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Nissan Super Bowl ad unveils a 1,250-hp revolutionary race car


Auto racing has showed a steady decline in viewership over the last decade, and the common consensus among race fans blames a lack of groundbreaking technology. Innovation has always been a key draw for events like the Indianapolis 500, but in recent years, series have clamped down on high tech to minimize costs.

That's what makes Nissan's new 1,250 hp, front-wheel-drive hybrid Le Mans prototype revealed yesterday during the Super Bowl such a revelation. Meet the GT-R LM Nismo, perhaps the most interesting-slash-insane race car of our generation.

Adopting a front-engined, front-wheel-drive layout when every modern race series uses just the opposite seems like a giant misstep — but there's a method in Nissan's madness. The common issue race teams face is getting weight over the front axle, due to the heavy powertrain sitting behind the driver. To combat this, teams use small aerodynamic devices like winglets at the front of the car, but seldom is it enough to offset the rear mass. Nissan's concept, created by Ben Bowlby, the inventor of the radical DeltaWing, solves the issue of getting weight over the front axle, allowing far more aerodynamic options to mitigate the lack of weight at the rear.

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The GT-R LM Nismo pushes  the driver's cabin radically back, Batmobile-style. This keeps at least some weight over the rear axle while creating space for the engine and hybrid parts. But the shape masks some trick innovation in aerodynamics, the battle between creating downforce that pulls the car to the track for better traction without triggering drag that can slow it down.

In a typical rear-engine car, the air travels under the car, up the splitter and along the floor until it reaches the diffuser and exits. Along the way it deals with a multitude of interruptions, such as radiators and other mess needed to run the engine. In the Nissan, all of that clutter lies at the front, and Bowlby has created a smaller front opening and a series of clean channels spanning from the front splitter to an eventual exit at the rear of the car, allowing air to travel through uninterrupted. On paper, this looks like an advantage.

The engine is a relatively conventional 3.0-liter twin-turbo V-6, powering front tires made substantially larger than the back ones (14 inches wide versus 9 inches at the rear) to combat the expected issues with traction and understeer. Most of the power, however, derives from a hybrid KERS system. According to Racer, the aim at conception was to produce around 2,000 hp, but limitations have tamed the team's estimates to around 1,250 hp.

Under the rules for P1 category cars racing to win overall at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, there are four categories of hybrids, based on how much energy each uses per lap. The lowest amount of energy recovery during a lap is two megajoules, meaning the combustion engine does more work. The opposite end of the spectrum is the eight megajoules option, which uses less fuel and more electricity. There's no limit to how powerful that hybrid system can be, but there is a limit as to how much energy can be used per lap. So a race team can chose to unleash all the power for one lap, or conserve it by using less energy for a long period of time. In the Nissan GT-R LM Nismo is an 8MJ setup, which uses flywheels to capture energy from the front wheels.

This does present a number of challenges. A more beefy hybrid system adds weight, and meeting Nissan's 1,940 lb. target won't be easy. (Let's just pause for a second for a reality check: The GT-R LM sports 1,250 hp with a total weight of 1,940 lbs. A NASCAR Sprint Cup car produces around 800 hp and weighs over 3,400 lbs.) While the car is FWD, with both the engine and the hybrid system powering the front axle, some of that electric power can be directed to the rear wheels via a long driveshaft spanning from the front to the rear of the car. It's not clear how much power can be sent to the rear wheels, or when (or if) it will be used; the current prototype caught testing at COTA in Austin, Texas, didn't yet have the rear-drive availability installed.

For Nissan, though, this marks a massive investment and major gamble with its GT-R brand. While Audi's champion Le Mans team has its diesel hybrid, Porsche its turbocharged V-4 hybrid and Toyota a more conventional V-8 gas hybrid, none can match the level of creativity of the GT-R LM NISMO. Bowlby and his team have wrangled the rulebook to extremes, refusing to work around known limitations, instead seeking ways to eliminate those limitations altogether. It's a bold call for Nissan that will get its first test in April — but unlike Pete Carroll's last night, this one has the potential of actually working.


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