Monday 18th June 2012


DELTAWINGING IT WITH NISSAN AT LE MANS

Was Nissan the real winner at this year's Le Mans? We get the inside line on Nissan's experimental racer


Yep, I've been at another 24-hour race with Nissan - but you've got to admit that the company had one of the most interesting stories to tell at this year's Le Mans. 'Just how long will the DeltaWing actually last?' was the question on everybody's lips at the start. And by the time it was over, the car had captured not only the imagination but also the majority of hearts.

Nissan-engined cab didn't quite make it
Nissan-engined cab didn't quite make it
No black cabs were terminally injured in the creation of this feature...
In typical press junket fashion, getting to Le Mans wasn't simply a case of hopping into a car, blasting the Autoroute and then logging onto the Nissan media hub wifi. We actually set off on Thursday from the Folkestone Premier Inn in a convoy of brand new/modern classic Nissan performance machinery. And a black cab.

The Micra 350SR - the one with the 350Z engine in the boot - was due to head this outward-bound cavalcade. But thanks to a mix-up with its ignition system it wouldn't start. The black cab, meanwhile, was of Nissan-engine vintage - hence the connection. Nissan's UK PR operation bought it two weeks ago, and the mileage is supposedly close to a million. Which only makes it more of a shame that it blew up while I was driving...

Moving swiftly on.

Over the course of the day I also drove - but didn't explode - a base-model 370Z (the 313hp 3.7-litre alternative to the GT86/BRZ), and then a regular 2012 GT-R back-to-back with the Track Pack. Can't split the two for raw speed, but the Track Pack is certainly livelier over challenging surfaces. Louder, too. Perhaps due to the lack of rear seat insulation.

DeltaWing rep literally stopped traffic...
DeltaWing rep literally stopped traffic...
If these guys are Batman, does that mean the French police are Robbin'...?
At our overnight in Chartres, custom car mad man Andy Saunders joined us for dinner. Which meant that the road-going DeltaWing replica he'd been building for Top Gear magazine was complete. Finished in just five weeks, when this emerged from the underground car park the next morning it literally stopped the traffic.

Andy and mechanic mate Jim Chalmers then drove their DeltaWing the remaining miles to Le Mans in procession with a pair Qashqais and an NV200 van sporting DeltaWing-esque adornments, and crammed full of competition-winning Nissan staff dressed as Batman. The police stopped it twice, but the Westfield-based 'Wing only broke down once, and didn't caused any eye-popped onlookers to have actual accidents. Though it was apparently close on occasion.

My final steed for the journey was a wonderfully unmolested 22,000-mile R34 Skyline GT-R. Strange how retro this car feels by modern standards. A lovely, lovely tool - and a crowd-pleasing success. A prelude to the fans' exceptional reception to the real DeltaWing's on-track experiment.

...as did its entourage
...as did its entourage
Warning: incoming irony hammer
Nissan's Friday afternoon press briefing revealed that the real DeltaWing's drivers don't know how it goes round corners either.

Beyond that and the total lack of conventional reference points for refining the set-up (you can't exactly add more wing when the only one is the car itself...), Franchitti and Krumm were clearly relaxed and very happy to be involved. No doubting Motoyama's commitment either - as we were to shortly find out - but he missed the briefing trying to shake off a cold.

Nissan was massively downplaying the DeltaWing's chances of survival, however. Nissan Europe General Manager Darren Cox and others even suggesting two hours of running would be counted as a success. Not because of the radical design, but because the project was just 100 days old, and only 10 of these had involved any testing.

R34 seemed positively conventional
R34 seemed positively conventional
Hard to say whether this makes the attack of the irony hammer any better or worse when it came to the race.

Michael Krumm drove the first stint, and struck problems almost immediately. With suddenly rising engine temperatures it looked like the tiny 1.6-litre turbo was about to embarrass itself, then a TV close-up exposed a plastic bag stuck in the air intake, quickly resolved. Trouble with a gearbox actuator was trickier and much more time-consuming - 12 laps lost by one of the DeltaWing's few off-the-shelf parts.

But with this sorted the car began to work properly. Tyre wear was as low as anticipated, nothing else was going wrong and by around the six-hour markthe team was apparently beginning to believe it might make the finish.

Then the DeltaWing was punted off the track by a front-running Toyota.

DeltaWing was running strongly
DeltaWing was running strongly
A heroic passing:
That this came after a lengthy safety car period necessitated by a massive crash involving the other front-running Toyota didn't make it any better for anybody. Satoshi Motoyama was on his second stint in the DeltaWing, and spent an hour and a half trying in vain to get it going again, as the team looked on helpless though the catch-fencing.

Unfortunately, with busted driveshafts and steering damage the attempt eventually had to be abandoned. It left chief tester Marino Franchitti without the opportunity to drive the DeltaWing in anger - and he most certainly was angry at that point - while the Toyota was also forced to retire due to the impact. On Sunday, driver Kazuki Nakajima would come to the DeltaWing pit in person to apologise.

Until a run-in with a Toyota ended it
Until a run-in with a Toyota ended it
All of which also handed victory to Audi. With still about two-thirds of the race left.

Obviously the DeltaWing was never about challenging for overall glory; running beyond the rules it was unclassified anyway. But as an exercise in grabbing attention grabbing - not just for Nissan but all of sports car racing - its innovation has been an unmitigated success. You can see that in the reaction following its demise.

Author: cjhubbard