The 2015 Blancpain Endurance Series finale at the Nürburgring was the crowning glory of Nissan’s tie-up with the GT Academy ‘gamers to racers’ programme. But when 2012 prize winner Wolfgang Reip, alongside team-mates Alex Buncombe and Katsumasa Chiyo, secured the title for Bob Neville’s RJN squad with a hard-fought third place, few could have envisaged that they would still be waiting for another podium visit 12 months on. While Reip heads into the weekend contending for a second straight title with Bentley, Nissan are out of the running and languishing down in 11th. So where has it all gone wrong?
Significant upheaval during the off-season hardly helped. Just one month after Nissan’s triumph, GT Academy architect Darren Cox left the company, soon to be followed by Reip, the most high profile of the several Nismo-affiliated drivers whose contracts were not extended after the marque’s flawed LMP1 programme was canned. Chiyo also moved upstairs to Nismo’s Super GT effort, leaving Buncombe as the only thing stopping the team from becoming motorsport’s answer to the Sugababes.
Speaking to Racing.GT at the Paul Ricard pre-season test, Buncombe was confident that the changes wouldn’t affect their performances, but despite the best efforts of newcomer Mitsunori Takaboshi and Lucas Ordonez, the team has been unable to hit the heights of the previous campaign.
The season started on a positive note at Monza, qualifying just 0.016s off pole and finishing fourth in the race, but a first-lap accident at Silverstone and a litany of reliability problems at Spa mean a lapped fifth at Paul Ricard remains their only other result to show from a disappointing title defence.
— Lucas Ordonez (@Lucas_Ordonez) July 31, 2016
But whilst their lowly championship position can be partly attributed to their failure to score any points at Spa – as Neville puts it, “if you lose ten minutes in the pits in that race, you’re not going to be in the top ten, it’s as simple as that” – it is worth noting that not once this year has the GT-R Nismo GT3 reached the top-18 Q3 session in the Sprint Cup.
Remarkably, neither the Pro car of Buncombe and Takaboshi, or the Silver Cup entry driven by Sean Walkinshaw and Ricardo Sanchez have yet managed to record a point, with only one round at Barcelona remaining.
“Nobody does a championship not to score points,” concedes Neville. “It’s fairly well known that the GT-R suits the faster, traditional Grand Prix circuits with lots of sweeping corners and the big straights much more than the tighter circuits, but we’ve given it our best shot, so to not score points is hard.”
But could it be more than simply the circuits not suiting the Nissan?
The car is essentially unchanged from last year’s title-winning model, which had received extensive upgrades over the previous winter. However, any hopes that their proven package would come out on top against newer rivals still finding their feet were soon proven to be wide of the mark at a character-building opening round in Misano. Their fears were confirmed by another trying weekend at Brands Hatch, qualifying 33rd and 35th.
We did our best on the weekend pulling out the best possible result from P38 to P22 and P3 in class! We will fight! pic.twitter.com/r16T09E8yP
— Ricardo Sanchez GP (@RSanchezGP) May 8, 2016
Neville is loath to point the finger at the Balance of Performance too much, but argues that his team have extracted something close to the maximum from their package, with a much tighter rule-book reducing opportunities to negate a speed disadvantage with clever strategy as McLaren twice managed last year.
“There’s nothing you can hone in on and say we would have done this or that differently,” he said. “It’s a completely different mind-set to how it used to be, whereby you could stretch your fuel and tyres, perhaps end up doing one less stop if you wanted to tackle the race that way – that’s all gone now. The regulations give you the one hour and four minutes and that’s it, so I don’t think there’s an awful lot more we could have done.
“Obviously all GT3 racing is BOP-related and we haven’t had quite such a favourable BOP as we might have had. It’s hard to know how much cars are to be balanced – if a new car is introduced like the M6 or the new Mercedes or the 488 Ferrari, does that render all other cars obsolete, or do you still keep balancing them? It’s a fact of life that last year’s BOP is different to this years, relative to the opposition. People think our car is an old car and obviously it has its roots going back to 2012, but it had a massive upgrade from ‘14 to ’15 spec, so it’s not terribly old really.”
With the return to the Nürburgring this weekend – back on the full Grand Prix loop, instead of the short circuit visited by the Sprint Cup earlier in the season – the team are optimistic that the Nissan can finally stretch its legs and arrest their slump. With nothing at stake but personal pride, you could forgive them for having one eye on next year already. But it’s the nature of the beast that Godzilla won’t stay quiet for long…