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The GT-R's lord of the 'ring domination didn't quite work out as planned in 2011...
One of the untold stories of 2011 was the Nissan 'ring record that never was. Back in September we were invited to a top-secret test session at the Nordschleife with legendary test driver Toshio Suzuki and Kazutoshi Mizuno, the eccentric godfather of the GT-R project. The plan was to set a new 'ring time for the updated 2012 GT-R. Except that it didn't really turn out that way. Here's the story of an extraordinary day.
Is my car ready yet?
It's early morning in the old pitlane at the Nordschleife. It could be just another manufacturer test day, but for an army of Japanese technicians wearing anxious faces. Ever since the R33 Skyline GT-R V-Spec became the first production car to lap the 'ring in under eight minutes in 1996, this place has been central to GT-R folklore. Nissan was the first company to properly exploit the marketing potential of the 'ring lap time and now every new supercar must prove its manhood by setting a lap faster than the last.
Warm-up act In a couple of hours time ace test driver Toshio Suzuki will strap himself into the 2012 GT-R and attempt a hot lap. But first, they're letting me have a go. I'm ushered into the driving seat beside a local 'ring expert, whose job it is to make sure I know my Bergwerks from my Karussells. He must have giant gonads - there's no way I'd sit next to me in a GT-R on an empty Nordschleife.
So I take the Karusell flat, right?
The day's so top secret that I don't even know what I'm driving. Mizuno-san will admit only that's got more power, more torque, a stiffer body and new, asymmetrical suspension that's designed to counter the imbalanced weight distribution of right-hand drive cars. He reckons it's now good for 0-62mph in under three seconds, so I'm guessing it's got an extra twenty ponies and some electronic tweaks to the launch control. When the stats are finally announced in November, Nissan claims 550hp, up 20bhp, and 0-60mph in 2.7 seconds.
When the R35 was originally introduced in 2007 it was criticised for being too anodyne. It was as if the Japanese passion for electronics had subsumed the role of the driver. Stung by the criticism, Mizuno-san has evolved the car to reveal its soul. "It is very important that a supersport should be challenging to drive," he says. "There should be communication between the car and the driver."
GT-R is heavy but hides it well
Heavyweight contender The results of these changes can be felt within the first few corners. At 1,750kg, the GT-R is still too porky, but no car is better at hiding its mass. This is a supercar with the bulk of a Klitschko and the agility of Pacquiao. The 2012 car's more nimble than ever and the steering has a crisp certainty that makes it easy to place, which is just as well when you're passing through the Flugplatz on the high side of 130mph.
Most road cars feel soft around here, but the GT-R offers effective resistance to roll. Suzuki-san reckons it's "important to concentrate on balancing the car on all four tyres," and it's easy to see what he means. You should never forget that momentum is the product of mass and velocity. If you want to go quickly, you must cajole this car.
Mizuno-san is just a tad obsessive
Through Kallenhard the tyres chirrup as they're asked to work and if you push too hard there's a predictable transition to understeer, but it's well signposted. Recent tweaks really have improved the "communication between the car and the driver," but that's not to say the Nissan's revealed a darker side. Few cars this big and this rapid inspire such confidence. A Porsche 911 GT3 sounds better and feels more heroic, but you'd be sweating hard to keep up with the GT-R.
Nine (and a bit) tenths Suzuki-san has completed over 1,300 laps of the Ring but reckons he never drives beyond 98 per cent of his ability, holding something back in the interests of self-preservation. Porsche legend Walter Rohrl commits to 95 per cent. "Standard cars are getting so fast that it's getting quite dangerous," Rohrl told me recently. "In a 911 GT2 RS you're doing almost 200mph at Tiergarten. If you crashed there you'd end up in the Dorint hotel." In the GT-R I hit over 180mph in the same spot as the wind whips up a cacophony. The Nissan's impressively stable, but you're aware of the inertia.
Specs not revealed at time of drive
I hang a right and slide back into the pits. The technicians are still working on the record car, which is rigged with timing kit. It remains one of the vagaries of the 'ring that these tests aren't independently verified. There's no clipboard-wielding Norris McWhirter to stop Nissan turning up the boost. "If someone wants to cheat, they can," says Dirk Schoysman, http://www.pistonheads.com/ferrari/default.asp?storyId=20944 who set the GT-R Ring time back in '96, "but it's a matter of honour. Sooner or later the media will try and match it and if they can't get close, people will be suspicious."
Game over Mizuno-san is adamant he's "testing the car for the customer, not for company pride," and takes the whole thing super seriously. So much so that in perfect weather conditions and with the cameras set to record his moment of triumph, he cancels the attempt.
Tyre indecision cancels record run
"I cannot decide on the final specification of the tyres," he says. "If we change them in the future, the record run will not be accurate." So that's it. We have lunch, pack up and say goodbye. Our top secret mission has ended in inglorious failure. The next chapter of 'GT-R versus the 'ring' will just have to wait.
Footnote: The 2012 GT-R was eventually unveiled in November on Dunlop Sports Max GT 600 DSST CTT tyres. Mizuno-san and his team are yet to return to the Nordschleife to establish a new Ring time.