Mark Blundell would say of his phenomenal lap around the 8.4 mile Le Mans in 1990, 'Every input was pure reflex…I felt like I was on the verge of a massive accident.' This would not be bravado speaking. Watching the manic lap, noticing the car bouncing violently at over 200mph, it was obvious the Le Mans circuit badly needed to be resurfaced. But more than that, it would be a vivid depiction of just what a fire-breathing beast the Nissan R90CK actually was.
The powerful Group C cars would come along in the mid-1980s as a replacement for the remarkable Group 5 cars that came to define Le Mans for more than a decade. Group 5 in Japan would be known as Super Silhouette and Nissan would be a prominent feature in this series.
In the United States, IMSA GTP racing would be popular and Nissan would field its now famous GTP ZX Turbo for the very first time in 1985. Around the same time, Nissan would house one of its V6 engines, that was the mainstay of the GTP ZX, inside a March 85G chassis in order to take part in the World Championship. At its very first race in the World Championship, a race held at Fuji, the Nissan-powered March would come through to claim victory! The following year, Nissan would take part in the 24 Hours of Le Mans for the very first time.
Nissan would appear at Le Mans with the March 86G chassis. Known as the R86V, the Nissan entry would start the race from 24th on the grid. Unfortunately, gearbox problems would prevent the car from finishing the race. The car wouldn't perform much better in the Japanese Sports Prototype Championship either as it would face strong competition from Porsche and Jaguar.
The March-bodied Nissans would continue to take part in races up until the end of the 1988 season. Throughout the period from 1986 to 1988 Nissan would little more in the way of success. The R88C would continue use right up through the early part of the 1989 season, but it was clear Nissan needed to pick up its program in order to compete with the likes of Jaguar, Mercedes-Benz and Porsche.
A major noticeable change would come in 1989 with the introduction of the new R89C. Being a part of Group C racing, Nissan would abandon much of its 'production' elements and would begin to endeavor making a custom-built car specifically-designed for sportscar racing. A major component of this new way of thinking would be the engine that would power the car.
Engine, clutch and transmission issues would be a major short-coming of the Nissans throughout 1985 up through 1988. To help remedy this, Nissan would build an all-new 3.5-liter V8. Combined with twin-turbochargers and a VGC 5-speed transmission, the new R89C would certainly have upped performance. The chassis would all be united with an all-new body designed that had been developed and built by Lola for Nissan.
The overall profile of the car remained similar to that of the March, but just a quick glance highlighted some important differences. First of all, the nose of the new R89C would be vastly different from the March-bodied chassis. Instead of the wedge-shape and rather smooth appearance of the March, the Lola-bodied Nissan R89C would have openings in the leading edge of the nose and a much flatter upper line. The outer channels would help feed air to the 14 inch ventilated disc brakes at the front of the car. The middle two channels fed cool air to one of the car's radiators that would actually be positioned in a rather flat arrangement. The deep channel just to the inside of either front wheel would feed even more air to radiators and coolers positioned in a dramatic forward-leaning position on either side of the car just behind the cockpit.
The deep channels feeding air to the radiator-inlets would be caused by the front wheel arches, but also, by the steeply-raked forward part of the cockpit and windscreen. A series of vertical channels in the area forward of the windscreen would help to pull the air through the middle air scoops in the nose, thereby improving the cooling efficiency of the flat-positioned radiator in the nose. Heading back toward the rear of the car, the sidepods of the car would remain high as the air flowing to the rear wing would arrive almost on the level of the wing.
Overall, the increased engine size and updated bodywork from Lola would be a potent mix for Nissan. The R89C would make its first appearance at Dijon and would show impressive speed qualifying 6th for its first race. The car would go on to finish outside of the top ten, but there seemed to be great promise heading to Le Mans in June.
Three R89C Nissans would be entered in Le Mans in 1989. In qualifying, the number 24 Nissan would be flying and would come away as the 13th-fastest qualifier. The other two cars would start the race 16th and 20th.
Many expected the Nissan to lead at Le Mans given Julian Bailey's effort coming up through the field in the opening laps of the race. However, a mistake at Mulsanne would cost them the race after just 5 laps. The other two would also fail to finish as a result of oil loss and engine troubles. Overall, the R89C was disappointing. But, there were certainly some positives there for the team. And Nissan would set about building upon the positives to give themselves the best possible chance of being the first Japanese manufacturer to win at Le Mans.
There were certainly still some problems with the R89C. However, a string of strong qualifying performances, a victory in the Diepholz Supercup and a 3rd place at Donington and Spa would convince many, including the Nissan factory effort, that it was just a matter of time before it really began to challenge the other top factory efforts. Many believed that it would come the following year.
The R89C had been Lola's first new Group C car in more than five years. The firm would be thinking about Nissan's new car design and decided to follow along similar lines to that of the Jaguars. This would lead to the nose design and high sides, a pattern very similar to the Jaguars of the period. Lola would already be working on the follow-up to the R89C and would look to take what worked and make them even better.
Therefore, the nose of the car would remain relatively unchanged. However, the front splitter of the car would become much more integrated into the nose of the car as the upper lines of the inlets for the radiator and brake ducts would be positioned forward slightly giving the R90CP a much more blunt nose. The blunt nose of the car meant the upper line of the bodywork, in between the wheel arches would be a bit flatter.
The deep channels feeding the radiator inlets would remain. However, the edges of the channels would be much sharper. Three deep-cut louvers would be in the section just prior to the windscreen. A curved U-shaped piece could also be added to help with the extraction of the air flowing in through the nose.
The R90CP derivative would have an entirely different nose design altogether. Instead of the flat, box-like inlets for the radiator and brake ducts of the CK, the CP version would have an enlarged radiator duct and the deep channels leading to the radiator inlets would be lost in favor of two ducts positioned just to the inside of either wheel and a rather uniform bodyline flowing from the radiator inlet in the nose to the windscreen.
Trailing along the sides and rear of the car, the bodywork would remain virtually the same as that of the R89C, but with some small changes. Like the R89C, the actual construction of the R90C would make extensive use of Kevlar and carbon fiber. These materials would help to make the car extremely rigid, but it would also keep the weight of the car to a minimum. Though the moncoque chassis would make use of similar composite structures, it would be redesigned a fair amount increasing the rigidity over its predecessor.
With the boost turned up on the engine, the V8 VRH35 engine was capable of around 1100bhp. That meant a lot of heat was generated. Besides the number of radiators employed around the car, the R90CP or R90CK would see efforts to help cool components, especially the engine, increased. From the inlets in the nose to the louvers just ahead of the raked windscreen, the designers would work hard to push as much air as need in, or out, of the car as possible. This would include two large holes on either side of the car just above of the car's exhaust ports. These large box-shaped holes would use the passing air along the sides of the car to pull even more air out from underneath the bonnet of the car.
While the engine would be a lot of the car's performance, and it would be well heard. A lot of the performance of the car would be unseen as it was on the underside of the car. Like its predecessor, the R90CK would squeeze the air passing under the nose of the car. That air would then be funneled into two large channels where a venture would be created. The diffuser at the back of the car would help to extract that air creating a hug vacuum on the underside of the car. This vacuum sucking the car to the track, combined with the double wishbone suspension on the front and rear of the car, made for a fast car down the straights and through the curves. And, in that footage of Mark Blundell's manic lap around Le Mans in qualifying, it is, literally, the only thing keeping him from a terrible accident as the car bounced along at over 200mph.
The new R90CK would start Le Mans from the pole. It was an incredible achievement for the Japanese team. Many, who believed before the start of the season that Nissan would be one of the dark horses at Le Mans in 1990 would be going around declaring 'See, I told you so.'
While the beginning of the 1990 24 Hours of Le Mans would start out strongly for Nissan, sadly, the same would not be true of the end. The pole-sitting car would fail to finish as a result of transmission failure, the number 25, 83 and 85 cars would also fail to finish the race. The only highlights for Nissan at Le Mans in 1990 would come courtesy of the R90CP number 23. After starting the race from 3rd on the grid, the number 23 car would come through the 24 hours to finish in 5th place. It was the best result for Nissan at Le Mans, but still, it was far short of the goal the R90C was believed capable of delivering.
After a 3rd at Dijon, a 2nd place at Montreal and a victory at Fuji, the R90C would give way to the R91C. However, the R90CK would have one last moment in the sun when it took 2nd place overall and 1st in class at the 1991 24 Hours of Daytona. It would be one last hurrah as the R91CP would already be a race winner in Japan and looked destined to better the performances of all of its predecessors. Still, the R91CP would never match the performance demonstrated by the R90CK as it powered its way, for one wild and fantastic lap, through the French countryside. Sources:
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Wikipedia contributors, 'Nissan R90C', Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 5 April 2014, 11:33 UTC, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Nissan_R90C&oldid=602850963 accessed 9 April 2014By Jeremy McMullen