Chicago Auto Show: Hooniverse chats with Nissan factory LMP1 driver Jann Mardenborough

Yesterday, we brought you an interview with Darren Cox from Nismo, who is leading Nissan’s efforts to field the front-engine, front-wheeld-drive Nissan GT-R LM Nismo. If you missed our coverage at the car’s world premiere or Jeff’s great video on it from the Chicago Auto Show, here’s are the basics: This is a hybrid racecar that will put out more than 1,200 horsepower at full chat while it races at the 24 Hours of Le Mans this summer and also in this season’s World Endurance Championship.
With a nine-driver crew in the three Le Mans cars, Nissan has drawn out their driver announcements. Jann Mardenborough, a graduate of the GT Academy (which we’ve covered here before), was among the most recently announced trio of drivers. For a young Brit of just 21 years, Mardenborough seems completely composed at all times, even when we ambushed him before the unveiling of the GT-R LM last Thursday morning. We proceeded to bombarded with questions about everything from the GT-R LM to the recent Bathurst 12 Hours to the 24 Hours of LeMons and he was more than happy to oblige.

Hooniverse: You’ve driven all kinds of stuff in the last couple years: GP3, GT-Rs, etc. How does this car differ from a run-of-the-mill GT car?
Jann Mardenborough: Power. There’s a lot more power involved and the weight, as well. It’s like an LMP2 car, really, on steroids. There’s so much downforce on the car. It’s the most powerful car, in a sports car sense, that I’ve ever driven.
The technology involved in it, as well; we’ve got a lot of trick stuff coming up that I can’t really say, but that’s going to be involved in the car. So there’s that to get used to and there are so many engineers working on the project. They’re really excited as well not only because it’s an LMP1, but because it’s so unusual in the way it’s been developed. Everything is new; no one’s done a predominantly front-wheel drive LMP car—front-engine, too—so it’s a learning curve for everybody and everyone’s really eager to get their teeth into it and figure out how best to get the car around the track.
And the drivers, too. We’ve got to adapt to the car. Where we are at the moment, we’ve already gotten good performance already and it’s very early in its development.
HV: The car being a different configuration than has ever been done, physically, is it different to drive than an LMP2 car?
JM: Yeah, the way you drive the car is different. If you talk to any touring car driver who drives a front-wheel-drive car and jumps in a rear-wheel-drive car, there are changes in the driving style. There are subtleties that you have to think about as a driver. But after a few laps, you get that nailed down and you’re just a racing driver, trying to get the best out of the machinery you’ve been given. You adapt to the way the car likes to be driven. It’s different, but it’s not a hurdle, really, that we have to constantly think about.
It requires a different approach, but also there are a lot of positives with the way the car has been designed. For example, performance in the wet is very good at the moment so bring on the wet races.
HV: Well, Jason Statham says, “It always rains [at Le Mans].” Part of GT Academy has always seemed like this is an end goal for [the GT Academy winners]. Was that relayed to you after you won and started driving for Nissan? Was this always in the cards?
JM: It wasn’t always in the cards. For me, I found out about this project when the public found out [Nissan] were going to be returning to LMP1. My goal as a GT Academy driver is to be a Nissan factory driver. Working with a driver like Michael Krumm—he’s been a factory driver for years for Nissan—he is my inspiration, really. He started off talking and working with me very early in my development for GT Academy so he’s sort of taught me the tools I need to become what he is currently and how he’s gotten to where is, working with Nissan.
When [LMP1 program] got announced, I was thinking, “Right, I’d love to be involved in this project.” So now, it’s not like “mission accomplished” because there’s so much more work to do and we want to be winning races and championships in this car.
HV: What was it like driving the car in the Super Bowl ad? I’m sure it was super boring…
JM: I’m a very patient person; there’s a lot of camera work to do in the Super Bowl advert and I did enjoy the driving parts. It’s crazy for 90 seconds the amount of driving we had to do.
HV: It was an all-day thing, wasn’t it?
JM: It was all day, but to see it all come together and see myself strapped in and there’s a little glimpse of me on the podium, it was great. To be part of that, it was fantastic.
HV: Did you watch Bathurst?
JM: I did. Out of the 12 hours, I probably watched nearly six hours. I couldn’t watch it all because it was my night time. I watched until 2 o’ clock in the morning and then I went to bed. [Nissan] were just into the lead at that point. And then I woke up like an hour after the race, looked at my phone and was like, “What?! Did they win Pro-Am? No, they won overall?!”
HV: Yeah, where did Nissan find [Katsumasa] Chiyo?
JM: I’m not too sure what he’s done in the past—if he’s done Formula 3 or any single seater—but Chiyo’s always been affiliated with Nissan. Last year, he was part of the Nissan Global Exchange Program, so he was racing with Nissan and RJN Motorsport in the Blancpain Endurance Series in the GT3 Cup where he was learning the European circuits. In turn, we had Lucas [Ordonez], Alex Buncombe go over there and me to test over there, as well, just to get a load of different drivers in different environments. But Chiyo is great, yeah.
HV: Is [Bathurst] on your list of things to do, then?
JM: It is, yeah. Bathurst is one of those tracks I remember from racing games growing up, actually. Bathurst, Donington Park…Bathurst was one I used to play on TOCA Touring Cars 3, I think.
HV: It’s on the second one, for sure.
JM: I played that a lot and loved it.
HV: So you’ve played racing games since…
JM: Forever. I probably started off when I was six or seven, I think, off the top of my head. The first racing game I played was Gran Turismo, the original. Ever since then. I love the racing game and love the sim-style games. I never really was into PC sim games because it’s too expensive so I stayed with console games.
I’m a massive petrolhead; cars are the only thing that interest me.
HV: I assume you drive a Nismo.
Yeah, I have one of these, a 370Z Nismo [motions to 370Z on display nearby].
HV: Is that your first proper car?
No, I’ve had four Jukes, two of them were Nismos. I work really closely with Nissan UK and they sort me out really well.
HV: Before that, did you have some kind of beater?
Yeah, I had an old BMW, an E30.
HV: Oh! Did it have the six-cylinder?
No, I couldn’t afford the petrol so I just had the four-cylinder.
HV: They’re great cars. Mostly, I write about 24 Hours of LeMons, if you’re familiar.
HV: The E30 is a ubiquitous car there; there are a billion at every race. So that’s my usual world: endurance racing, but  the very other end of the spectrum.
I do like to read up on the 24 Hours of LeMons. It’s a good idea. I’d like to be involved with that at some point.
HV: I can hook you up with a team if you’ve ever got time. I know you’re over here testing, but I’m sure you’re a little busy…
JM: …just squeeze it in there, a couple stints. [Laughs]
HV: You probably don’t have time to race for fun anymore, do you?
JM: I used to do some karting after the Academy for training stuff, but there isn’t any time to do that kind of private racing anymore. And I’m a Nissan driver so I can’t go off and drive anything I want. In the meantime, there’s lots of training and PR things we have to do.
HV: Like this…
JM: Like this.
HV: I won’t bother you too much longer, but I don’t suppose I can coax you to tell me who else is driving the car that hasn’t been announced yet.
JM: No, I don’t even know. I asked Darren yesterday and was like, “Come on, D.C.” But no, I really don’t know.
[All photos copyright 2014 Hooniverse/Eric Rood]

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  1. monkey_tennis Avatar

    Great interview Eric: Are Hooniverse themselves getting this kind of access now, or where you there representing a number of publications/media outlets?

    1. Rood the Mobile Avatar
      Rood the Mobile

      Jeff, Greg, and I were there for Hooniverse specifically. It was a car launch, so Darren Cox and Jann were both available to all of the media. I just made my conversations with them into verbatim interviews because I think that works for Hooniverse more than a more news-y story that you could have found on or something. Also, I had a couple of specific things to ask Cox, so that worked out well, except he side-stepped them wonderfully.
      There was some other stuff that I didn't get in the interviews that I got from non-recorded stuff or from Nissan PR people that are worth putting here for posterity:
      * The GT-R LMs were assembled in L.A. because it was the easiest place to facilitate trans-Pacific transit of Japanese personnel and material (There are no direct Japan-to-Indianapolis flights).
      * The straight-line testing Cox mentioned was also tire testing and done at Michelin Proving Grounds. Nobody had said that officially anywhere, but I (with some help on Facebook from one of the guys on the Knoxvegas Lowballers LeMons team) narrowed it down to the South Carolina facility. They've been at Palm Beach International and will be at Sebring very soon.
      * I talked Gran Turismo 1 & 2 with Jann and one of the guys who works for MotoManTV. Jann said he wished someone would build Apricot Hill in real life or they'd put it in later games.
      * The little proboscis on the GT-R LM nose is part of the crash structure, but the tow hook is concealed within it. I know this because I was wandering around the show floor just before it closed and the Teamsters had already descended on it to move cars around. The GT-R LM was being moved to an area fenced off from the general public and to push it, they have to take the front splitter. The tow hook was right between the two radiators where the crash structure would normally be.

      1. monkey_tennis Avatar

        Thank you for the insight.

  2. dukeisduke Avatar

    "I'm facing this way because I can't bear to look at this ugly car."
    Why does it have the goofy greenhouse of a DP car?

    1. skitter Avatar

      That's just an optical illusion caused by the huge square fenders and lower body. It has the same basic tub shape as an Audi, Toyota, Porsche, Honda, Ligier, Deltawing, etc.

  3. dukeisduke Avatar

    I'd like to have one of those shirts, so I could hang it in my closet and never wear it, like my Citroen WRC button-down team shirt.