Battery-powered it may be, but the Nissan Leaf Nismo RC isn't silent at all – not in the cockpit, anyway. It sounds like the shuttle that takes you between terminals at the airport: a mix of whine and whirr.
Built as much to be a marketing tool as a rolling test bed for the development of electric powertrains, the Leaf RC uses exactly the same powertrain as the Leaf road car, including its batteries. It's like a silhouette racer, but instead of dropping a Leaf-shaped body on a simple tubular chassis, this car has a full carbon fiber tub. All of the running gear is custom racing equipment, from its uprights to wishbones and brakes.
The rear bodywork unclips and is removed as a whole, just like on any other mid-engined sports racing car. Underneath sits the small Leaf powertrain: an inverter sat on top of the electric motor and single-speed reduction gearbox. Between that and the cabin is a huge carbon fiber box that's part of the chassis and contains the batteries. It's almost an inch thick and looks as though it could take a direct hit from an RPG. In fact, it needs to be able to, because there's a lot of energy inside that box and you can see from how carefully the mechanics plug the car into the massive charging system (built into a truck) that a shock from this baby will do more than make your hair stand on end.
We're at Britain's Goodwood race circuit, just a couple of days after the Leaf RC performed in the Festival of Speed hillclimb in front of thousands. With no technician in the passenger seat to slap our wrists, we're free to go as fast as we want all the way up to the car's 93mph maximum speed. It's beautifully made and from the inside feels like just a baby Le Mans car. Except that there are a few key components missing, such as a gear lever. There aren't many switches, either: a toggle to turn it on, another to select forward and reverse and a few others, including a guarded switch that also has to be clicked to get reverse.
A lamp lights to let you know that the car is alive, but you know anyway because of the whine from the inverter. Then it's simply a matter of pressing the throttle pedal. Oops, mustn't call it that. Accelerator or speed controller, perhaps?
I'd reckoned most of Goodwood would be flat-out in the Leaf, but now I'm not so sure. First, it's very peculiar to have no rising and falling of revs as you lift off. Second, the steering is electric and not very well set up. With a curb weight of 2,072lbs and a weight distribution of 40/60 front to back, no assistance should be needed.
Ex-McLaren Can-Am driver Peter Gethin once told me Goodwood's Fordwater was a 175mph corner in a McLaren M8F. I drove one of those 8.0-liter beasts once and it was as different an experience from the Leaf RC as you could ever imagine. At 93mph, the Nissan simply whines through the kink down to St. Mary's – another dramatic corner, where Stirling Moss's career ended, but not in this car.
At the end of the Lavant straight is Woodcote, possibly the most difficult corner among British racetracks. I brake early and trickle around it. If you lost the Leaf RC at speed, I don't reckon you'd get it back.
Unsurprisingly, the Leaf RC feels nothing like the Leaf road car. It is the most extreme case of excess grip over power that I've ever experienced. Four laps is enough, because any more and there'd be a danger of nodding off. In fact, the road car around here would probably be more fun. I'm not convinced that the Nismo car would be much different even if it had more power. Chief engineer Mamoru Shinshi is pretty tight-lipped about turning potential, but from the slight smile on his face I'd say there's plenty to be done by tweaking the controller's software.
Perhaps in the distant future there won't be anyone around who has driven a car powered by an internal-combustion engine. Those people might find an electric racing car exciting. It's ironic that we've driven the Nissan at Goodwood, where, less than two months from now, many thousands of people will be here to watch Ferrari GTOs, Cobras, Jaguar D-types and other classics racing around this track. But they won't be at Goodwood just to watch. They'll be here to listen.
A Leaf racing series, anyone?
Nissan is talking about a racing series for electric cars that run on street circuits in city centers. It's not a bad idea. Certainly, a field of these whirring machines battling it out around a conventional racetrack will be virtually unwatchable, but a dozen Leaf RCs dicing for position on a downtown street circuit might be a different matter. Especially at night. Kids who play driving games already race in urban environments and it's youngsters who might be able to live with racing cars that don't make traditional noises. Certainly, Nismo's Mamoru Shinshi is excited about electric racers duking it out around the streets of Nissan's home town, Yokohama.
I've got another idea that could be made reality right now. At the Isle of Man TT races, there's a race for electric bikes called TT Zero. They only do one lap of the circuit, but it's 37 miles long. The immediate goal is for an electric bike to average 100mph for the lap. This year (the third year the race has been held) the winning bike was very close to it. Next year the goal is likely to be reached.
I'd like to see a similar race held on the Saturday morning before the start of Le Mans. Only a four- or six-lapper and with the technical regulations wide open. Like at the TT, there would be landmark moments such as the fastest lap, highest average speed and fastest speed on the Mulsanne straight. The race would be a gentle start to the day for those hung over from the Friday night.