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General Manager, Nissan in Europe
Directing Nissan's involvement with the DeltaWing project
Why is Nissan involved with what's an untried and untested experimental racing car?
We are very innovative in our approach to everything we do at Nissan. Whether it's creating a new market segment with cars like Qashqai and Juke or developing the most efficient manufacturing plant in Europe (Nissan Motor Manufacturing UK) it's not done through normal processes. Even our approach to motorsport is innovative. The GT Academy (a programme which takes computer gamers and turns them from virtual to real-life race winners) is about bringing more people into motorsport, and making the sport more accessible. We see much of our own character and spirit in DeltaWing's engineering innovation. It's a great fit.
Why now? Why not wait until the car proves itself?
We are making a bold statement here, and it's one that reflects our growing confidence in Europe. We had a record year in 2011, while globally we handled big problems like the Japanese earthquake and the floods in Thailand significantly better than our rivals. We are right to be confident. Besides, backing a project like this once it's successful is too late. We see something really innovative here and we are prepared to take a calculated risk to help take it to the next step.
What is Nissan's involvement in the project?
We are supplying the engine and concentrating on the downsizing benefits through Direct Injection and Turbo technology. The engine has been developed specifically for Le Mans, but the basic layout and technology is closer to that of a current European road car than any other engine in a prototype racer on the grid at Le Mans. DeltaWing is a test bed for innovation. It's somewhere we can learn, in a very difficult environment, about the technology of downsizing and the responsiveness of turbochargers, for example. In addition, as the project has progressed, we have embedded more and more engineers in the project and will continue to do so. They will learn a huge amount from the lightweight and aerodynamic philosophy of the car. This is the future development route of our road cars and the project will help us speed up our road car development in those areas.
Is Nismo (Nissan's motorsport arm) involved?
NISMO has been involved in the project from the beginning. Its knowledge, gained through Super GT for example, has allowed it to validate the simulation and wind tunnel data. A key member of the Nissan team sent to the US since we got involved in the project is a multiple Super GT championship-winning engineer with NISMO in Japan. You can also expect the learnings from the rapid development of the DeltaWing engine to be used in the forthcoming Nissan Juke Nismo road car line, which shares exactly the same engine architecture.
The gearbox electronics are extremely innovative. The car can run a torque vectoring system, which is unusual on a racecar - normally it's banned but this car is outside rules and regulations so we can use this technology, which is relevant to our road cars (Juke and GT-R have advanced Torque Vectoring systems). By working very closely with them and embedding our engineers in the team, we can learn from them. People talk about moving technologies from F1, but in truth that hasn't happened recently; indeed technology that started on road cars is now in F1 (Hybrid or KERS). However, Nissan sees a number of things on this car that could have a direct application on our road cars.
So it's more than a branding exercise?
A what? Nissan has provided a 1.6 direct Injection Turbo engine that will, hopefully, run for 24 hours at its performance limit in the world's toughest and most famous race. In addition, we are learning what they are doing with aerodynamics, how they are benefiting from the car's light weight, how this new torque vectoring system works. These are all things we can translate into innovations on our road cars. We do also have our Branding on the car.
But if it doesn't work it will be a very public failure.
You've got to gamble, to take a risk or we won't be able to innovate and learn. Innovation hurts sometimes. To use a motorsport analogy; "If you are not going off once in a while, you are not trying hard enough". Look at Audi's Le Mans 24 Hours last year - a multi-million Euro programme, a decade of knowledge, the best drivers. Two cars out by midnight. They had three bullets in the gun. Nissan DeltaWing has one. All it takes is a German dentist in a Porsche turning in on us at the wrong time to end our race. That's the beauty of Le Mans. But, whatever happens, we will learn from it. We will learn more about our DIG technology, about downforce, aerodynamics and about some of the technology in the transmission. We will learn these things whether this car finishes Le Mans or not. In the grand scheme of things, this is a small project but it certainly shows our willingness to take calculated risks.
Does Nissan's involvement with DeltaWing have a life after Le Mans?
Some people are suggesting Le Mans is the end of the story. We see it, potentially, as the start of something much bigger. If it works in the way that the partners envisage it will work, then this is just the start. There are a number of different directions this could take, which I won't elaborate on just now.
An electric racer or one powered by a standard road car engine?
Well, it's certainly light enough for either scenario, perfect perhaps for a one-make series. But I won't be drawn on that just now. The point is there's much more potential to come here.
What will DeltaWing do for motor sport?
We are all looking at way motor racing can become more sustainable, to ensure the sport has a future. But Nissan is also looking at future generations. Thanks to GT Academy, we are getting more young people to participate in the sport, but we know that genuine spectators at motor racing events are getting older: youngsters aren't being engaged by the sport or even, to some degree, by cars. DeltaWing will do that. If you show people a picture of this car, adults will say ‘That'll never work' but kids will say ‘Wow that's fantastic, I want to see it race.' DeltaWing captures the imagination of the younger generation like no other.
Will it succeed?
Oh yes. What I love about this project, is that we are going to prove people wrong. We did it with Qashqai, which people initially saw as a very niche product with limited potential. Now, five years on, every manufacturer now has a direct rival in its range. We're doing it with LEAF: within five years everyone will have an EV in their range. And although everyone at the moment says DeltaWing won't work, in five years time sports cars might just look a bit more like this.
With a number of LMP2 cars on the Le Mans grid running conventional Nissan racing engines, are you sending out a mixed message?
The LMP2 programme is mainly a commercial exercise in which race teams buy Nissan's technology because ours are the best engines out there. But we are very interested in the human side of motor sport, too. One of the things that attracted us to this project were names like Dan Gurney and Don Panoz, people who need no introduction to race fans. Ben Bowlby, too, is a very interesting guy. It's this human side that has brought us closer to two of the LMP2 teams. Greaves Motorsport has a father and son in a car (ex-F1 racer Martin Brundle and son Alex) alongside our inaugural GT Academy winner and is approaching it in a thoroughly professional way, aiming for a win. Signatech Nissan, meanwhile, has an all French line-up including our second GT Academy graduate. Both give us an incredible dynamic. So we will have eyes on all our partners. The Nissan team will certainly be busy, with 12 cars on the grid featuring our technology.
What next for Nissan in motor sport? Formula 1?
No. Our sister brand Infiniti is already there thanks to its involvement with Red Bull and Alliance partner Renault provides the motive power for a number of teams.
There is a global review into our motorsport activity underway just now, and while we are at Le Mans we will have the perfect opportunity to look at the competition in LMP1 and review the new technical regulations due in 2014. If there's an efficiency element brought into the programme that might well interest Nissan a bit more.