chassis. In the event its Ford 6.0-litre V8 lacked power, and both deafened and overheated its drivers.


4. 1963 Rover-BRM
People have been putting gas turbines into racing cars for almost as long as there have been gas turbines and to date without very much success. The Rover-BRM was actually one of the better efforts and finished in the equivalent of 8th place at Le Mans in 1963, although it was technically ineligible so was excluded from the results. In 1965, with BRM factory drivers Jackie Stewart and Graham Hill providing about as good a line up was possible at the time, the car was allowed to compete in the prototype class and despite various issues, wound up a creditable 10th overall.


5. 1955 Nardi Bisiluro
Another homage to the aerodynamic requirements of La Sarthe and quite possibly the maddest of all. The idea was inspired: create the automotive equivalent of a catamaran, put the driver in one boom and the engine in the other. Result? A microscopic frontal area and probably one of the most low drag shapes ever to race at Le Mans. Sadly all the aerodynamic efficiency in the world isn’t going help much if the car is not directionally stable which is why, that very same year, Jaguar put large stabilising find on its D-type. Which is just one of very many reasons the D-type won the race that year and the Bisiluro was, quite literally, blown off the track and into retirement. By a passing D-type as it happens.


6. 1950 Cadillac Le Monstre
It stands to reason that cars shaped by the wind, that most natural and elemental of forces, should be beautiful. And if ever there were an exception that proved the rule, this Caddy is it, a car so shockingly ugly it makes even modern Le Mans prototypes look positively cute. It was the work of the American Briggs Cunningham, who entered two cars that had both started life as Cadillac Coupé de Villes. One was left very standard, the other equipped with a body painstakingly designed in a wind tunnel and so hideous the French called it Le Monstre. Both cars finished but with the standard car in 10th place, one ahead of the Monster which had been held back after being ditched in a sandbank and, if the story is to be believed, Cunningham sprinting across the track for the traditional Le Mans start only to find its doors were locked.


There are plenty more wild, wacky and wonderful race cars that have ventured out at Le Mans though ominously I can think of just one thing they all have in common: to date not one of them has come close to winning the race. Let’s hope for Nissan’s sake that the GT-R LM Nismo is the car that finally proves that fortune really does favour the brave.

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