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What’s Nissan’s LMP1 racer like to drive?

Nissan, it appears, quite enjoys giving the traditional racing world a middle-finger salute, but none has been more potent than its 1250bhp, LMP1-shaped hybrid profanity.

It can’t have escaped your attention that at this year’s Le Mans 24hrs, Nissan will field the GT-R LM Nismo. Taking regular LMP1 wisdom and convention, and then lighting it up in a big ball of fire, Nissan’s effort is a front-wheel-drive racer, with hybrid systems more complicated than Top Gear’s maths will allow for.

Who’ll drive this monster? Step forward another of Nissan’s middle-finger salutes, this time in the shape of Jann Mardenborough, 2011 GT Academy champion. Jann is the gamer-turned-racer who started playing Gran Turismo, and this year will be piloting a FWD hybrid against people like Mark Webber and Anthony Davidson.

No pressure, then. He’s one of nine drivers announced for Nissan’s 2015 Le Mans assault, and will be joined by fellow GT Academy graduate Lucas Ordonez. That’s the same GT Academy that nobody thought would work: bedroom gamers without any prior racing experience being turned into actual racing drivers?

Jann it appears, is proving everybody wrong. We caught up with him ahead of the coming season to talk about that monster Nissan…

TopGear.com: Hi Jann! Great news that you’re now driving in the top class at Le Mans.

Jann Mardenborough: Thanks! I’ve known about the project for quite a while, and when Nissan first announced they would be coming back to LMP1, I wanted to get involved in the project. I was very excited.

TG: Where exactly were you when you got the call?

JM: I was eating lunch. It was at the GP3 race in Monza last year, in September, where the boss himself told me. We had a good chat about what’s going to happen, but obviously I had to keep it under my hat then.

TG: The car looks mega. And mega cramped inside, too…

JM: It is, but I fit inside it snugly. It’s OK, the space inside reminds me of the Ligier LMP2 car from last year. It’s comfortable once you get settled, but there’s not much room for swinging stuff around. Underneath our heels is where the ERS [energy recovery system] is, it’s mounted just under our feet, that’s why there’s a platform there, and so our heels are a little bit higher than they’d normally be.

TG: How much mileage have you done in the car so far?

JM: I’ve done around 30 laps so far around the Circuit Of The Americas, so a bit of mileage to understand the car and all the buttons. There are loads of buttons. It’s constantly being changed and developed, new stuff is being added, taken off… I wanted as much time as possible but we’ve got a lot of drivers who need to get a run.

TG: When did you first drive it?

JM: My first ever go was for the Super Bowl advert that we shot last December. I’d never driven COTA before, nor had I ever driven an LMP1 car, and it was wet and in the dark too!

So jumping into the car, completely stone cold, with all these new features… I wasn’t nervous but there was certainly a lot of pressure. But I got in the car, Ben Bowlby (GT-R LM Nismo and Deltawing creator) sat me down and told me to take it easy, I did my few laps for the camera and they got what they needed.

Then we looked back at the telemetry and realised we were doing around 170mph down the back straight.

TG: How does it handle?

JM: What impressed me the most was the traction. At high speed cornering, the amount of downforce and drag we have is really impressive. It’s got quite a lot of straight-line speed, as well as being very slippery.

The slow speed stuff? We’re constantly developing the car: it’s FWD, so there’s a lot of work to be done with the front differential, to maximise the straight-line traction as well as having decent traction while cornering.

We’re constantly trying to find a good balance in the car, though, trying to take the understeer away. It’s always changing, but at the moment we have a lot to do with Michelin. The rear tyres are only nine inches wide, so the front has a lot of work to do. A lot of speed and balance of the car - from understeer to oversteer - is going to be judged by the tyres, so it’s difficult to say how balanced it is right now, because it’s always changing.

TG: And that drivetrain is utterly mad, too.

JM: I’ve only driven a version of the car with just the combustion engine. I’ve not driven it yet with the flywheel hybrid system, but driving it without it was impressive enough anyway.

You can feel it’s turbocharged, there’s a moment where it comes on boost, it’s not a high revving engine, but I would say it’s like a World Series by Renault car, or even a Super Formula car. There’s a moment where its just coming up to boost… and then you get this massive rush of acceleration.

It’s more pronounced in the LMP1 car than those other two, because it’s just relentless, and there are only five gears. It’s constant power. You don’t look down at the steering wheel during driving, but you come in and look at the data and you’re doing crazy speeds.

The first lap I did after the Christmas break they’d made some changes. I jumped in and went to full speed, and - this sounds weird - but I had to make adjustments to my vision because of the sheer speed involved.

TG: So it’s actually too fast for eyes. Wow. How realistic are your chances of winning at Le Mans this year?

JM: I think our chances at Le Mans are going to be the best out of any other circuit we’re going to this year. We’ve got a shedload of power, and so little drag. Ben and the team have designed the car predominantly for Le Mans.

So the first few races at Silverstone and Spa will be like an extended test, just to get some mileage, so I reckon Le Mans will be our strongest race. We need to test reliability, because we have to finish the race. But the speeds we’ll reach will be exciting.

TG: So what about you then - is F1 still the ultimate goal, or is it now LMP1?

JM: Formula One is still the ultimate ambition, even if the single seater stuff might or might not happen for me this year. 

Plus Nissan recognise that I’m still early on in my career - I’ve only been driving three and a bit years. Personally I’d love to do another year in single seaters, whether that’ll happen though, I’m not too sure. Everything, however, is all experience.

And LMP1 is great, because the tech in these cars is more advanced than F1. The variations in the cars and systems are a lot more free and open, I think. Whatever I’m in, I just want to drive. I love to race cars, and try to get the best out of them.

TG: Excellent, thanks Jann, and good luck!

JM: See you at Le Mans…

Want to know how the Nissan LMP1 contender works? Here’s the inside line

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