Nissan's decision to skip the 6 Hours of Nurburgring could be seen as worrying for the future of its LMP1 programme, but Sam Smith is confident there's more to come from the marque.
Last week’s news that Nissan will not race in the next WEC race Nurburgring - and possibly again in 2015 - was far from a surprise.
After Le Mans, it was evident that the Nissan GT-R NISMO LM, which was specifically designed for the ultra-fast, open La Sarthe circuit, would be even more on the back foot at the more sinuous Nurburgring.
The plain facts are that this, one of the most intriguing and avant garde racing cars of recent times, does not need to be at the remaining races in 2015. It needs to be at the test track, and it needs to be honed and given a chance to work with all of its designed elements functioning.
In these respects, Nissan made entirely the right decision last week. With the 2016 KERS system undertaking development before Le Mans, it should be able to show the true capability of the Ben Bowlby-led design for a full-on return, to what in reality will be its first competitive race program.
On track, the Japanese manufacturer was on a hiding to nothing during its top-flight Le Mans return. The knock-on effects of zero retrieved-energy ensured the drivers all but taxied the cars around the track, ensuring brakes, wheels and suspension of the cars could survive. One Nissan did make it to the finish, albeit unclassified.
After the race, this writer walked against the tide of humanity on its way to the podium, simply to see the low-key post-race body language. There were a lot of broken people down at Nissan, and they all deserved the praise they received from their bosses for the simple tenacity of seeing through a monumental workload over the previous nine months or so.
The Nissan LMP1 program is here to stay
Ben Bowlby Racing, the company that was tasked with designing, building and developing the brainchild of its founder, has recently kicked off a significant recruitment drive. In short, the team has dug in and manned the sandbags to fight back harder.
When Motorsport.com asked Darren Cox if, in hindsight, he regretted not using 2015 as a test and development year, he had some pragmatic and erudite answers.
“We saw an opportunity in the rules on the drivetrain and chassis side,” said Cox. “Either we went for ’15 or waited to ’17 [when the next iteration of LMP1 regs kicks in].
"No one will commit to just one year and you have to be at Le Mans to test and race, because you only get an opportunity once a year. The one regret possibly was sticking with trying to make our original KERS system work for a period of time.”
It is way too easy to knock Nissan. In the often gossipy and catty corners of race paddocks, many like to see pratfalls and revel in their own theories being cruelly realised. But the fact is, every major manufacturer goes through pain before it enjoys pleasure.
In 1999, Audi arrived at Le Mans with its first sports prototype. In fact, they arrived with two – both the R8C coupe and the R8R open car. In the end, two finished (both R8Rs), five and 10 laps off the winning BMW V12 LMR respectively.
Audi learned the essentials from that first race, and went on a rewrite Le Mans history over the next 16 years.
Nissan is coming from a very different perspective. Its entry in to LMP1 is only a part of its impressive motorsport commitment. But ultimately, as a major OEM, it has to deliver results in the most visible and high-pressure class in world endurance racing.
When Renault Chairman Carlos Ghosn was alleged to have said last month: “We wanted to be different and competitive, but we’ve only been different,” you could but only agree at the brutal yet truthful assessment.
You can have the most brilliant, innovative and inspiring design story in the world. But if you don’t get results with it, what will it become? A future curiosity, a novelty car.
Cox and his men know this, and in fact, after speaking with him last week, I got the impression that it is merely adding to the verve and commitment from the team to overturn the difficulties. Anyone who has met the car's designer, Ben Bowlby, will know that this is a man not for cowing to a challenge.
With the comments from Ghosn being construed as a prelude to seismic decisions being made about the program at a project review in Japan last month, was there concern for its future?
“I’d be concerned if there wasn’t a review going on regularly in Japan,” said Cox. “You can be sure that Audi, Porsche and Toyota do their own reviews, monthly and quarterly. We had post-Le Mans debriefs with executives and that is normal.
"This isn’t a program that is under the radar. This has gone to our executive committee and they demand to have reports both on and off track.
"What we have to remember though is that Nissan got better and more coverage the week before the race than Porsche did the week after. That shows the benefit of our approach to the media and the fans.”
Cox is, indeed, a marketing man and a very adept one. The results are plain to see - 2.4 million people watched the NISMO TV channel at Le Mans, 44,000 comments have been posted on the channel’s interaction feature, of which around 97% were positive.
The openness and innovation of Nissan’s off-track motorsport programme is what sets it apart from its rivals. However, that success story will need to be supplemented with more than has so far been proffered from the Nissan GT-R NISMO LM, and no-one knows that more than Cox and his tenacious team.