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  Nissan R390 GT1

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Country of origin:Japan
Produced from:1997 - 1998
Numbers built:8
Designed by:Ian Callum for TWR
Author:Wouter Melissen
Last updated:June 25, 2008
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Click here to download printer friendly versionA rather large loophole in the endurance racing regulations of the mid 1990s resulted in some of the wildest production based GT cars that ever took to the track. That 'oversight' was the fact that only one 'production car' was required to homologate a car for the GT1 class. The consequence was as predictable as it was simple; manufacturers developed virtual prototype racers and one road car to gain homologation. Production based McLarens and Ferraris were raced with some success in 1995, but by 1996 the Porsche 911 GT1 had paved the way for a new generation of GT1 racing cars.

Among the manufacturers that initially operated in the spirit of the regulations and fielded a production based racer was Nissan. However, after the NISMO modified and entered Skyline failed to make an impression at Le Mans in 1995 and 1996, the Japanese company also began work on a dedicated racing car. As with for the Group C machines of a few years earlier, Nissan called in the help of a British specialist to develop a chassis. Instead of Lola, they turned to TWR instead. The Tom Walkinshaw ran company was the force behind the Le Mans winning Jaguars.

Following the latest design trends, TWR crafted a carbon fibre monocoque chassis. The exterior shape of the mid-engined 'Grand Tourer' was penned by TWR's Ian Callum, who did manage to incorporate Nissan 300 ZX headlights in the very aerodynamic design. Nissan pulled the 'old' Group C V8 engine off the shelve and updated the twin-Turbocharged beast for its new purpose. This helped keep the cost and development time down and was by no means a compromise as the lightweight engine was still cutting edge and could be used as a fully stressed member. With the mandatory restrictors fitted, it still developed close to 650 bhp.

The completed machine was dubbed the R390 and as such followed in the footsteps of the R380 - R383 racers built in the second half of the 1960s. One homologation special road car was constructed as well as three racing cars for the 1997 24 Hours of Le Mans race. Liveried in a striking red and black paint-scheme, the new Nissan faced off against the likes of Porsche, Mercedes-Benz and McLaren. The R390 was quick straight out of the box with the fastest example clinching fourth on the grid. During the race mechanical problems prevented the three Nissans to live up to their potential and only one managed to reach the finish, considerably delayed in 12th overall and 5th in class.

Even though the R390 was eligible to run in the FIA GT championship, Nissan decided to focus all their efforts on the 1998 Le Mans. Much of the development time available was spent on fine-tuning the machine's aerodynamics. The biggest difference between the 1997 and 1998 spec R390s was the longer rear end on the later cars. In order to homologate these changes a second road car was constructed. These two were by far the most expensive street cars ever built by Nissan, especially considering the company had absolutely no intention of actually selling them to a customer.

Facing even stronger competition, Nissan entered four R390s in the 1998 Le Mans. Two cars were piloted by Japanese drivers while the other two had some very experienced and quick international drivers aboard, including former Le Mans winners John Nielsen and Jan Lammers. While Porsche and Mercedes-Benz were considerably quicker in qualifying, the four Nissans managed to gradually work their way up the field in the race. All four R390s finished in the top ten, but unfortunately the two factory Porsches remained well out of reach. The highest placed Nissan did clinch the final podium position in what has gone into history as one of the most exciting Le Mans races of the last decades.

It was hardly a surprise that the sport's governing bodies abandoned the GT1 class altogether at the end of the 1998 season. A new prototype class was created, which suited some of the GT1 cars like the Toyota, but not the slightly heavier Nissan R390. So after just two races, the R390 was retired. Nissan returned in 1999 with the R391 prototype racer, which failed to make an impression. And that was the end of Nissan's chase for a Le Mans win, which spawned the Group C and GT1 years and resulted in a pole position and a podium finish.

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