Among the well-timed good news announced in the run-up to this year’s running of its blue riband race, the Le Mans 24 Hours, was the imminent arrival of another manufacturer at the top level of the sport.
Nissan will contest next year’s World Endurance Championship with a new LMP1 car dubbed the GT-R LM NISMO. It will go up against the three manufacturers already racing at the top level of the category: fellow Japanese manufacturer Toyota, and German rivals Audi and Porsche.
WEC suffered a blow at the dawn of the new championship in 2012 when Peugeot scrapped its LMP1 programme, citing economic pressures. But with four manufacturers fielding LMP1 contenders next year, the series compares very favourably with Formula One in terms of manufacturer representation.
McLaren’s impending reunion with Honda next year, joining Ferrari, Mercedes and Renault will restore F1’s tally of engine manufacturers to the four it had in 2013. But the fact remains F1’s much-vaunted new engine rules package was intended to retain existing manufacturers and bring new ones into the sport.
With the loss of independent manufacturer Cosworth and arrival of Honda, it can be considered a qualified success at best. And Honda are also designing an LMP1 engine. Clearly the WEC holds greater appeal for car manufacturers at present. Why is that?
Nissan’s global head of marketing Darren Cox gave a view on that when Nissan’s LMP1 programme was announced: “What the ACO and the FIA have done in developing the new regulations for LMP1 is to create something that is both technologically innovative and provides a key platform for manufacturers like Nissan to talk about subjects like fuel efficiency in an exciting way.”
“In terms of timing, the new LMP1 rules for factory entries is perfect for us,” he added. “The new focus on energy efficiency for 2014 and beyond means the engineering challenges have real relevance to the challenges our engineers face on our road car projects.”
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Executive vice-president Andy Palmer said it’s important to Nissan that they can distinguish themselves from other manufacturers. “We want to win in a very different way to that of our rivals,” he said.
“We won’t be turning up in a vehicle which is a basically another hybrid that looks like another Porsche, Audi or Toyota – they all look the same to me – our intention is to do something that is a little bit different.”
Regardless of how similar the other LMP1 cars look, under the skin they are very different. Toyota’s TS040 has a 3.7-litre normally aspirated V8 engine, the Audi R18 E-tron Quattro a V6 turbodiesel, and Porsche surprisingly opted for a four-cylinder engine in their 919 Hybrid.
All, of course, feature varying configurations of energy recovery and hybrid propulsion. Grand prix cars also have this technology, but the Formula One rules limit manufacturers to using petrol V6 turbos and energy recovery systems of restricted specifications. This appears to be a turn-off for manufacturers who want a greater degree of technical freedom.
Nissan already supply engines to most of the LMP2 competitors, and are preparing for their top-level WEC return by participating in this year’s Le Mans 24 Hours with a highly unusual car built for the ‘Garage 56′ category, for entries which do not conform to the standard rulebook. The ZEOD RC, which clearly owes a lot to the Nissan-powered DeltaWing which raced two years ago, uses a tiny 1.5-litre petrol engines and is designed to run for one lap per stint entirely on electric power.
Some might have assumed Nissan was never going to enter F1 because of its strategic alliance with Renault, who are already competing there. But Volkswagen Group is happy to have both Audi and Porsche racing against each other in the WEC.
Porsche is making its return to Le Mans this year having considered a grand prix effort but turned it down. F1, in their view, is not sufficiently relevant to road car design, with too great an emphasis on aerodynamics.
Of course there are reasons to favour the WEC over F1 that don’t look quite as good on a press release. In recent months the words ‘Formula One’ have too often appeared in the headlines alongside ‘Bernie Ecclestone’, ‘bribe’ and ‘trial’. That’s not the kind of publicity which will entice the board of a car manufacturer sign off on a multi-million dollar racing programme.
The WEC also offers manufactures more testing opportunities than in F1, with up to ten days of private circuit running permitted. And the WEC’s complicated ‘Equivalence of Performance’ rules reduce the chances of a competitor struggling to compete because they opted for the ‘wrong’ technology.
Manufacturer entrants are a mixed blessing in motor sport. They bring enormous investment and generate publicity, but just as easily they can cancel their plans and leave promoters with rapidly diminishing grids – the very situation F1 found itself in at the end of 2009.
But as more and more manufacturers who left F1 then have returned to compete in other championship, the success of the WEC in particular is food for thought for those running F1. At a time when car manufacturers are exploring diverse solutions to the challenges of environmentally-friendly motoring, F1’s restrictive rulebook appears to be holding it back.
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