V8 Supercars newcomer Nissan Motorsport had its trial by fire last weekend. CNET Australia was in the pits to see the new team begin its journey in the local competition.
"No one has done more than 25 or 30 laps in one of these cars," said Rick Kelly, the younger Kelly brother driving for the Jack Daniel's Racing team. Formerly a Holden team, Kelly Racing shifted manufacturers to become the bedrock beneath the new Nissan Motorsport team. Kelly wasn't just talking about the Nissan car; every team is working with new cars and new rules, so every team had a similar battle to face that afternoon.
V8 Supercars could hardly have kicked off 2013 with a bigger test. Adelaide's Clipsal 500 takes place on a tight street circuit that's surrounded by concrete walls. The bright and sunny late summer day meant drivers would be facing temperatures in the 50s inside the cabins of the cars. James Moffat, the driver with the Norton 360 Racing team — the other two cars in Nissan's four-car team — felt this was essentially a season kicking off with one of the toughest events of the year.
"If we get this car to 78 laps, I'll be excited about that, to be honest," said Moffat. "It is a huge unknown for us. It's fair to say we're a bit behind where we'd like to be in terms of having not enough hours and days in the car yet. But if I get out of that car after 78 laps, I might not seem excited, it might go as smoothly as I want it to, but we'll sit back and look at the big picture and feel good about it."
The Nissan Motorsport team's cars are quite unique within the team's worldwide racing operations, meaning that some parts are limited to the point of still being handmade, and others were being flown in at the last minute to make sure that the cars would be ready for the first big race of the year. But while the season may be starting a little slower than hoped, Nissan's investment in four cars and a team of over 70 makes it one of the big teams in the new season. At this stage, the team's engineers had been working late nights and early mornings every day to get things ready for race day.
"No one will realise until we get home on Monday, when you can digest what's gone on, how we've done it," said Michael Caruso, Norton 360 Racing's second driver. "If we can bring all four cars back straight, we'll have done something special."
There's another big question that springs to mind: why would any company want to sink money into something as expensive as V8 Supercars? What's in it for Nissan to even be there? Darren Cox, Nissan's global motorsport director, was in attendance for the first race of the season, and was happy to answer the big questions.
"On a spreadsheet, any motorsport looks expensive, but when you come here and smell the grease, see the fans, see the merchandise, it's a no brainer," said Cox. "As a championship, this is probably the second-biggest national championship in the world, behind only NASCAR. In terms of the budget versus the fans and exposure, you get this is right up there amongst the best. Nissan Australia has done great in terms of volume in recent years, but at the end of the day, people don't just buy a car; they buy a brand, and our brand has changed and we need a way to prove that — there's no better place to do that than to do that here."
Two days after the opening race weekend, news broke that Nissan had made a shock leap into third place on Australia's monthly car sales charts, outselling both Holden and Ford for the first time ever. Nissan's introduction to V8 Supercars played at least some role in that success.
So how do the new cars feel to drive? Is the "Car of the Future" as big a leap forward as the name suggests?
"You're further back in the car than you were in the past, and a little bit further toward the centre of the car," said Moffat. "In the Nissan, with the shape of the body that it has and the slant of the windscreen gives a different perspective to what we were used to. This weekend, particularly for me, driving the car doesn't feel like second nature yet. Every time you get in the car is another chance to familiarise and find that comfort zone."
"One way I explained it to my engineer was that it doesn't feel like a taxi anymore — it feels like a race car," said Caruso. "And, to be honest, that's partly where the old cars came from. It was a Falcon or a Commodore, you put a roll cage in it, put a new engine in it, and raced it. This is designed for what we do now.
"The car doesn't roll around as much anymore," added Caruso. "The feeling of the car is stiffer, it just doesn't move laterally or vertically as much as the old cars did. The feedback is a lot firmer, and we as drivers have to translate that. So we're constantly learning, and if I had 24 hours of sunlight yesterday, I'd have been happy to drive all day just to refine myself in the car and build the understanding. It's going to take time to get the best out of this car, and I'm sure everyone will be saying that right now."
By the end of the day, Nissan Motorsport had brought back three out of four cars, with one of those three cars spending quite a while in the pits before returning to finish the race. It was definitely a tough day on the track, but there was a real sense of relief amongst the team. A rare race with no safety car required, it was clear that all of the teams were playing things a little tentatively to ensure that they learned as much as possible from the first real test of the new cars.
"We've got four races in the next six weeks. We just don't have the time to turn around a car," said Alex Somerset, race engineer and chief design engineer at Nissan Motorsport. "It takes a week to 10 days just to get a set of bodywork done. We really need to carry three sets per car, and we've only got two sets per two cars. So we're on the back foot — and so are all the other teams.
"It's good to get that one under our belt and to have tested the cooling system and the brakes to that level. In all the testing so far, we know we're quicker in the corners. The two places where we lost were in the main straight and down the back straight.
"There are many ways to get lost, and only a few ways to find yourself," said Somerset, when asked how many tweaks the team might make overnight before race two and in the coming weeks. "There's an infinite number of settings, but generally physics and experience narrow it down. We take two or three ideas and run them between the cars, then see what works for one car then verify it on the other cars. It's just about applying logic and physics.
"We're alright now. You can't make a powerful car fast, but you can make a fast car powerful," suggested Somerset. "It's easier to get engine horsepower than to get track speed. Michael and James were at the top of the pile through all the tricky handling areas on the track. That's what you'd give a million for. We're happy to say see you down the straights. Because next year, we'll catch you and pass you."