Lone Survivor - 1999 Nissan R391

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In 1995, three years since the demise of the World Sportscar Championship and the popular Group C category, Japanese manufacturer Nissan made its first small steps back into the world endurance arena. The Le Mans effort had started in 1986 when Nissan parted ways with chassis builder March to start its own factory campaign.

During the final years of the Group C era the company had mounted a full scale attack on the famous 24 Hours of Le Mans, with a five car strong effort in 1990. During qualifying Mark Blundell and his 1100 horsepower R90CK even managed to set a lap record on the hardest compound tires, but the coveted win still eluded them.

Mark Blundell and the savage R90CK made history, but failed to win.

Mark Blundell and the savage R90CK made history, but failed to win.

Their return in 1995 had been all about catching up to the competition. Nissan made a tentative attempt at conquering the production based GT1-class with the Skyline LM, but it was made obsolete by wildly liberal interpretations of the rules by Porsche and Mercedes-Benz. The barely street legal purpose built monsters the Germans designed proved to be virtually unbeatable. Nissan tried to beat them at their own game with the similar R390 GT1 in 1997, but was let down by a lack of reliability. 

Before the problems with the car were solved, the battle was over as quickly as it had begun. The insane GT1 homologation specials overpowered even the top level prototypes, seriously upsetting the ACO's class structure and damaging its credibility. Outside Le Mans the relentless Mercedes-Benz domination obliterated the FIA GT Championship. Both factors culminated in the ultimate GT-racers being banned after just two short two years of competition.

The R390 GT1 was a good response to the German menace, but it came too late.

The R390 GT1 was a good response to the German menace, but it came too late.

With the GT1 class down the drain the company had to change course again for 1999. They were left with one of two choices. Like Mercedes-Benz and Toyota, they could opt to simply adapt the R390 GT1 to closed top GTP prototype spec. The other option was to start all over again with an open top LMP chassis. As Nissan felt a clean sheet design held more potential for competitiveness than the failed GT1 special, they opted for the latter.

British firm G-Force Technologies was drafted in to design and build the new chassis. The design team was lead by experienced F1-designer Nigel Stroud alongside Doug Skinner. To further increase their chances, the company partnered up with their long time customer team Courage Compétition. In a trade with Courage, Nissan supplied them with the old VRH35L 3.5L twin turbo V8 as used in the R390. in return, Courage would lend its expertise to aid in the development of the car. Further strengthening the bond, Nissan purchased one of Courage’s C52 chassis to back up the R391 effort at Le Mans.

The naked R391's, Le Mans Pre-Qualifying 1999.

The naked R391's, Le Mans Pre-Qualifying 1999.

With some of the most experienced chassis builders in the business focusing on the new project, Nissan was free to concentrate on the development of a brand new engine. The flatplane turbo VRH35L was running on its lasts legs, tracing its roots back to 1989. To maximize the potential of their new chassis the firm decided to walk a vastly different route. Turbocharging was completely abandoned, with the focus now on large displacement.

Although the VRH35L was an antique in racing terms, its construction had plenty of tasty structural benefits. Nissan decided to capitalize on these features, taking the old mill as the base once again. The engine was stretched out to 5.0L, and featured heavily redesigned heads. Despite its larger capacity, the unit was some 50 kg lighter than the old turbo model at just 120 kg. Dubbed VRH50A, it produced 650 horsepower at 7200rpm, and 618 nm (470 lb ft) of torque at 6000 rpm. The horsepower level was identical to that of the R390, but the torque figure was much lower. Still Nissan was confident the VRH50A was vastly superior to its predecessor.

Nissan's ambitious VRH50A flatplane V8.

Nissan's ambitious VRH50A flatplane V8.

The carbon fiber monocoque chassis delivered by G-Force was suspended on double wishbones all round and featured carbon ceramic brakes. It was then draped in a stunning body, with styling foreshadowing the titanic Audi R8 that would conquer the discipline very soon. The big V8 was mated to a 6-speed sequential transmission built by Nissan Performance Technology Incorporated, the American version of Nismo. Total weight was set at the minimum of 900 kg (1985 lbs), which promised tantalizing performanc

Le Mans Pre-Qualifying 1999.

Le Mans Pre-Qualifying 1999.

For their driver lineup Nissan decided to retain the R390 GT1 team. The #22 car was staffed by former F1-driver Erik Comas (FRA), Satoshi Motoyama (JAP) and Michael Krumm (GER). For #23’s former F1-driver Eric van der Poele (BEL), former F1-driver Aguri Suzuki (JAP) and Masami Kageyama (JAP) would take up the driving duties. The #21 Courage C52-Nissan was driven by Marc Goossens (BEL), Didier Cottaz (FRA) and Fredrik Ekblom (SWE). At Le Mans Pre-Qualifying both cars performed up to Nissan´s standard. The #22 car lead the way in 10th, with the sister car down in 13th.

Nissan's 1999 Le Mans team. Left is the backup Courage C52-Nissan.

Nissan's 1999 Le Mans team. Left is the backup Courage C52-Nissan.

Unfortunately for Nissan, disaster struck in the very first qualifying-session. Eric van der Poele was at the wheel of #23 when the throttle jammed wide open at Tertre Rouge. Van der Poele hit the barriers head-on and experienced a savage impact. The brute force broke a vertebra in his back, and he was quickly transported to hospital. His smashed R391 was damaged beyond repair, forcing Nissan to run just a single car team. Eventually the remaining car managed to qualify in a respectable 12th place on the grid. The Courage C52-Nissan managed 16th.

During the race the R391 showed it was a real contender. It quickly worked its way through the field, running as high as 4th overall. Sadly an electrical gremlin crippled the car after only 110 laps, forcing it to retire. The factory-entered Courage C52-Nissan did manage to survive, scoring an impressive 8th placing. Ironically, Courage Compétition’s own entry beat the works car by two places, coming in 6th. The car was a massive 8 laps ahead of the #21 Nissan Motorsport C52. The race was won by BMW’s V12 LMR, with a Toyota GT-One 2nd and an impressive 3rd for the new Audi R8R.

The lone surviving R391 made a second appearance at the Fuji 1000KM later that year. The event was open to all Le Mans runners, but most factory entries skipped the event. The single exception was domestic arch rival Toyota. Toyota’s GT-One had beaten the R391 at Le Mans, but Fuji was Nissan’s chance to strike back. 

Whoever won  would automatically receive an invitation for the 2000 edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Both teams only entered a single car. In the end the R391 came out on top, beating the GT-One by a single lap. The victory earned Nissan major bragging rights in Japan for a long time

After the surprise success at Fuji, thing looked to be coming together for Nissan´s fledgling project. Sadly the company was experiencing a painful restructuring under new CEO Carlos Ghosn, as a part of the merger between the Japanese company and French manufacturer Renault. Ghosn was looking to cut costs, and the R391 project featured high on his list of possible cancellations.

His cold financial tactics took their toll. Nissan's sportscar program was suspended indefinitely, leaving only JGTC on the motorsport agenda. Four years and three different cars had failed to produce the desired results for Nissan once again. The marque would turn its back to Le Mans for 16 years, before returning with the outrageous front wheel drive GT-R LM Nismo in 2015.

The Nissan R391 was the company's hopeful attempt to finally be one step ahead of the opposition. Going against all tradition, the car was powered by a brand new engine and featured a bespoke chassis. Sadly the car was never allowed the time to properly develop into a reliable contender. Internal politics and a slightly hostile takeover spelled the end for the ambitious machine. 

Nissan's departure was one of many that year. As the LMP class bled out, the door was left wide open for Audi. Without any factory opposition, the stoic Germans proceeded to crush all resistance for the better part of the new decade. One can only wonder what the R391 could have done to fight the Teutonic titan.