Chicago Auto Show: Hooniverse chats with Nismo's Darren Cox

When Nissan announced and revealed their GT-R LM Nismo car that will run at Le Mans, the idea was radically different: a front-engined, front-wheel-drive beast in the LMP1 class where the competitors all run mid-engine, all-wheel-drive cars. The unique design was not unexpected from Nissan if you’ve paid attention to their recent Le Mans efforts with radical designs like the DeltaWing in 2011 and the ZEOD in 2014. The man behind those designs is the brilliant Ben Bowlby and the man standing behind Bowlby for the duration has been Darren Cox,Head of Nisamo Global Brand Sales and Marketing, who also created and has championed the vastly successful Nissan GT Academy.
We caught up with Cox just after the GT-R LM’s unveiling at the Chicago Auto Show last week and managed to crowbar our way into the massive queue for his time. As the face of the program, Cox has approached the public launch of the program with uncharacteristic honesty and forthrightness in a motorsports landscape dominated by secretive designs from his competitors. He’s an amiable man, patient with the buzzing media circus and he nearly answered all of our questions for him.

Hooniverse: Part of what seems to have been the platform for GT Academy was to eventually take the drivers to Le Mans. How long has the LMP1 car been in the plans?
Darren Cox: We started design studies at the back end of 2013 and, like anything, most of the car’s been designed in the digital world with CFD [Author’s note: computational fluid dynamics]. We’ve been to the wind tunnel once; everyone else thinks we’re crazy. We believe with closed-wheel cars that CFD is very close now to reality and basically, we took the car to the wind tunnel to verify CFD results and no more.
We’re doing some aero testing with straight-line running, but yeah. [We’ve collected] a huge amount of data. In terms of the changes of design using the CFD, we must hold some record because all of our design has been done in CFD and everything’s been tweaked. We hope we’ve got our numbers right; we’ll find out in June. Everyone else thinks they’ve got their numbers right. That’s the beauty of motor racing.
HV: There’s a lot of DNA from the DeltaWing and the ZEOD [in the GT-R LM]. Can you talk about Ben Bowlby and how he’s shaped Nissan’s Le Mans proram?
DC: Those programs, in essence, were about weight distribution and aerodynamics. If you look at the current rules of any motorsport, people have been trying to slow racing cars down for 50 years. How do you do that? You restrict the engines, you restrict the tires, you restrict the aerodynamics, or all three. And with Le Mans rules, actually, the rear of the car is actually difficult to innovate. They’ve done that because mostly that’s where you usually generate the most downforce. Why? Because that’s where the weight is.
If you look at the Audi, that was a rear-engine car. It’s moved the engine further and further forward toward the tub and it’s now a mid-engine car. You look at the Porsche and they have the V4 for two reasons: They can tuck it behind the tub and they can use the weight they save in the hybrid system.
If you start with a blank sheet of paper, you say, “Well, actually the rules allow you to do more with the front aero, but that means you have to put the weight further forward.” Do you then need a big propshaft going through the car? Maybe not, maybe you can run the front wheels.
Someone [Author’s note: Mike Fuller from Mulsanne’s Corner] called it a “join-the-dots” car and that’s what it is. It’s very simple where the philosophy’s come from. It’s basically balancing the weight distribution of the car versus the center of pressure of the aerodynamics.
And that’s what ZEOD and DeltaWing were all about. Messing with physics, basically. Someone said about Ben Bowlby, “Maybe he’s a witch” because of the physics of it. People said about the ZEOD, “How can the thing turn corners with such narrow tires on the front?” Well, the amount of weight is right for the size of the tires. It’s the same here.
HV: What’s been the feedback from drivers in terms of how it drives compared to other things they’ve driven?
DC: If you’ve read on the Internet, it has massive understeer and no traction.
But the drivers—the facts are—it’s different from what they’ve driven. It’ll be a different driving style. We’ve been running a lot of straight-line running over the last weekend and the car is very stable in a straight line. The traction is good, but we have a huge amount to do on the tire development. That’s our big deal, at the moment: tire development. Obviously, we have to have good traction control systems because of the front-wheel drive, but the drivers love the stability of the car and it’s very tunable.
We ran in the wet and in horrible conditions and the drivers were saying, “If this was a rear-wheel-drive car, we wouldn’t have run.” Because it’s front-wheel drive, you’re not spinning from the rear all the time, you’re dragging yourself around. If it rains at Le Mans…we’ll be doing a rain dance, let’s put it that way.
HV: This car is very aero-dependent, almost entirely aero-dependent…
DC: Every racecar in the world is aero-dependent. It’s funny to hear Adrian Newey saying he thinks Formula 1 has become an engine formula and that’s terrible. Well, it’s been an aero formula for the last 20 years. Well, maybe not 20 years, but certainly five years.
So of course you have to get your aero right and at Le Mans, it’s about that perfect balance of L over D. [Author’s note: Lift-to-drag ratio]. We think that we have a low-drag car and that’s going to hurt us at [the World Endurance Championship opener] Silverstone because we’re going to run the Le Mans aero packaage. So we’re not going to be on the pace at Silverstone.The old Silverstone, we would have been; the new wiggly one, we won’t. Spa, we’ll be OK because of the longer straights and then Le Mans, we’ll see. After Le Mans, we’ll have an update on the pack for high downforce.
HV: So how susceptible to damage is it, especially on the rear of the corner where the air all exits out?
DC: I would say—you’re going to find it strange the way I’m going to answer that question—now is the most difficult time ever to come to Le Mans as a manufacturer. Technically, we should be qualifying ninth; there are eight other works cars out there that have got a lot more experience and have spent more money than we have up to this point.
Back in the day—maybe three or four years ago—Audi could have a shunt, lose two laps and—they’re up against two Peugeots or two Toyotas—they could crawl back. So their car is repairable; they made it repairable.
Now, if you have a puncture or you have a shunt or you have an electrical problem, you’re out of the race. I truly believe that the car that will win the race for the next few years while we have four works teams will not go in the garage nor will a puncture or even a glance against another car. If you have 11 cars, one of them is going to get to the end of the race without shunting. So yes, we want the car to be repairable, but it’s less of an issue now.
You just can’t have a crash and the drivers we’ve chosen, if you look at them, are guys who don’t shunt. We can’t afford to crash, we can’t afford to have a puncture, we can’t afford to have an electrical failure. You’re out of the race or you’re fighting for sixth at that point.
HV: This program is based in the United States. What was the rationale behind not basing it in Europe where the other [LMP1] teams are?
DC: Exactly the point. Why do what everyone else is doing?
No, we’re on a short timeframe. We knew we’d need to do a lot of testing. Where does everyone test in the winter? Audi historically have been testing in the U.S., using Sebring a lot. The weather in Europe at the moment is not great; the weather in Japan is not great over the winter. In terms of testing, that was that.
Secondly, the supply chain in Europe is always very difficult over the winter because of Formula One and because of Audi, Toyota, Porsche, and single-seater racing. In the U.S., there’s a great supply base. We had access to a lot of great people in the Indianapolis area. The logistics, the facilities, the freight of Indianapolis is perfect for us. If you have a blank sheet of paper, you end up working out that you need to be in the U.S.
Now, the championship hasn’t helped us by putting the race in Germany at the end of August. The plan was to be in Europe for three months from the Prologue until the end of Le Mans and come back [for the race at Circuit of the Americas]. But the race in Germany is a bit of a problem so we have to work out how to manage that. We’ll probably do that as a flyaway. When the championship was only three rounds in Europe, it was perfect and probably next year, it will be back to that.
It’s not the European Endurance Championship; it’s the World Endurance Championship. To bring the flavor of having a North American base there and also having the Japanese DNA we’ve got already—the other three manufacturers are based in Germany—we’re the challengers without a doubt in many ways.
HV: Is there any chance we’ll see an American driver in the car?
DC: We hope so. We’re working on the American GT Academy guys; we’re looking at doing a shootout with them. But we have to get someone in an LMP2 car this year so we’re working on that.
HV: I’m trying to get you to tip your hand [at the unannounced drivers], but you’re not going to do that, are you?
DC: No.
HV: The #21 car isn’t going to be all Japanese at Le Mans, is it?
DC: No. We announced Lucas Ordonez was in that car. We announced last night that Jann [Mardenborough] is doing a full season, Lucas is doing Le Mans, and Michael Krumm is doing the first three rounds and then he’ll go back to Japan to do Super GT.
HV: You hesitated when I said “Japan” like there’s going to be another Japanese driver.
DC: [Smiles]
HV: Fair enough.
DC: [Laughs] Wait and see. We’re not in any rush.
HV: Do you have a dedicated test driver or is that just Michael?
DC: Actually, we’re mixing it up amongst the guys. Michael did the initial stuff. Jann’s been doing some stuff. [Olivier] Pla has been doing the last three days. Marc Gene, obviously with his history, is a great asset to have. We’re mixing it up; if you have one driver doing it, there’s benefits to that: You get consistency.
But all the drivers have nuances, whether that be things like seating positions, eyeline, mirrors, switches. Not just how the car handles but some of the other stuff that one guy might not pick up on. I remember Nick Heidfeld came and drove a GT3 car—this just shows you that theory—we gave him some Nismo gloves and they were white. And on his debrief, he said, “I want black gloves because at night at the Nurburgring, I’ll see my hands movingin white. If they’re black, I won’t see them moving.”
HV: It’s that Type A personality.
DC: Exactly. So that’s why we mix it up a bit.
Check back tomorrow for an interview with GT-R LM Nismo driver Jann Mardenborough.
[All photos copyright 2015 Hooniverse/Eric Rood]

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  1. Peter Tanshanomi Avatar
    Peter Tanshanomi

    This is genuinely the most exciting team in motorsport lately.

  2. nanoop Avatar

    They used the wind tunnel basically to check if they should buy the software update… And we're complaining about obd2 in the neighbour thread.

  3. Peter Tanshanomi Avatar
    Peter Tanshanomi

    BTW, having the bottom edge of the windshield lower than the front wheel bulges was the defining characteristic of every car design I drew from sixth to eighth grade.

    1. Eric Rood Avatar
      Eric Rood

      Driver's eye view is pretty amazing. Check back tomorrow (as though I need to suggest such a thing to you).

  4. craigsu Avatar

    Since it's FWD maybe they should have tested some Saab drivers. They know a thing or two about understeer. I hear Erik Carlsson may be available.