2 August 2015
Max Yamabiko: Counting the cost of Nissan's gamble
Nissan may have called its Le Mans effort a 'success', but behind-the-scenes some serious re-evaluations are taking place... Max Yamabiko discusses why.
As the WEC teams reunited this week for a group test at the Nurburgring one of their number was missing, Nissan. Following the teams very poor performance it returned to it base in Indianapolis, USA to rethink its approach to LMP1.
Le Mans forced some very tough realisations for Ben Bowlby and his team about a number of elements of its Nissan GT-R LM and the reasons its struggled so badly in its debut race. Many have criticised the concept of the car, misunderstanding the fact that it was not meant to be front wheel drive only, it was meant to have four wheel drive for at least part of the lap at Le Mans, but the hybrid system on the car simply did not work. The loss at Le Mans has been equated to being about seven seconds, but I personally think it was a lot more than that because of the issues that resulted from it.
I have heard contradictory suggestions from both Japanese NISMO engineers involved in the project and a friend of mine at Torotrak about why the system did not work and I don't know enough to be able to place blame. It is clear that this failure though was the root of many of Nissans problems at Le Mans, but certainly not all of them. Not having a functional hybrid system impacted the tyres the car used, the brake performance and the rate of acceleration. The effort spent trying to make it work set back the testing programme substantially too.
For 2016, or maybe even by late 2015, the GT-R LM will be fitted with a new hybrid system. I understand this will be a battery electric design rather than the mechanical solution first employed on the car. This layout will see the battery mounted in the same location as a huge unit from Torotrak, but electric motors will be fitted to power the rear wheels and probably the front, in an arrangement not that different to the Toyota TS040 Hybrid.
The GT-R LM was designed to have driven the rear wheels via a gigantic shaft running through the centre of the car, something which must have had not only a weight penalty but also a centre of gravity penalty. With an electric system this would not be required, as the electric motor could be mounted at the rear of the chassis. This of course would move weight distribution slightly rearward but that is something that could be resolved elsewhere in the car.
The front motor would in my opinion, looking at the already cramped engine bay of the GT-R LM, have to be mounted either directly to the crankshaft at the chassis end of the engine, or somehow integrated into the bell housing but cooling could be an issue.
Indeed the layout of the front end of the Nissan is one of the biggest issues of all… frankly, it is just a mess! I felt so sorry watching the mechanics working on it at Le Mans. It could all be packaged so much more neatly, which would not only improve performance but also reliability. The fit and finish of some parts was exceptionally poor, even bodywork parts like the exhaust heat shields did not appear to fit properly.
This messy layout of the car resulted in it being significantly overweight at Le Mans, something that needs attention, and I think some of this may come from the detail design of the composite structures on the car. Dan Gurney's AAR organisation manufactures the chassis and other carbon fibre parts at its facility in the USA, which spends most of its time working on secret military projects, but it lacks cutting edge motorsports know how.
European companies (or Toray in Japan) have great experience of optimising carbon fibre chassis to save weight while either maintaining or even increasing stiffness. This reduces the chassis weight by as much as 5-10kg and improve performance, but I don't think that AAR has the level of competition car chassis construction to be able to do this. If I was running the GT-R LM project I would have the composites work done in either Europe or Japan as I feel the standard would be better.
Geography is another issue with the team in general. For some unknown reason the Nissan team decided to base itself in Indianapolis, a city which is not well connected internationally. At some times of year the area is hard to access due to heavy snow, and many European staff dislike working there. With many significant parts of the car made in England, including the engine, gearbox, electronics and hybrid system it would make a lot more sense to base the car closer to where support is more readily available. This is also the reason that Nissan is sitting out the WEC test at the Nurburgring, opting instead to test at COTA (still a vast distance from Indianapolis).
The handling and suspension of the car have also been an issue but I have heard that these will be heavily modified in time for the Nurburgring 6 Hours later this month.
Nissan continues to push the party line that Le Mans was a 'success', but this is strictly from a marketing point of view, where its social media push and audience integration certainly did impress… but this was strictly off the track. On track, it couldn't have been more different.
Overall though it seems to me that the GT-R LM is a decent concept, and I think it did prove that at Le Mans, but the detail work on the car is really poor. I think it needs a new chassis, new hybrid system and perhaps a new team structure, and with that done I think Nissan will have a relatively competitive car able to match at least Toyota, if not the two German brands.
Max Yamabiko will bring you a closer look at the technical side of F1 and motorsport in 2015, from the latest developments and solutions employed to keep you ahead of the game
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