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Nissan ZEOD: all you need to know

  1. After its DeltaWing experiment ended prematurely during Le Mans 2012 at the hands of an enthusiastically driven Toyota, Nissan has unfinished business with the world’s greatest endurance race. And this, the ZEOD Racecar, is Nissan’s revenge tactic. It’s the latest creation from the genius behind the DeltaWing, Ben Bowlby, so the shape may look familiar. But don’t judge a racecar by its paint job. The ZEOD shares not one part or panel with the DeltaWing, and under the carbon fibre, it’s radically different, because it’s got a lot more to prove than that it can go round corners.

    ZEOD - which stands for Zero Emission On Demand - is what the Japanese company hopes will be the first car in history to repeatedly lap the 8.5-mile circuit under race conditions using nothing but recouped electricity. “It sounds like an incredibly easy thing to do,” says Bowlby, “but it’s got us on the ragged edge.”

    Pictures: Rowan Horncastle

  2. Nissan is entering uncharted territory with the ZEOD’s powertrain. Instead of relying on a big combustion engine to get round Circuit de la Sarthe, it uses a 50kg, 320bhp three-cylinder petrol engine, and a powerful 120kg lithium-ion battery feeding two energy-dense electric motors. It’s technically a hybrid. But unlike Audi and Toyota LMP1 hybrids, the petrol engine won’t work in conjunction with the battery, or even juice it up. Instead, through regenerative braking and a trick transmission, the ZEOD will harvest wasted kinetic energy normally lost as heat during braking. That energy will then be converted into electricity to charge up the battery, which will be used to power the car later. This opens up a new chapter in the big book of race strategy.

    The plan during the race is to run the fuel-efficient petrol engine - with no electric power - for a normal stint of 11 laps. During those laps, every time the car slows down, the recovered brake energy will charge the big, posh battery onboard. So when the combustion engine does run out of fuel, at the turn of a knob, the rear wheels will be driven by the electric motors, sending it on a bonus lap while everyone else pits.

    It won’t slow down, either. The combined power of the electric motors is actually a fraction more than the petrol engine - 326bhp, to be precise - and will get the ZEOD from 0 to 62mph in three seconds and down the Mulsanne Straight at 185mph. Bowlby hopes to average 135mph during each electric lap, equating to a 3min 40-odd sec lap time. That’s LMP2 car quick. But as the ZEOD is a ‘Garage 56’ project, it has no competitors and, aside from safety, no regulations to follow. Which means Nissan can do pretty much anything it wants in pursuit of that zero-emissions lap.

  3. “The race track is a very cost-effective place to test new technologies, as you ‘skunkworks’ it and don’t have to worry about consumers,” says Bowlby. And the ZEOD offers some radical answers to racing’s perennial questions. It weighs 600kg - 300kg lighter than the top-tier cars - and the battery onboard, although heavy, is quite useful. It means they don’t need an alternator or starter motor and the recovered energy powers all the electrics - water pumps, headlights, etc. The ZEOD doesn’t even require a reverse gear, it simply runs the electric motors backwards if needed.

    Further making use of the carte blanche, Nissan has also chopped off the wing and rear-view mirrors - a first for a racecar. That small change alone gives a huge drag saving, improves the battery’s range and increases the fuel efficiency of the petrol engine. But Nissan won’t go into the race blind, instead opting for cameras and sensors from the company’s road cars to tell the drivers when there’s someone hanging off their bumper and when it’s safe to overtake. All these measures make the ZEOD 40 per cent more efficient than the DeltaWing, which wasn’t exactly known for being gluttonous.

  4. “It’s like nothing I’ve ever been in,” says development driver Michael Krumm. “There are switches in the cockpit that I’ve never seen in my life, and I’ve been told to be careful of various things… or I’ll get electrocuted.”

    He and fellow development driver Lucas Ordóñez will also have to get used to running the electric drive through the same conventional five-speed sequential gearbox that the petrol engine uses. That’s not normally the case, as electric cars normally run one gear, but, says Bowlby, it allows the electric motors to stay in a very tight rpm band, so they’re always running at their most efficient.

    “I had a quick go at shifting,” Krumm tells us after a demo run at Fuji Speedway. “Having never shifted up in an electric car it’s completely different to normal, as the motor doesn’t cut mid-shift like an engine. It’s quite rough, but I could feel the potential.”

    But with all this technology and backing, isn’t one electric lap for every 11 petrol-powered laps a rather modest aim? Apparently not. “We’re using one of the most advanced batteries in the world,” Bowlby explains, “and we need all 11 laps (605 braking events) to fully charge it to give us enough energy for just one lap. If we wanted to do two laps, we’d need a battery that was twice as big. Actually more, as the rest of the car would have to get heavier to support the weight, then you’d need more downforce, more tyre and suddenly you’d need a battery that was three times bigger. It’s an exponential that runs away from you.”

  5. Even so, Le Mans is famed for being a test bed for new car technologies: windscreen wipers, disc brakes and turbocharging are all graduates from the race that have later made their way onto road cars. And Andy Palmer, Nissan’s executive vice president, believes the same is true for the ZEOD’s tech.

    “The easiest thing to apply to the road is the lack of mirrors. But Zero Emission On Demand could be applied in passenger vehicles, giving drivers the option to change from petrol/diesel power to electric power. This means when you came into the Congestion Charge Zone in London, you’d switch the powertrain so you wouldn’t have to pay the charge.”

    But, more interestingly, Palmer admits there may be something in that arrowhead shape for road cars. “DeltaWing proved the concept worked, and ZEOD asks whether staggering the front and rear wheels - which provides faster turn in, reduces understeer and gives you more downforce - is relevant for the road. And we’re currently looking at it from a conceptual point of view, which would make for a beautiful sports car.”

  6. But before you get excited about a ZEOD-shaped GT-R, there’s a long way to go before the racecar is Le Mans-ready. “The whole project is a voyage of discovery and a little bit frightening,” Bowlby admits, nervously. “A lot of the things we’re doing are firsts, and to make the car whizz around the track for 24 hours is the ultimate automotive challenge.”

    With less than nine months to go before the race, the team has a lot of long nights in the factory to look forward to. The car currently doesn’t have a finalised engine, and they’re already struggling with battery-related gremlins. “We’ve had real challenges putting the battery together and it not melting down,” says Bowlby with a worried laugh. But if all goes to plan, and with a long enough straight, he also reckons it’ll easily be the fastest electric car in the world.

    So if you want a glimpse of where endurance racing is going, as well as future road-car technology, head off to La Sarthe next year and keep an eye out for the one that looks like an Imperial Stormtrooper’s Reliant Robin.

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