Just one year after helping debut the revolutionary DeltaWing, Nissan used last month's 24 Hours of Le Mans as the stage to unveil its latest “Garage 56” contender. And while the Nissan ZEOD RC may bear a striking resemblance to its predecessor, the design and approach of the Japanese manufacturer's planned entry for next year's endurance classic is far from conventional.
Since the project's inception last year and initial announcement in February by company president and CEO Carlos Ghosn, Nissan's objective has been clear, and that's been to push the bounds of electric drivetrains, with an eye toward future LMP1 involvement with the same technology. The ZEOD (Zero Emissions On Demand) RC is poised to accomplish just that, with the target of becoming the first race car to complete a lap of the 8.5-mile Circuit de la Sarthe entirely on electric power, while at speeds in excess of 180mph and at similar performance levels of current-spec LMP2 cars.
According to Nissan's Global Motorsports Director, Darren Cox, the philosophy behind this program is dramatically different than currently seen by the wave of LMP1 hybrids, which only uses recovered energy as an occasional supplement to their internal combustion powerplants. When comparing road-going hybrids and EVs, it's akin to a Toyota Prius vs. a Chevrolet Volt.
"The biggest challenge is getting all of this to run for 24 hours,” Cox says. “At the moment, the guys running electric bits on their cars are running them for seconds, out of corners, and then they switch off and can cool [them] down. The challenge for us is to run the bits for a long period.
“At the moment, the bits don't exist. This is not like some other hybrid projects where you go to Williams or Flybrid [and get bolt-on parts]. The bits don't exist today. The R&D guys are fully involved, because genuinely, the road car technology at the moment is ahead of what you can buy on the street.”
Cox understands the magnitude of this new motorsports project, which will see an electric drivetrain coupled with a gasoline-powered engine. While specifics, such as the amount of battery storage and configuration of both drivetrains have yet to be determined, the car will initially run in EV-mode only when it rolls out for its on-track debut late this year. Once fully configured, the driver will have the option of to run either in full EV mode or with assistance from the traditional powerplant.
Heading up design of the ZEOD RC is none other than Ben Bowlby, the father of the DeltaWing, who is now working directly for Nissan as its director of motorsport innovation. While no doubt sharing some visual similarities, Cox says there is not a single component used from Bowlby's previous creation (which continues to run in the American Le Mans Series). However, there is some carryover, including the continued relationship with Ray Mallock Limited in the U.K., which has been commissioned to build the new car that will be based around a custom monocoque. With drivetrain input from Japan, U.S.-based players such as Bowlby and the continuing partnership with Michelin, the project is a global effort.
While the car will make its debut next year at Le Mans as an unclassified entrant, Cox says the ZEOD RC will serve as a precursor to a possible factory LMP1 effort for as early as 2015, encompassing the same electric technology. The new-for-2014 LMP1 regulations will help make this possible, thanks to open powertrain and energy allocation rules embraced by the Automobile Club de l'Ouest.
"We're not going to do this in a flash, but this powertrain has to be a step towards what we're doing in P1,” Cox says. “That's the only reason why we're working with the ACO on that. That might not necessarily mean that the batteries will be the same size or the engine will have the same configuration, whatever it might be, but it's certainly a stepping-stone toward that. We'll understand the technology in this car, which will enable us and the ACO to see if the drivetrain we want to go with is feasible and if they can balance it. That's not going to be an easy conversation because we've seen diesel vs. gasoline and what a fractious conversation that's been over the last nine months.
“If we're going to chuck something else in, we know it's going to be a hard road. But as a commercial entity, we need to do something different from what everyone else is doing. It has to be battery and it has to be electric in terms of the configuration of the drivetrain. We won't come unless it's something different."
With the ill-fated GreenGT H2, a hydrogen-electric vehicle, withdrawing prior to this year's race, the ZEOD RC is set to become the second Nissan-supported Garage 56 entry in three years at Le Mans. While it comes as an accomplishment for the brand, Cox is hopeful that other manufacturers will follow its lead, in what some are calling the beginning of the “space race” for new technologies, particularly electric vehicles, competing in various motorsports competitions worldwide.
"One of the things I really hope, is that other manufacturers look at Garage 56 and come in,” he says. “It's really important and I'd really encourage that; otherwise, in the end, we all just end up doing NASCAR and racing paint jobs, which nobody wants. I think all of the manufacturers will be able to deliver good returns. The bigger the race, the better.”