An irked Darren Cox has played down the lacklustre start to Nissan's much anticipated return to Le Mans, the motorsport boss insisting the manufacturer's commitment will not be swayed by the struggles experienced with its GT-R LM NISMO.
The Japanese firm returns to premier level sportscar racing at this week's Le Mans 24 Hours with its unusual front-wheel drive, front-engined LMP1 effort. However, despite a headline-grabbing driver line-up and months of testing under its belt, the car qualified more than 20secs off the lead pace during qualifying for this year's race.
With the car's unusual configuration – which causes it to be noticeably slower through corners - identified as the primary reason for its disappointing lap times, Nissan's distinct lack of pace has been brought into sharp focus, particularly against the backdrop of a dedicated marketing effort.
Despite this, Cox is proud of the way Nissan has adopted a different approach with its LMP1 concept and, though the car itself is slow at the moment, he believes the unique way it engages directly with social media and fans generates an important return for the manufacturer – and motorsport as a whole - regardless.
“We've done something different,” he said. “We've got to recognise that the sport is in decline, whether it's Formula One, the World Rally Championship, NASCAR - whatever it is - the numbers are going downwards. One of the reasons for that is people expect now accessibility. Social media, live streaming, people expect openness and I think in a way people are judging us on being open.
“Now, we know that other manufacturers have had their dramas. Everyone remembers the first time Audi came here; two different concepts of car, not sure which way they were going, doors falling off. Last year Porsche had their struggles, but we haven't hidden our problems. So that means everyone thinks that we are the only ones that have any problems, but we're just showing the world that going to win at Le Mans isn't easy, and I think that's great.
“It's bloody difficult, and those blokes up there with the four rings have been doing it for 15 years, they spent $3billion and they are a machine. They will win on Sunday and they will probably be on the podium with all three cars because that's the way they run. This is very, very difficult. So the journalists who are asking why are we doing what we're doing: this is year one of a multiple-year program for Nissan and this is our first baby steps and we will improve going forward.”
Indeed, Cox – in a pointed critique of the media - dismissed the assertion that its much publicised struggles will make Nissan think-twice about its LMP1 programme or its approach to it, insisting it has the resources and intentions to keep developing its concept until it is competitive.
“Those of you that have got doubts about our commitment, I shall take you in to our garage and I shall introduce you to our hundred people that are in our garage, I shall show your our ten spare engines, I shall show you our nine spare sets of bodywork and I shall show you the effort that we are putting in. So please do come and see me afterwards if you don't think this is a serious project.
“Our openness is critical. You don't have to like it if you don't want. You don't have to like us being open to the fans - I'm sure some of the press don't like that there's fans here - but that's the way that the sport will grow in the future, I'm afraid. It won't be by having shut-off press conferences where you can't ask the questions you want to ask. So like us or hate us, this is the future.”
Nissan's three GT-R LM NISMO cars qualified bottom of the full LMP1 field, more than 20secs adrift of the pole-winning Porsche, while the last of its machines was out-paced by the Nissan-engined KCMG Oreca LMP2 car too.