Failed Le Mans Program is a Black Eye for Nissan

One year, many millions spent, zero finishes.

Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

It all began with the Super Bowl ad. When Nissan announced its new 24 Hours of Le Mans LMP1 racing car during last year’s big game, it was a surprise and a huge story. A major motor company with serious motorsport pedigree was jumping back into the fray—the top class Le Mans, the World Endurance Championship, the world’s most competitive brand of sportscar racing.  Less than a year later, with countless millions spent, Nissan has pulled the plug on its LMP1 program

It’ll need big windshield wipers to get all that egg of its face. 

Officially, the program launched on May 23 last year, with a surprising amount of confidence. The team had prestigious minds behind it, namely technical director Ben Bowlby and marketing boss Darren Cox. “Nissan to take on Audi, Porsche and Toyota,” the company said in a statement. “Japanese manufacturer to challenge the old guard at the front of the Le Mans grid.” 

Almost immediately, things got weird. The car, called the GT-R LM Nismo, was unlike anything else in the top tier of the WEC. It had a complex hybrid drive system. It was front-engined, while all other LMP1 cars run rear mid-mounted motors. Nissan’s car also used front-wheel drive. Top Gear called it a “freak of nature.”

“It was one of those strange deals, a very risky proposition for a major car maker,” says Bob Varsha, a longtime race announcer who’s covered Le Mans for years. “They were going to spend all this money—some tens of millions of dollars—to mount an assault on the greatest race in the world, the 24 hours of Le Mans, as well as the World Endurance Championship. There was a tremendous amount of hubris.”

Motor racing is the most cutthroat business on earth. It rewards innovators, but only if they win. This car failed to perform right from the start. In fact, it failed to make the grid at all but one of last year’s World Endurance Championship races: Le Mans. And there, over the course of 24 hours, the effort proved a disaster. 

Nissan entered three of its front-engine GT-R LM Nismos, but the cars were way off pace. Two dropped out relatively early. The third car managed to finish, but it spent so much time in the garage that it wasn’t classified as an official finisher. 

Sadly, that was the end of the program’s competition record—three cars, one race, zero official finishes. 

“The teams worked diligently to bring vehicles up to the desired performance levels,” Nissan said in a statement yesterday. “However, the company concluded that the program would not be able to reach its ambitions and decided to focus on developing its longer term racing strategies.”

This botched, high-profile, expensive Le Mans effort is a big black eye for Nissan. The GT-R LM proves that to compete at the at Le Mans, at the top level, against the genius engineers and perfectionist drivers of Porsche and Audi, it takes more than hubris and millions of dollars.