Nissan R390 GT1 is First Produced
The Nissan R390 GT1 was a racing car built for the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1997 and 1998.
It was built to race under the grand tourer style rules, requiring a homologated road version to be built, although unlike the Porsche 911 GT1 road version this was never sold.
After returning to sports car racing in 1995, Nismo (Nissan Motorsport) had some measure of success with their Skyline GT-R LMs which had competed in the GT1 class. However, these cars were quickly outpaced by the influx of new manufacturers who were using loopholes in the GT regulations to build racing cars that bore little resemblance to their GT1 class competitors. This led to such machines as the Mercedes-Benz CLK GTR and Porsche 911 GT1, as well as the development of the McLaren F1 GTR. Nismo's Skyline GT-Rs therefore needed to be replaced with more purpose built machinery.
Turning to Tom Walkinshaw Racing (TWR), Nismo began development of the R390 GT1, named to follow in the tradition started in the 1960s with Nissan's R380. The first decision for Nismo and TWR was the choice of engine. The previous Skyline GT-R LMs had used the trusted RB26DETT Inline-6 motor, but the design was old for a racing car, employing an iron block which added weight. Nismo instead chose to resurrect an engine from the Nissan R89C, a racing car from the Group C era. Its engine, the VRH35Z, was a 3.5L V8 which used an aluminium block, as well as having a lower center of gravity and a better ability to be used as a stressed member over the RB26. Thus the engine was upgraded and designated VRH35L, and would produce approximately 641 hp (478 kW) at 6800 rpm.
The car's styling group was led by Ian Callum, and the mechanical and aerodynamic design lead by Tony Southgate, both of Tom Walkinshaw Racing (TWR). Southgate was the designer of the Jaguar XJR-9 amongst other TWR Sportscars, which had won at Le Mans. Due to this, the R390 GT1 bears a resemblance to the Jaguar XJR-15, which was also developed by TWR and based on the XJR-9 and in fact used a modified version of the XJR15 monocoque. Development of the car was achieved in a small amount of time, especially due to not having to scratch-build an engine. Nismo and TWR also had to build a production version of the R390 GT1 in order to meet production regulations. Only two road-legal R390's were built, with one road car ending up in storage at Nissan's Zama, Kanagawa facility. The other was converted for racing and raced at Le Mans in 1997 as car #22.
For 1998 the R390 was modified, most notably in the extension of its rear bodywork to create increased "luggage space" in order to satisfy the ACO, after all three cars failed scrutineering at the 1997 event and had to be modified in order to be allowed to race. This subsequently lead to over-heating problems for the gearbox, and ultimately their failure during the race. Thus the "long tail" version was created, which boasted increased downforce thanks to the extended rear bodywork.
Completed in time for the 1997 24 Hours of Le Mans, the three black and red R390 GT1s were fast in their first competition, with Martin Brundle taking pole position in May's pre-qualifying with a staggering time of 3.43.15. At the race itself, one R390 GT1 (#22) was able to qualify in 4th on the grid and 2nd in its class behind a Porsche 911 GT1, while its partners qualified 12th (#21) and 21st(#23). During the race both cars were able to perform admirably, but soon began to struggle with gearbox problems and at around halfway through the race two of the three R390s (#21 & #22) finally succumbed to mechanical failure and were withdrawn. The third R390 was able to survive the rest of the race (albeit with two complete gearbox changes along the way) finishing 12th overall and 5th in class, although many laps down from the race winners.
For 1998, Nissan returned, this time with four R390 GT1s. The cars were slightly upgraded, with more downforce able to be generated by a longer rear tail, and a new rear wing placement for less drag. Although Nissan was easily beaten in qualifying by Porsche, and Mercedes-Benz, Nissan was able to achieve considerable success in the race. As an achievement of its own, all four cars were able to finish the race. With this, Nissan was able to finish 3rd, 5th, 6th, and 10th overall, being beaten only by the Porsche 911 GT1.
Following the 1998 24 Hours of Le Mans, rules for the GT classes were changed, mostly to end the amount of manufacturers attempting to use loopholes. This meant Nissan was forced to abandon the R390 as it was no longer legal. Nissan instead turned to the LMP classes, developing the R391 prototype for 1999. This program would also be short lived and Nissan would end up leaving Le Mans.
A total of eight R390 GT1 race chassis were built over the two years of the program.
The fastest and most expensive Nissan road car ever developed was created to comply with the Le Mans GT1 Class regulations which required manufacturers to build at least one street-legal version of the race car.
Unlike many others, Nissan built the road car first and built the racing version from it.
The R390 GT1 design was the work of Ian Callum at Tom Walkinshaw Racing, previously acclaimed as the designer of the Aston Martin DB7. He was recently appointed Chief Designer for Jaguar.
At the front, Mr Callum used headlamps from the 300ZX production sports car and the distinct twin front grilles which gives the R390 GT1 a Nissan family look. The R390 GT1s long-tail carbon fibre shape was honed during extensive scale model wind-tunnel testing in England and full-size testing of the actual vehicle at Nissan Technical Centre in Atsugi, Japan.
Behind the driver sits the heart of this true supercar Nissans VRH35L twin-turbocharged 3.5-litre double-overhead-camshaft V8 engine with electronic sequential port fuel injection which produces 410kW at 6800 rpm while complying with all European market exhaust gas regulations.
Getting that power to the ground from a standing start, out of corners or in damp conditions is a challenge and the R390 GT1 features a launch control system and traction control which, when encountering wheelspin, reduces power by limiting fuel to individual engine cylinders.
R390 GT1 performance as one would expect is staggering and includes a sub-4.0 second zero to 100 km/h time.
Inside are normal road car appliances such as full instrumentation and leather-covered driver and passenger racing seats. The short-throw gear lever for the Xtrac six-speed sequential gearbox and tiny racing steering wheel are reminders of the close alliance between the road car and the vehicle which captured four out of the top-ten spots in the 1998 Le Mans 24-hour race.
Underneath the all-carbon fibre chassis is upper and lower A-arm suspension with coil springs at all four corners, inboard shock absorbers and front and rear anti-roll bars. Braking is handled by huge AP 14-inch vented front and rear disc brakes with six piston calipers and ABS.
The concept behind the creation of the Nissan R390 GT1 was to push reliability and dynamic performance to the absolute limit without compromising the driveability of a street car, explained Mr Yutaka Hagiwara, General Manager of Nissan Motorsports and Planning Centre.
Nissan Australias Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer, Mr Leon Daphne, enthusiastically welcomed the R390 GT1 road car to Australia.
Nissans Chief Executive Officer, Mr Hanawa, has a particular passion for the Le Mans race which does provide an opportunity for Nissans engineers to showcase their talents in producing in collaboration with TWR and NISMO the R390 GT1 road car, Mr Daphne said.
The ultra-rare Nissan 390R was basically a detuned Le Mans racer offered for sale to the public at a hefty $1,000,000. Only two were made and it is unclear whether any of them were actually sold (one currently resides in Nissan's own museum).
Produced in the UK by Jaguar specialists TWR, the R390's Le Mans theme continued in the car's carbon fibre and kevlar construction, sequential gearchange and spartan racecar interior.
Like its contemporaries from Mercedes, Porsche and Chrysler, the Nissan was one of a handful of short run homologation specials designed purely to satisfy entry regulations into GT racing, their functionality as road cars being of secondary concern.