The rarest GT1 racing car of all comes to Paris
Since this Nissan R390 GT1 crossed the finish line at Le Mans in 1998, it has been hidden away by its manufacturer in Japan. So far, that is to say back on French soil for the first time in 22 years, he will bow out at Retromobile in Paris next week…
Xavier Micheron of the Ascott Collection understandably keeps his Retromobile cards very close to his chest. When this exceptional Nissan R390 GT1 is displayed on the competition car specialist’s stand at next week’s show, it will be the first time the car has been seen publicly on French soil since finishing fifth in the 24 Hours. Le Mans in 1998. Along with the seven other R390 racers built by Nissan with the sure aim of winning the world’s greatest endurance race in 1997 and 1998, this specific chassis – codenamed R8 and bearing the race number 30 – has resided in the Nissan Heritage Collection in Yokohama for the past 22 years, away from prying eyes. But not anymore.
First, let’s put this Japanese unicorn in some historical context. The Lamborghini Diablo, Jaguar XJ220, Ferrari F50, Bugatti EB110 and, of course, the mighty McLaren F1 – the 1990s were a great decade for loving cars, whether you were an impressionable teenager tasked with pasting up the walls of your room with posters or a grown adult with the means to go out and buy one of these exotic beasts. Jürgen Barth, Stéphane Ratel and Patrick Peter – all men with close ties to the world of contemporary motorsport – spotted an opportunity.
From the ashes of Group C and the World Sportscar Championship, the trio launched the BPR Global GT Series in 1994, an international championship that rightly put the load back on showroom-like cars. The timing was perfect. Encouraged by the popularity of the series (and no doubt McLaren’s outright victory at Le Mans with the F1 GTR), major manufacturers quickly turned to GT1, the brand new premier league of sports car racing.
As the FIA and ACO took control of the burgeoning BPR championship ahead of the 1997 season and liberalized the rules surrounding the top-flight class, Porsche and Mercedes-Benz arrived on the scene with the GT1 and the CLK GTRs, quasi-prototypes that pushed the fundamental rules and spirit of the sport’s “Grand Touring” to their limits, both technologically and morally. It was ultimately the catalyst for the GT1’s downfall, but that wouldn’t stop other automotive giants from pursuing sports car glory. Enter the Nissan folks.
Still reeling from Mazda’s victory at Le Mans in 1991, a feat it had failed to achieve with its own Group C efforts in the 1980s, Nissan smelled an opportunity to restore its national pride. A failed attempt to field a GT-spec Skyline at Circuit de la Sarthe in 1995 landed Nismo on the doorstep of Tom Walkinshaw Racing (TWR), which by then had severed ties with Jaguar . In just four months, a team that included such esteemed names as Tony Southgate and Ian Callum gave birth to the R390, a stunning supercar with feline grace and design purity unmatched by future rivals.
Beneath the sultry surface was a 640bhp twin-turbo V8 that sprung up in Nissan’s monstrous Group C cars and a carbon fiber mid-tub found in the Jaguar XJR-15, another machine built by TWR. The fact that only the headlights were an original Nissan aesthetic feature was indicative of the brand’s willingness to sacrifice its commercial identity to win the world’s greatest race. You see, victory at Le Mans was the R390’s first and only goal. Otherwise, why was only a lone road car built?
Nissan fielded three R390s at Le Mans in 1997, entering star drivers such as Riccardo Patrese, Erik Comas and Martin Brundle to signal its intentions. Alas, all three cars were thwarted by a gearbox cooling problem resulting from a last-minute exhaust rearrangement at the behest of the ACO and its regulations. Only one car finished, crossing the line 12th overall and fifth in class. There were crucial lessons to be learned.
For 1998, Nissan bolstered its R390 squadron with a fourth entry. The pictured car, R8, was one of them. Driven by John Nielsen, Franck Lagorce and Michael Krumm, it was the only Japanese unmanned car in its line-up. While the pace of the R390s was no match for the updated Mercedes CLK LMs and new Toyota GT-One prototypes, the cars’ unreliability allowed the Nissans to play a leading role in the race. grueling for most of its duration. R8, for example, held third position until shortly before midday, but a series of minor illnesses meant that one of its sister cars snatched the podium. Messrs Nielsen, Lagorce and Krumm had to settle for fifth place, while the remaining R390s finished sixth and 10th.
It was a good effort from all points of view, but it was not the result that Nissan hoped for. The GT1 class was withdrawn by the FIA in 1999 due to soaring costs and absolute dominance by Mercedes, and that was the end of the R390’s racing career. R8 was given catalog number 178 and, along with its seven Le Mans comrades, entered the Nissan Heritage Collection in Yokohama, where it would remain for 21 years.
At Retromobile next week, however, it is the R8 that will be honored on the Ascott Collection stand. And while it won’t be the only late 1990s GT1 car at the show, as the only R390 in private hands, it will undoubtedly be the rarest. “You often see McLaren F1 GTRs and Mercedes CLK GTRs at shows – both were at Retromobile last year, for example,” says Micheron. “But because Nissan kept all of its cars, much less is known about these purebred racers.
“I think GT1 cars are so popular today for two reasons. First, they were beautiful cars that actually looked like the road models they were based on – the livery discerns racing cars today, while the shape identified them at the time. Secondly, it’s a question of generation. When I meet people in their 40s, they remember looking at these cars when they were teenagers and driving them on the PlayStation. It was truly the golden age of endurance racing, indeed these winged beasts made their mark in the 1990s, helped by their appearance in cult video games such as Gran Turismo and TOCA.
If you’re heading to Paris for the annual season opener next week, make sure you don’t miss the chance to ogle this utterly quirky Anglo-Japanese unicorn, because when the opportunity will come again is a mystery. . The R390 GT1-R8 is a one-shot wonder in the most glorious sense of the word!
Photos: CM Arte for Ascott Collection © 2020