After the demise of Group C and IMSA GTP in 1992 it was clear to all that endurance racing would have to go back to its road car roots. And so it proved, in 1994 Stephane Ratel, Jurgen Barth and Patrick Peter formed an alliance and created the BPR Series. They ran a number of of races that were for racing versions of street legal sportscars, mainly Porsches but also Ferraris, Venturis and even a Callaway Corvette.
By the time that the 4 Hours of Spa rolled round that year there was a reasonable field of 31 cars, this had the makings of something substantial. Several prominent folks took notice most notably the ACO who steered the rules for the 1995 Le Mans 24 Hours towards that of the BPR Series. Another interested party was Gordon Murray, designer of the McLaren F1, who was under pressure from several customers, Ray Bellm in particular, to build a competition version. Something was in the air, re-birth of sportscar racing, perhaps with real cars and realistic budgets.
The creation of a GT category where manufacturers could race products based on the road cars that they sold caught the imagination of the the major Japanese companies. Toyota entered their Supra LM which was featured on SpeedHunters earlier this year http://www.speedhunters.com/?p=1516 . Honda tried to bring 4 NSXs, 3 in GT1 and 1 privateer in GT2 but during the April Pre-Qualification weekend one of the factory cars absolutely refused to start and was eliminated.
Nissan entered two of their mighty Skyline GT-Rs for the French Endurance Classic. They were based on JGTC specification R33s and in addition there was a street legal version built to satisfy ACO homologation requirements. The two cars differed from the domestic racing versions by having rear wheel drive only and were built to different specifications. They were both powered by a straight six RB26DETT engines with Garrett twin turbos but had different air restrictors imposed on them because of the difference in weight. #22 tipped the scales at 1,370 kilos and had a 42.6mm restrictor, whereas #23 was 1,285 kilos and had a 39.9mm restrictor. The major difference between the two cars that accounted for the 85 kilo disparity was that #22 had a standard 6 speed Nissan transmission system that was proven to be able to cope the massive power and torque of the previous R32 racers. #23 had an experimental 6 speed sequential gearbox jointly developed between NISMO and X-Trac. Both cars had carbon brakes and were on Bridgestone tyres.
The plan was to use the Le Mans 24 Hours race programme to promote the Skyline GT-R , giving it the credibility to match the best of the European and American GT cars. It was originally envisaged that this would take a minimum of three years and in typically Japanese fashion 1995 was to used more as a means of collecting data and assessing the task of winning in 1996 and 1997. Following this logic the two cars were given different objectives, #22 was assigned an endurance task with getting to the finish as the priority. #23 was tasked with matching the fastest cars in the LM GT1 class.
Unlike previous Nissan expeditions to La Sarthe the GT-R team was 100% Japanese. In #22 the driver line up was Shunji Kasuya, C2 class winner in the 1989 race. He was joined by pop star and sometime F3 racer Masahiko Kondo and Japanese Touring Car Champion Hideo Fukuyama.
In the sprint car, #23, was multiple Japanese single-seater, touring car and sportscar champion and 1992 Daytona 24 Hours victor, Kazuyoshi Hoshino. In the car with him was Toshio Suzuki, who, like Hoshino, raced briefly in Formula One and he was also part of the 92 Daytona winning crew. Third driver in #23 was Japanese GT and Touring Car Champion Masahiko Kageyama.
The NISMO entries were on the list of competitors that could skip the Pre-Qualification weekend in April. As things ran on the Wednesday practice session the team may have regarded this as a mistake. Both cars had big problems, #23 suffered with an overheating engine, while #22 had an oil leak plus drive shaft issues and other rear axle maladies. Thursday brought some relief to the team as Toshio Suzuki sliced 7 seconds off his Wednesday best in #23 to record 4:09.61which translated to 17th in LM GT1 and 28th overall. #22 also had a better evening on Thursday and Hideo Fukuyama got down to 4:14.43, good enough for 24th in LM GT1, 36th overall. There was a lot of ground to make up but at least #23 had been first of the Japanese GT entries.
The race was a miserable affair with rain falling before the first hour was run, then the heavens really opened and everyone went into survival mode. In some ways the awful condition played into the hands of the NISMO pair as both climbed up the order. #23 forced its way into the top ten by the fifth hour, a combination of others falling by the wayside and the remarkable wet weather skills of Hoshino and Suzuki. Just before midnight the lead GT-R got stuck in the pits for around 40 minutes having the brake disks replaced and the transmission was also attended to. This sent the Nissan spiralling down the order. Further transmission problems ended the race for #23 when just after dawn Hoshino got stranded at the Ford Chicane and the car was retired.
The story was completely different for the "tortoise" #22. Driven with great skill and spending little or no time in the pits at each stop, except some unexplained problem on the very first visit, the GT-R gradually ascended up the ranks from 37th at the first hour to the top ten overall by 3.00am on the Sunday morning. When the clock finally signalled 4.00pm and the conclusion of the race the #22 was in tenth place overall and fifth in LM GT1, the first non-McLaren F1 GTR. It was quite an achievement and they completed 3695.879 kilometres or 271 laps in the 24 hours.
The Japanese as a whole had a good 1995 Le Mans 24 Hours. Masanori Sekiya became the first Japanese driver to win at Le Mans outright. The Team Kinimitsu Honda NSX GT took top spot in LM GT2 finishing 8th overall.
The lessons of the 1995 race would be absorbed by NISMO, they would be back in 1996.
Part 2 later
Photo copyright and courtesy of NISMO and Sutton Images