Terrible Twelve - 1991 Nissan P35

In 1984, Japanese automotive giant Nissan entered the world of sportscar racing with a Lola T810 chassis. Nissan had personally requested Lola to design the new car for them, and worked with American firm Electramotive Engineering to develop the VG30ET V6 turbo-engined car into a real IMSA Camel GT Championship contender. Electramotive’s hard work resulted in the mighty GTP ZX-Turbo, a much more aerodynamically efficient derivative of the original Lola design.

Under the direction of experienced designer Toshio Suzuka, Nissan’s IMSA-weapon was constantly improved, tested and then improved again. Thanks to this commitment and perseverance Suzuka and Electramotive saw the GTP ZX-Turbo start to dominate the series. Nissan rewarded Electramotive’s success by incorporating them as an official motorsport arm of the company in 1989. As a result the firm was renamed Nissan Performance Technology Incorporated.

The Nissan GTP ZX-Turbo quickly took charge in IMSA GT.

The Nissan GTP ZX-Turbo quickly took charge in IMSA GT.

While NPTI kept terrorizing the world of IMSA, a storm was brewing on the other side of the pond. IMSA GTP’s counterpart, Group C, had been enjoying unprecedented popularity on the European continent. In fact, the World Sportscar Championship was starting to threaten Formula One as the most popular form of motorsport around.

This development obviously didn’t sit well with the people making money off of F1’s top dog status, including a certain Mr. Bernie Ecclestone. Together with his old friend Max Mosley, now a high ranking FIA official, Ecclestone orchestrated the surprise introduction of a brand new engine formula for Group C. Unsurprisingly, this formula was identical to the one used in Formula One since 1989.

The cheaper Group C2 was banned to force privateers out of the WSC.

The cheaper Group C2 was banned to force privateers out of the WSC.

Since a lot of major manufacturers were building engines for Group C, Ecclestone hoped to force them to build 3.5L naturally aspirated F1-style motors as well. This would lead the auto makers to invest large sums of money into the new engines, and give them a way into Formula One once Group C had collapsed. Bernie was not in the mood to sit around and wait for the WSC to wither and die, so he devised a two-pronged plan of attack.

To bring the wildly popular series to its knees, Ecclestone caused the cancellation of the cheaper Group C2 category for supposedly being too unreliable. With most privateers unable to construct or pay for the incredibly expensive new engines, he knew great numbers of them would drop out. He then pushed for a stupidly illogical race calendar with alternating rounds on both sides of the world, which he knew would drastically increase travel costs. With his dastardly schemes in place, he would watch as the series would slowly bleed out. The plans were to take effect as early as 1990, but protests from major manufacturers postponed the change to the 1991 season.

The record-breaking R90CK was a very different animal to the new car.

The record-breaking R90CK was a very different animal to the new car.

Along with Jaguar, Mercedes-Benz, Peugeot and bitter rivals Toyota, Nissan was one of five major manufacturers ready to take on the new formula. With dominant force Porsche refusing to build a 3.5L Group C machine, Nissan was feeling rather positive. The company remembered NPTI’s massive successes in IMSA, and subsequently gave the task of designing their new 3.5L challenger to Toshio Suzuka.

Suzuka had been working on the older series of cars including the incredibly fast R90CP/CK, but with the new rules in place those turbocharged monsters were now rapidly becoming obsolete. With the drastic rule changes, Toshio Suzuka was forced to incorporate an entirely different design philosophy.

The VRT35 V12

The VRT35 V12

The old VRH35Z twin turbo V8 used in the R90 series could reach figures as high as 1100 horsepower, allowing for an aggressive high downforce setup. For the new rules, Nissan was developing a 3.5L V12, which was projected to deliver only 630 horsepower.

The monumental drop in power meant the new car would have to run a lot less wing to reach similar top speeds. Especially at the car’s main hunting ground, the long straights of Le Mans, it was essential to make the most out of ever single horsepower.

The drop in power called for a much sleeker, more aerodynamic body shape.

The drop in power called for a much sleeker, more aerodynamic body shape.

With this in mind Suzuka started work on a much sleeker machine. Low drag design was the key to success, so he made the cars frontal area as small as was humanly possible. The naturally aspirated engine freed up room normally occupied by turbochargers, intercoolers and their ducting, which made Suzuka’s job that much easier.

As ground effect aerodynamics were still allowed in Group C, the car was able to maintain most of its downforce despite adopting low drag bodywork. Furthermore, the losses incurred were compensated with a more efficient rear diffuser. Like Suzuka’s IMSA designs, the P35 used its hot exhaust gases to activate the ground-effect underwing. This was an early version of what later would be adapted as the “blown diffuser”.

Compared to the brutal sprint-race GTP ZX-Turbo the P35 was a much more elegant machine.

Compared to the brutal sprint-race GTP ZX-Turbo the P35 was a much more elegant machine.

To get the project up to speed and gather essential data, the first two monocoques were constructed of a blend of carbon fiber and aluminium. The screaming V12 was fitted in the middle, and fed its power to the rear wheels through an innovative NPTI 6-speed sequential gearbox. This type of transmission was still a novelty at the time, having been introduced only two years prior by Ferrari in Formula One. The total package adhered to the 750 kg (1653 lbs) minimum weight limit.

During testing at Mid-Ohio, Daytona Speedway, Firebird Raceway and Nissan’s Arizona Test Center, Toshio Suzuka and engineer Trevor Harris were becoming suspicious of the V12 engine’s quoted power figure. Nissan had forbidden NPTI to dyno-test the the unit, and the test results showed just why that was. Through the data received during the sessions, the pair was able to deduce the engine was producing closer to 500 horsepower.

The P35 during testing. Note the low drag wing arrangement.

The P35 during testing. Note the low drag wing arrangement.

The car was breathtakingly beautiful. Handling and braking was just incredible. At Daytona, our top speeds were only around 170 mph, but we were still ding laps in the 1:38 range. The car simply had no power! But in the corners and under braking the P35 was unbelievable!
— Johnny O'Connell.

Over in Japan, Nismo had been working on a local variant of the P35 project. In contrast to the endurance-focused WSC events, the All Japan Sports Prototype Championship featured much shorter sprint events. As a result the Nismo version possessed a shorter wheel base to make it more nimble, and a more powerful version of the VRT35 V12.

In addition the car received minor aerodynamic tweaks intended to generate more downforce. As the NP35 was built after NPTI’s two research chassis, its monocoque was fashioned out of pure carbon fiber. This made the car some 9 kg (20 lbs) lighter, and increased its rigidity. The car was then given to Formula 3000 racer Jeff Krosnoff (CAN), who interestingly had a completely opposite opinion to his friend Johnny O’Connell.

Jeff Krosnoff was a good friend of mine, and he actually did some running in Japan in a ‘35. It’s funny in that, when we compared notes, he didn’t like the chassis but did like the engine, whereas I loved the chassis but not the engine. I am guessing the that the engine and chassis used over in Japan were quite different.
— Johnny O'Connell.
The NP35 next to its predecessor, the R90CP.

The NP35 next to its predecessor, the R90CP.

Unfortunately, a global economic downturn set in motion by a massive stock market crash in 1987 was starting to affect Japan. Through the careless actions of major banks, the Japanese economy had developed an enormous asset price bubble. The banks kept on lending money without checking if anyone could pay it back.

Just as the P35 was reaching completion, the bubble burst. The ensuing financial apocalypse took countless victims, and the P35 project was one of them. Nissan ordered NPTI to ship all P35-related parts back to Japan, and abandon the project.

Mine 500 Kilometers, 1992.

Mine 500 Kilometers, 1992.

Nismo soldiered on regardless, and entered the NP35 into the last round of the 1992 JSPC season. the 500 kilometer event was held at the small Mine Circuit. Driven by Toshio Suzuki and Jeff Krosnoff, the car qualified dead last. Like the WSC, JSPC was already falling apart due to rising costs and the economic recession, which mean the grids were so small the NP35 was still in 11th place.

Along with two Toyota’s TS010 and the lone Mazda MXR-01, the NP35 was one of four 3.5L cars present at Mine. Throughout the race the car suffered from numerous technical issues and a clear lack of pace. Although it did manage to finish it only managed 10th (4th in class) and last place. In an embarrassing showing for Nissan, the car finished 25 laps behind the winning Toyota TS010. After its sole appearance the car was immediately retired and put into storage.

The NP35 at Mine Circuit, 1992.

The NP35 at Mine Circuit, 1992.

Back in the US, NPTI had persevered with a stripped down P35 monocoque complete with suspension, hoping to build a new IMSA GTP car out of it. The car’s radiators were moved from the nose to the sidepods, and the engine bay was being prepared for the venerable GTP turbo V6. Sadly they became a victim of their own success, as the Japanese domination of IMSA had caused many American privateers to walk away. Additionally the economic recession saw interest in the expensive prototypes dry up, and the GTP category was cancelled in 1993.

With nowhere left to race the P35, NPTI abandoned its plans. Ironically the GTP category would outlive the company, as NPTI was dissolved in March 1993. The P35 wasn’t completely gone however, as a band of former NPTI employees converted one of the carbon-aluminium chassis into the X-250. The open-top roadster was rid of its recently outlawed ground effect floor in favor of a flat bottom, and equipped with a 3.4L Ferrari V8.

The Nissan P35 was the Japanese giant’s valiant attempt at building a competitive 3.5L car. Although the company had vast resources and the immense expertise of NPTI and Nismo at its disposal, the car failed to deliver. Plagued by an under-performing engine and general reliability issues, the P35 would likely have joined the rest of the 3.5L fleet in being consistent a non-finisher.

A national economic meltdown robbed it of its chance to further embarrass itself however. As the Japanese economy, the World Sportscar Championship and the All Japan Sports Prototype Championship all crumbled into dust by the end of the year, the P35 project quickly became an obscurity. In the end Bernie Ecclestone’s machinations failed to capture Nissan however, as the company never considered entering his beloved Formula One.