In the 1980s Nissan embarked on an international sports car racing campaign. Purpose built prototype racers were deployed in the popular World Sportscar Championship for Group C cars and the similar American IMSA GTP championship. Several major victories were scored and a Nissan set the pole during the 1990 24 Hours of Le Mans race. Drastic rule changes left all of Nissan's racing cars obsolete by 1994, but unlike most other manufacturers Nissan did not pack up and instead set about developing a brand new car.
The new regulations all but abolished prototype racers and clearly favoured production based GT cars. Nissan decided to base their new 'GT1' racing car on the latest generation of the popular Skyline GT-R, known internally as the 'R33'. In the previous seasons the 'R32' had completely dominated the local Japanese touring car championship and also recorded a variety of impressive results in international events. To adapt the Skyline to the specific requirements of racing at Le Mans, Nissan commissioned in-house experts NISMO to turn the high-tech road car into a full-bore racing car.
Even though the new regulations required a GT1 racing car to be based on a road car, production of just one road car was sufficient to homologate the model. So while the R33 Skyline formed the basis of the project, NISMO had full freedom as long as they built at least one similar road car. The end result was the R33 GT-R LM, which looked similar to the production cars, but under the heavily body-kitted skin was quite heavily modified. The biggest difference was the switch to rear wheel drive, abandoning the high-tech adaptive four wheel drive system of the road car.
Weighing in at 1150 kg and with 400 bhp on tap, two NISMO entered R33 GT-R LMs lined up for the 1995 edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. In the classic endurance race the two Nissans faced off against the McLaren F1 and Ferrari F40, which dominated the GT1 class for pace. Despite qualifying in a lowly 34th position, the #22 GT-R LM gradually climbed up the leaderboard and eventually finished the race in tenth overall and fifth in class, behind four McLarens. The slightly faster #23 machine was not so fortunate as it was forced to retire with gearbox damage after 157 laps.
Encouraged by the top ten finish, NISMO returned to Japan and further modified the two racing cars. The six cylinder engine was slightly enlarged, lifting power to an impressive 600 bhp. Needless to say, the two GT-Rs were noticeably faster during the 1996 edition, but the competition had increased as well with the likes of Porsche fielding purpose built racing cars in the GT1 class. The #22 car lasted just over 209 laps and then had to retire with accident damage. The sister car completed 307 laps (8 more than the 1995 outright winner) and finished 15th overall and 10th in class.
Despite the commendable performances of the GT-R LM, the program was pulled after two years into the three year program. It had been well off the pace of the purpose built Porsche 911 GT1; a drastically different machine was required to bridge that gap. Nissan followed in Porsche's footsteps and developed the V8-engined R390 for the 1997 Le Mans race. The two NISMO built GT-R LMs were not raced after 1996, but Nissan did market a special 'LM Limited' edition of the R33 road car, which was available in blue only.