For several seasons Nissan's involvement in Group C was limited to just two rounds of the World Sports Prototype Championship; the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the local race at Fuji. That had to change after 1988 as the FIA declared that teams had to compete in every round of the Championship and could no long 'cherry-pick' their events. Reluctantly the Japanese manufacturer decided to comply with the new demands.
In preparation for the new, much busier season drastic changes were carried out; a new European headquarters was created and more importantly the construction of a brand new car was commissioned. Up until then the chassis for the Nissan engines had been built by March but it was decided starting from a clean sheet was necessary. Fellow Brits Lola won the commission to design and build the 'Nissan R89C.' They had previously constructed the moderately successful Nissan GTP racers.
Although hugely experienced, the R89C or T89/10 as it was known internally, was Lola's first all new Group C car since the T600 series of the early 1980s. The designers were clearly inspired by the Le Mans winning TWR developed Jaguar XJR-9. Underneath the clean and simple exterior shape were deep Venturis to create massive amounts of downforce. The Kevlar and carbon fiber chassis was suspended by double wishbones at the front and rear. Carbone Industries supplied ceramic discs provided the stopping power.
Nissan's biggest contribution, apart from the funding of course, was a development of the twin-Turbo V8 introduced in the 1988 season. The biggest modification was an increase of the stroke resulting in a rise of the displacement from 3 to 3.5 litre. The highly advanced 32-valve unit produced a hefty 800 bhp in endurance specification. In qualification trim it is believed to have produced upwards of 1000 bhp. Mounted amidships, the 'VRH35Z' engine was mated to a Hewland supplied five-speed gearbox.
Dubbed Nissan Motorsports Europe (NME), the new headquarter was set up in Milton Keynes, England, near Silverstone. They would be responsible for running the cars in the World Championship. For Le Mans and the home race, now at Suzuka, additional support was offered by their Japanese counterpart Nismo. While the new Lola
issans were still being readied at NME, the first races were competed by upgraded Nissan (March) R88Cs. The first R89C was completed in May and was ready in time for the Dijon round of the championship where it qualified 6th and finished 15th.
Nissan Motorsport entered three of the new R89Cs in the 24 Hours of Le Mans race backed up by an 88C entered by Yves Courage. During qualifying the cars could do no better than 12th, 15th and 19th. The race proved to be even worse with all three R89C failing to finish; two with engine failures and the other with accident damage. In the remainder of the season a victory was scored in a minor German race. In addition impressive third place finishes were also recorded in the World Championship at Donnington and Spa. Both the pace and reliability improved throughout the season.
Encouraged by the promising results at the the end of 1989, Nissan asked to build six new cars for the 1990 season. Although differing from its predecessor in detail, the car was referred to as the R90C or R90CK (Kae is Japanese for improved). Two cars were entered in the World Championship and a third served as a T-car. At its debut in Monza, the R90CK finished a promising 7th. The 1989 result at Spa was repeated as the new Nissan/Lola took a third after starting from tenth on the grid. Next on the agenda was the 24 Hours of Le Mans where Nissan was present with a record entry of seven cars, including five R90CKs.
Two of the new cars were run by Nissan Motorsport Europe, two by Nissan's American GTP arm NPTI and a one by NISMO. Interestingly none of the cars were identical as they supported various aero packages and parts, like wheels, from different suppliers. During qualifying Mark Blundell set an incredible pole time of 3:27.020 in one of the R90CKs. The car 'suffered' from a stuck wastegaste, which boosted the power to a startling 1100 bhp. The cars were quick during the race as well, setting the fastest lap of 3:40.030. Unfortunately the reliability still wasn't there and three of the five cars retired with mechanical problems. One of the surviving cars finished fifth and the other a distant 17th. The Courage entered R89C reached the finish in 22nd position while another Japanese entered R89C also retired.
After yet another disappointing 24 Hours of Le Mans Nissan completed the mandatory rounds of the World Championship. Despite scoring several podium finishes, the Japanese company decided not to return in 1991. The existing R89s and R90s continued to be campaigned in the All Japanese Sports Prototype Championship the following years but with surprisingly little success. They also appeared in the Daytona 24 Hours in slightly modified form. The cars were regularly upgraded and accordingly were renamed R91 and R92 but they were all old chassis. An exception could be the final R90 chassis that was built up from new as a R91CP and campaigned in FromA livery in Japan.
In Japan a new Group C car was developed to meet the revised 3.5 litre / 750 kg regulations but it appeared only once in a Japanese event. Nissan did return to Le Mans with a variety of cars in the next years but probably never came as close to winning as it had done in 1990. While Nissan kept most of their Group C cars in their highly impressive 'Zama' Nissan Heritage Car Collection, at least three were sold to private collectors. Despite their complexity, all three have been brought to full running order and are regularly seen in historic racing meetings on both sides of the Atlantic.
Article by Wouter Melissen, last updated on May 03, 2009
Add your comments on the Nissan R89C