I worked for Nissan sometime ago amidst the era of Micra’s, Almera’s, Tino’s, Primera’s, and not a lot else.  Skyline’s could of course be imported but no Nissan GTR’s or 350Z’s yet existed in the UK range and in terms of exciting cars there simply wasn’t any.  Excitement was something that other manufacturers did.  On one of the product testing days I went on, the fastest and most powerful car driven that day was actually a commercial van.  Since leaving Nissan several years ago they’ve very much turned around as a company and are now quite different to the firm I remember.

This year’s Le Mans line-up is surely a testament to the fact that Nissan are now an undeniable force in motor sport.  Out of the 23 LMP2 Le Mans runners, 14 of them are powered by Nissan engines.  Nissan clearly are no longer just a manufacturer supplying old ladies with sensible underpowered cars to do the shopping in. They are racing.

To top it all off Nissan also have what I consider to be the most exciting car to touch the hallowed tarmac of Le Mans for years, the Nissan Batmobile.  I mean, the Nissan DeltaWing.  Okay, just to get the Batman references out the way there is no denying that this car does very much mirror the famous super hero’s car.  Please insert your own joke here regarding adding laser beams or machine guns.  Moving beyond the obvious Batman jokes though, is this a serious race car?  Or just some useful publicity for Nissan?

The answer is that it would currently seem likely to be both of those things.

The DeltaWing’s dart-like shape stems from a design submitted two years ago as a potential 2012 IndyCar chassis.  While it was rejected for something a little more obvious and traditional, Nissan seem to have recognised the value in the design and have since picked it up, named it, painted it, and chucked an engine in.

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The DeltaWing prototype has been fitted with a little 1.6-litre, 4 cylinder, turbo charged engine based upon the DIG-T (Direct Injection Gasoline – Turbocharged) lump out of the Nissan Joke – sorry – the Nissan Juke.  Power has been massively increased from 180bhp to 300bhp and as the DeltaWing prototype’s anorexic shell weighs in at just 500kg, the power-to-weight ratio is that of a real race car.  Which is ideal for a car attempting to race at Le Mans.

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So what is the thinking behind the car?  The DeltaWing has half the power of a typical Le Mans prototype, but also has half the weight and half the aerodynamic drag.  The design carries all the clever aerodynamic elements underneath the car so has done away with conventional wings and the sorts of things you’re used to seeing keep a race car firmly on the tarmac at speed.  It should use half the fuel and run for twice the amount of time on a set of tyres though and those are very useful attributes for a winning endurance racer to have.

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The engine is mounted behind the driver with power sent straight to the rear wheels.  The narrow front wheels are only 10cm wide, sit almost next to each other, and with 70 percent of the cars weight sitting over the car’s rear-end, the first question has to be whether or not it can go around corners at all.  According to the drivers, and also the video footage that I’ve seen, the car can actually go around corners as well as a straight line.  This is ideal as Le Mans, quite simply, does have several famous corners and in the 24 hours of race time that the cars have to go round the corners several times.  Steering is a necessity at Le Mans.  According to the Nissan drivers the car ‘feels’ like a real LMP race car to drive despite it’s unusual look and bespoke concept.

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As it’ll be in a class all of it’s own the DeltaWing can’t officially win at Le Mans.  It will be seen racing under the number zero and based in the famous garage 56 which is reserved for experimental cars.  It will be interesting to see how it performs.  If it races well then it could reshape racing forever.  You could well be looking at the future of motorsport and if this experimental design route is followed through then the F1 grid may soon end up looking stranger than the line-up on Wacky Races.

But will it race well? 

The DeltaWing was expected to sit somewhere between the pace of the LMP1 and LMP2 classes at Le Mans.  It didn’t manage that.  While it completed 54 laps around the historic circuit, it’s best lap time was 3min 47.9secs which puts it 22 seconds behind the pace of McNish’s LMP1 Audi and also 7 seconds behind the fastest LMP2 car, which was also powered by Nissan.

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This however doesn’t class the prototype as a failure just yet.  With only 100 hours of track testing completed, the Le Mans qualifying session was really an extension of that test.  I don’t believe that they’ve quite squeezed all that they will out of the car and concept and it is getting faster and faster with each subsequent run.  In ten days time we’ll know how well it works in one of the most intense and harshest racing environments in the world – the Le Mans 24 Hour Endurance Race.

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With such a radical concept, particularly one that looks pretty much like a giant wing, it’s hard not to think back to the Mercedes CLR-GTR somersaulting through the air at high speed in 1999.  Will the DeltaWing be able to handle the circuit at Le Mans?  Or will it all end in tears?  Time will soon tell.

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