Sweet Symphony - 1969 Nissan R382
Nissan’s top level motorsport program had started in earnest with the innovative active aero R381, one of the first Japanese machines to adapt Can Am’s wild FIA Group 7 regulations. The cutting edge machine was hindered only by a lack of time, as its proposed V12 engine failed to materialize before the 1968 race. Because of this Nissan was forced to import Chevrolet V8’s instead in a desperate move to remain competitive.
Luckily the hastily cobbled together car achieved a commanding victory in the battle against Porsche and Toyota. Its biggest advantage was its radical active aerodynamic spoilers, a system partially copied from the groundbreaking Chaparral organization. For 1969 chief engineer Shinichiro Sakurai and his team set out to continue with their innovative double-wing concept. The R381 had proven its worth, so the machine was quietly evolved into a more refined package.
The car’s biggest design changes were in the engine bay. Gone was the crude but effective Chevrolet lump, leaving space for the long awaited GRX-3 6L V12. Compared to the American engine the GRX-3 was light-years ahead. It based its design loosely on the principles of the old GR-8 straight six, featuring dual overhead camshafts, four valves per cylinder and Lucas mechanical fuel injection.
The engine’s hoped maximum output of 600 horsepower was only narrowly missed. At an ear-splitting 7500 rpm, as much as 580 horsepower was on tap. This was 130 more than the R381’s small-block V8 produced. Despite its high revving nature its torque was remarkable too. At 608 nm (448 lb ft) the mechanical monster packed one hell of a punch. A five-speed manual gearbox provided by specialists Hewland ensured those punches were guided in the right direction. Sakurai-san and his team realized the car to keep a low profile to reduce drag, so the V12’s radiator was moved behind the engine. It was mounted relatively high up to prevent the radiator from soaking up too much engine heat from its peculiar position.
Sakurai-san then focused on refining the car aerodynamically. The smooth rounded front end of the R381 was abandoned in favor of a more aggressive, squared -off affair. The new nose incorporated a rudimentary flow-through spoiler to help keep the front tires planted to the tarmac.
Furthermore, ducting for the engine was moved from the sides of the car to right beside the driver, helping to decrease drag even further. Lastly the tail section lost its square profile in favor of a swooping kicked-up design which ended in an integrated rear spoiler. In the process Nissan had produced a completely different machine to its predecessor. Just one trace of R381 remained, the double active spoiler arrangement.
All was going swimmingly with the development of Nissan’s latest gem, until they received devastating news from the European racing scene. Like Sakurai-san in Japan, Europe’s designers had also been closely observing the rise of Can Am and the space age concepts of Chaparral’s Jim Hall. The high wing concept appealed to those active in the mad world of Formula One the most, and soon wild wing designs started appearing on the Grand Prix grids.
Sadly Formula One had misunderstood the concept quite badly. The active design of the Chaparral and Nissan cars required the wings to be mounted to the suspension, which would push the wings up and down as it moved over the road surface. This would allow stability problems to be countered by loading the suspension and tires with downforce. In Formula One the concept worked very differently. Instead of using an active design these wings were mounted as solid pieces.
However, the wings were still mounted directly to the suspension, ensuring an efficient way of loading up the tires with downforce. This adapted concept still worked perfectly, but there was one major drawback. In the hyper-competitive world of F1 everything needed to be as light as possible. Literally every gram counted. As a result the ludicrously high mounted wings were incredibly flimsy, and were suspended on dangerously thin struts.
This obsession for weight savings and an all-around poor understanding of the effect of downforce lead to numerous wing, strut and suspension failures in the 1968 season. The sudden loss of downforce sent cars careening off into the barriers at break-neck speeds, leading to a total FIA-wide band of non-integrated wing designs early in the 1969 season.
Due to the nature of FIA’s ban, all FIA sanctioned classes were forbidden from using add-on wings. This included FIA Group 7, under which regulations Nissan was building its car. The series of events forced Sakurai-san to remove his successful design from the new R382. As a consequence the car lost a ton of downforce and stability.
Sakurai-san and his team tried their best to claw some of it back by making the rear section even steeper and the ducktail spoiler even bigger. The deletion of the active wings also freed up room for a giant airbox feeding into the massive V12 engine. This final iteration of the car weighed just 790 kg (1741 lbs), 46 kg (101 lbs) less than the V8-powered R381 model. With no further surprise regulation changes at hand, the Nissan team began preparations for the 5th Japan Grand Prix at Fuji Speedway.
There they found they opposition hadn’t exactly been asleep either. Arch rivals Toyota had uprated the V8 of their 7 model from 3 to 5L capacity after the failure of 1968. Terrifyingly, the new engine was rumored to produce even more power than Nissan’s V12. Aerodynamically the 7 had also advanced drastically, abandoning its rounded roadster body for a more square and efficient design.
Isuzu had meanwhile taken a page out of Nissan’s book and brought out the R7, powered by a Chevrolet V8. More Chevrolet firepower was found in Lola’s new T160 and McLaren’s M12. Adding insult to injury, Porsche brought over its brand new Le Mans challenger. Driven by Formula One driver Jo Siffert (CH) and works Porsche ace David Piper (GB), a 4.5L short tail 917 showed its face for the first time. The team was supported by a 908/2 and an older 910.
Undeterred by the armada of competitive new machinery, Nissan’s drivers headed out onto the track to claim pole position. For the first time in the history of the race all teams now employed two drivers per car, as the distance had been extended to 514 kilometers (320 miles) from the original 480 kilometers (298 miles).
The orange #20 R382 of Moto Kitano and Tatsu Yokoyama managed to clinch a convincing pole, followed by Motoharu Kurosawa and Yoshikazu Sunako in yellow #21, and Kunimitsu Takahashi and Kenji Tohira in blue #21. For the first time in history Nissan had locked out the top 3 with a car of their own design
The start of the race was a disaster for Nissan. All three R382’s got away terribly, leading to the three Toyota’s and the Porsche 917 to storm ahead. The team was immediately on the back foot and had to make up places quickly to survive. The #3 Toyota and the 917 managed to create a gap, while the #7 Toyota kept all three R382’s behind.
Eventually the Porsche took the lead, and the Toyota’s started dropping back. The R382’s were now on a charge. Lap by lap they reeled in the big Porker. Using a backmarker, Kunimitsu Takahashi blindsided the 917, and took the lead with a brilliant out-breaking maneuver. Motoharu Kurosawa followed soon after, as the #5 Toyota 7 slowed in a pile of smoke. The third R382 of Kitano/Yokoyama lacked to pace to challenge for position, leaving the Toyota’s to pick up the slack again.
In the end the Motoharu Kurosawa and Yoshikazu Sunako scored another dominant victory for Nissan, followed by Kunimitsu Takahashi and Kenji Tohira. Toyota had failed to take the fight to their biggest rivals once again, but could gain some confidence from finishing 3rd, 4th and 5th. The exotic Porsche lost out in the later stages of the race and had to settle for 6th. The result meant Nissan was the first manufacturer to win the race back to back.
The Nissan R382 was the culmination of two long years of hard work. It finally realized the full potential of Shinichiro Sakurai’s engineering prowess. The company had swallowed a bitter pill in 1968 by being forced to run Chevrolet engines, which vindicated the R382’s decisive victory even more.
Sakurai-san had finally seen all the pieces fall in the right places, resulting in a sweet symphony of twelve angry Toyota-beating cylinders. Nissan’s biggest and most feared rivals were left in the dust, and Nissan finally scored a win with a car completely of their own design. For 1970 Nissan and Sakurai-san were eager to repeat the R382’s success, so work started on an even faster R383.