In 1986, Nissan entered the world of prototype racing at the most famous sports car race in the world, the 24 Hours of Le Mans. By the end of the ‘80’s, the brand had established itself as a force to be reckoned with, especially in American racing, but the top step of the podium at Le Mans still evaded them.
Learning from their mistakes during the race in 1990, Nissan continued development of their prototype program and were set to return to Le Mans and dominate in ’91. However, due to later regulation changes the R91CP was disqualified for the race and the team pulled out.
With the demise of Group C racing (IMSA GTP in the US) in 1993 Nissan shifted focus towards GT racing and saw some success at Le Mans at the end of the ‘90’s with its R390 GT1 car. However, following a rules change after the ’98 season the car was deemed illegal and Nissan decided to give prototype racing another go in 1999. For the 67th running of the French classic Nissan debuted a new prototype, the aptly-named R391.
Two cars were set to debut at the race but unfortunately one car would crash out in the first qualifying session and the second would fail to finish due to electrical issues. The victory they so desperately chased was still out of reach and despite an automatic entry in the 2000 24 Hours of Le Mans, Nissan decided that the endeavor simply wasn’t paying off and left prototype racing altogether to focus on their Super GT efforts.
After a ten-year hiatus, Nissan has now returned to prototypes, not as a manufacturer but an engine supplier. With a rules change dictating that all LMP2 class cars in the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup (ILMC) could no longer use bespoke power plants, Nissan saw a great opportunity that needed to be seized. After a few weeks of conversation, between Nissan and French racing team Signature (Signatech) a partnership was formed around the beginning of this year.
As a technical partner Zytek was brought in to build the engine, a VK45DE based off the engine NISMO uses to power Super GT GT-Rs in Japan. Using an ORECA 03 chassis that was piloted to 4th overall at last year’s Le Mans 24, the potential of the venture looked promising. With some loose ends still waiting to be tied off the date for Nissan’s return was slated for the ILMC season opener, the 12 Hours of Sebring, an event Nissan swept from 1989-1991.
In a mere three months the project moved from an idea to finished racing outfit. Piloting duties would be split amongst French drivers Sohiel Ayari and Frank Mailleux who would be joined by Gran Turismo GT Academy winner Lucas Ordonez. Much of the development on the car would happen during the practice sessions leading up to the 12 Hours of Sebring but the newly finished car didn’t disappoint. Amazingly Ayari was able to qualify the car more than three seconds ahead of the rest of the P2 field. In racing terms this is a lifetime and Nissan’s odds for victory couldn’t have looked better.
However, as is common with maiden voyages, the team ran into some problems on the bumpy surfaces of Sebring. An electrical problem with the module responsible for gear changes put the car on the fritz after running flawlessly for the first three hours. When the car finally came from behind the wall the team was twelve laps behind the leading P2 car. Miraculously the team was able to recoup the lead, thanks to a blistering pace and some mishaps by the competition, with four hours remaining. Unfortunately, an hour and half later, lightning struck twice and the car was back in the pits for gearbox maintenance.
The team was able to get the car running again and finished second, ten laps behind the class leader. Granted they didn’t take the top step, but a podium finish in the first outing of a newly-developed car is a huge success. The team certainly learned a few lessons at Sebring that will be remembered moving forward. At the time of writing, Signatech Nissan currently leads the ILMC P2 class in points after the first two rounds moving into the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Anything can happen in a 24 hour race and I wish the team luck at Le Mans — but one thing’s for sure—Nissan’s back where they belong, racing sports car prototypes.