For a long time now, Nissan’s 370Z GT4 has been motorsport’s answer to a kitchen bread maker – a generally useful appliance with a long shelf life, but ultimately underused. However, that’s set to change this year, as RJN prepare to run two cars in British GT under the Ultratek Racing banner. James Newbold finds out the story.
It’s a remarkable statistic that the Nissan 370Z GT4 has been around for eight years, but is only now embarking on its first full season in the British GT championship. Designed and built by Bob Neville’s RJN outfit, the car debuted in 2010 in the GT4 European Cup, before going on to race at the 24 Hours of Nürburgring, Dubai and Spa, winning its class with Alex Buncombe at the wheel in 2011.
The 370Z was also a regular Stateside in the second-tier Continental Tire Sportscar Challenge between 2011 and 2015, but despite its longevity, the car never achieved the commercial success of the Aston Martin Vantage GT4 or Ginetta’s G55 GT4 in the UK.
It’s only previous British GT outing didn’t even come on home soil, but rather at Zandvoort in 2013 in the hands of Dutch pair Dennis van der Laar and Sandor van Es (left).
With so few on the market, some managed to forget all about the 370Z GT4, as Neville discovered earlier this year.
“We took it to the 24 Hours of Dubai and not least because it had Jann Mardenborough behind the wheel, it was the quickest car there. Then a guy from Manthey came in and he said to me, ‘GT4, yes. Experimental?’ And I said ‘no, this car has been around for years!’”
Neville chuckles at the memory, but why have so few been sold?
“It’s the same question you could ask about GT3, why are there so few GT3 GT-Rs?” he says. “In my opinion, it’s because people who buy cars are very much wedded to a brand in their own minds, whether for enthusiastic reasons or commercial reasons or a variety of other reasons.
“You get that fantastic enthusiasm for the brand in Australia and in America, but it’s not quite so prevalent in Europe – especially when you consider the Lamborghini Super Trofeo races, when you’ve got 40 Lamborghinis on the grid. Is it any wonder that they then move onto GT3?
“There isn’t a massive following at the moment for Nissan in GT4, but that doesn’t stop the car being very good and it doesn’t stop the car winning races. It has been the absolute bedrock of the GT Academy, so we do use it, but we use it incognito, in a way.”
— Jann Mardenborough (@Jannthaman) January 16, 2017
So what has changed?
For starters, GT4 is a much more attractive proposition than at any time previously. The cost-effective little brother of GT3, GT4 is riding the crest of a wave at present, with a number of manufacturers including Ford and Chevrolet rushing to jump on the bandwagon with all-new cars. But with BMW, Maserati, Porsche, McLaren, Lotus and KTM – plus class stalwarts Aston Martin and Ginetta – all to choose from, why is the ageing Nissan coming back into fashion again?
Martin Plowman has been signed to lead the ambitious Ultratek team and share driving duties with team patron Richard Taffinder, with former Emmerdale actor Kelvin Fletcher stepping up from the BTCC to join team regular Tim Eakin in the second entry.
“This is a long-term project and we want to build something bigger than just one season, so we felt that building a relationship with Nissan was the right fit for us,” explained Plowman, who won the 2013 World Endurance Championship LMP2 class title and the Le Mans 24 Hours with Nismo power.
“We were looking at manufacturers that were the best fit to take Richard from GT4 where he is currently and could help get him all the way up to Le Mans.
“The one thing we want to do is create a very stable and consistent structure for Richard to learn and to grow with, and if we can carry that journey with the same manufacturer, it’s going to cut down on the learning curve. We wanted to create the most streamlined product that we could and felt that Nissan provided the most continuity.”
Number plate guru Taffinder has raced in British GT for two years in Lotus machinery without making a significant impact, but Ultratrek team principal Ben Snowdon is optimistic that with RJN overseeing the operational side, this will soon change.
“We can’t have a developing amateur driver and an unreliable car because you don’t make any progress,” he said.
“For us it was critical that the car be absolutely bullet-proof. We trust RJN implicitly, their track record speaks for themselves.”
Even after eight years, RJN are continuing to develop the 370Z GT4 and fitted paddle-shift gearboxes over the off-season to bring the car into line with its more contemporary rivals.
“They’re very proactive in their approach,” continued Plowman. “The GT4 car didn’t have the paddle-shift gearbox, so that was the first thing they did, straight off the bat and at their own expense was developing the new paddle-shift gearbox just to get ready for the new season.
“RJN have run a lot of these long endurance races with great success, so we are very confident that reliability will be great and the performance of the car should be there or there abouts.”
— British GT (@BritishGT) February 8, 2017
It’s early days still, but Plowman’s first impressions of the car are largely positive. When compared with Ultratek’s old Lotus Evora, which thrived on corner speed and handling, the 370Z’s chief strength is straight-line speed, much like the Nissan GT-R Nismo GT3 Plowman raced in the Blancpain Endurance Series in 2015.
“The biggest strength with the Nissan will be more power than the Lotus, but the drivers will have to make up for a lack of handling in the corners because it’s a heavier, higher-roll centre kind of car,” Plowman said.
“That said, I would prefer to have more power and struggle in the corner than have all the grip and no power, because especially from a defensive point of view, you can hold people back in the corner and pull away down the straight, but when you get the setup dialled in we can have the best of both worlds on a good day!”
Snowdon is wary of making any concrete predictions, but with an intensive testing programme planned in RJN’s Group N-spec 370Z as well as the GT4, is cautiously optimistic of breaking into the top five by the end of the season.
“Richard, Tim and Kelvin all started with no testing and had no testing throughout their seasons, both last year and the year before,” said Snowdon.
“There’s a lot of simulator work going on, then Group N and proper GT4 testing. Martin is a proper taskmaster and he’s having them take days off left, right and centre! There’s no point all of us putting this effort in if we’re not going to do it right, because all we’re going to do is squander an opportunity.
“We’ve got a really solid, talented professional group of people, so if we can’t make this work, then we’re doing something wrong.”