Meet The Restored And Road-Registered Nissan R390 GT1, A Le Mans Finisher With License Plates
Photography by Máté Boér
“A race car for the road.” It’s a trite tagline to sell sports cars, but there are a few exceptions. This year’s Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este saw the first outing of Érik Coma’s nut-and-bolt restored, street-registered Nissan R390 GT-1 Le Mans-finisher race car. The GT1 class prototype, presented in plain white with red accents, garnered plenty of attention on the shores of Lake Como last month, but this particular car’s story is just as impressive as its in-person presence.
Érik, in addition to a stint in Formula 1, was one of the drivers of the factory Nissan NISMO Le Mans team in 1997 and 1998. He not only drove these Nissans flat out on the Mulsanne straight, but he was the only driver on the team who was there from the very beginning of the R390 GT-1 program, and his dedication to the car has clearly not waned in the time since. I caught up with Érik in Italy to get the story from the source, and he was happy to share the history of his one-of-a-kind Nissan.
It begins in the 1990s motorsport scene, when street-legal supercars were regularly morphed into track weapons—and in many cases, vice versa. This brought the racing scene much closer to the fans, who could more easily connect with the shapes on the track, seeing as those same silhouettes could be found on the street later that day. The fanbase and therefore the marketing value of GT racing grew so fast that it attracted the interest of many factory-backed racing programs, which began to infiltrate the various championships that were essentially made for privateer teams in the first half of the decade.
With the financial backing of the factory teams—teams that had plenty of money to spend in the wake of Group C prototype racing’s cancellation in 1993—the cost to compete skyrocketed, the speed of development picked way up, and by the time the 1998 season started, the GT1 class consisted nothing but professional teams, and the front-running cars blended the barrier between GT cars and outright prototypes. A total of 17 cars from factory teams were entered in the top class of the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1998, a feat that has yet to be repeated. As Érik recalls, “In those years, GT1 prototype racing was like Group B in rallying.”
Legendary cars were born in this era, moving all but immediately from the drawing boards to the podiums. McLaren had the F1, Porsche the 911 GT1, and Mercedes-Benz the CLK GTR, to name a few of the greatest hits, but there were others. The Nissan R390 GT-1 was made familiar to millions from the Gran Turismo video games, but it never really got the same fanfare as the “big three” since Nissan’s mid-engine race car was only campaigned in two seasons, and at a handful of events. More precisely, the 1998-spec long tail cars like Érik’s example here only raced at Le Mans.
Short-lived as it was, the impetus for the R390 program can be traced back to the aforementioned development of the GT1 class. With the arrival of the first prototype, the Porsche 911 GT1 in 1996 (which used every loophole to comply with the rulebook), the category was turned on its head, and boundaries were ripe for the pushing. The Porsche project marked the first time in the nascent GT1 class that a racer was not born from an existing road car—as was the case for the early GT1 cars like the Ferrari F40 LM, Venturi 600LM, Jaguar XJ220-C, and the mighty McLaren F1 GTR—but from the racetrack. Based on the Group C dominator, the Porsche 962, the company developed the 911 GT1 to race first and foremost, and then made a very limited run of its street version to fit the homologation rule. From this moment on, the days of the “classic” GT cars, including the Nissan Skyline GTR-LM, were numbered.
Nissan responded by abandoning the Skyline and turning to Tom Walkinshaw Racing (TWR), the famed British racing team, already a big name in motorsport, to assist with the development and manufacturing of a mid-engine race car for the reinterpreted top GT category. Cars designed by TWR won the 24 Hours of Le Mans multiple times, last in 1996 and 1997, when a Porsche WSC-95 Spyder (built on a TWR Jaguar XJR-14 chassis) scored consecutive wins. In other words, Nissan’s project was in capable hands, and artful ones, seeing as the British influence also included Ian Callum as the head of the R390 design team.
TWR developed the carbon monocoque, based on the Jaguar XJR-15, which was closely linked to the former Group C Jaguar cars that TWR was involved with. The cockpit and the upper body elements remained the same for the R390, while the chassis and especially the suspension (double wishbone front and rear) design were new for the Nissan version. The 3.5-liter, twin-turbo V8 also has its roots in Group C racing, with the VRH35Z engine making its debut years prior in the Nissan R89C.
The new R390 GT-1 made its impressive Le Mans debut at the 1997 pre-qualifying event on May 4th, with the car driven by Martin Brundle and Jörg Müller being the fastest on the grid; 0.647 seconds ahead of the previous year’s race-winning Porsche WSC-95, and a bit more than 1.5 seconds faster than the fastest Porsche 911 GT1 factory car. Perhaps this pace was a bit too impressive…
A.C.O (Automobile Club de l’Ouest), the organizing body of the 24-hour race, investigated the R390 and its road version after this pre-qualifying performance. The scrutineers found that the racing version lacked the 100-liter luggage compartment of the road version. As such, Nissan and TWR were forced to redesign the rear structure of the R390 in all but a blink of an eye in order to have space for the mandated trunk. The exhaust piping being rerouted from its rear exit to the side was the most noticeable result of this, but there were compromises internally, which, combined with the lack of testing opportunities, resulted in the R390 running two seconds slower per lap. It still qualified 3rd, right behind a pair of Porsches: a WSC-95 and a 911 GT1. Transmission cooling issues plagued the Nissans during the grueling race, which forced one of the two Nissans out of the race entirely, leaving Érik’s car as the sole contender. The R390 finished 12th after two gearbox changes.
Immediately after the bittersweet Le Mans finish, the team started extensive wind tunnel tests in August 1997, which quickly revealed that long-tail bodywork would improve the max speed and high-speed stability, but more importantly, it provided better ventilation for the gearbox. And thus the 1998-spec R390 GT-1 was born. All four R390s entered saw the checkered flag after the 24 hours of racing, finishing 3rd, 5th, 6th, and 10th overall, beaten only by Porsche and its heavily modified, full-carbon ‘98-spec 911 GT1. The GT1 rules changed for 1999, costs continued to soar, and only Mercedes-Benz entered the full championship season, leading to the FIA cancelling the class. Nissan started to develop an LMP car for the new Le Mans prototype class that would replace GT1, and the R390 was subsequently left to memory.
But the car was not totally forgotten. Érik’s deal with Nissan was, that for the two-years of his driving for the team, that he would be paid in the form of a road-legal Nissan R390. But since Nissan cancelled all orders on the million-dollar supercar after the racing program was shuttered, Érik’s car was never built. As was the case with Porsche and the full carbon 996-style 911 GT1, Nissan built only one street version of the R390, which is now in the company museum. But Érik didn’t give up his dream of driving his special Nissan on public roads, so he immediately jumped on the opportunity when he got the chance to buy one of the seven racing versions.
Of course the number 32 car with the Calsonic livery—which finished on the podium in 1998—was not for sale. Instead, Érik’s former race car (number 31) already got modified by Nissan to become a two-seater race taxi (as did the 33 car) and thus the originality, a key factor for Érik, was ruined. He ended up with the number 30 car that you see here, VIN780009, the very last R390 built; it finished 5th at Le Mans in 1998. Andrea Chiavenuto (@chiavenuto.andrea) was given the honorable task of the carrying out a thoughtful restoration and street conversation of the R390. A few years prior, Andrea turned Érik’s Lancia Stratos into a European Historic Rally Championship winning car, so he had already earned Érik’s trust.
The car only clocked 5000km (nearly all at Le Mans), but the team still performed a two-year-long nut-and-bolt restoration. The objective was to make the car road legal while preserving as much of its Le Mans racing DNA as possible. They were inspired by the much-mentioned 1998 911 GT1 “Strassenversion” exhibited at the Porsche Museum in Stuttgart. Érik’s Nissan retained 95% of its original Le Mans parts, but door panels, a glass windshield, steel brake discs, a cooling system, and a minimum of upholstery were installed to comply with road regulations. The custom-made seat brackets, which form the shape of the car’s front grill opening, represent the attention to detail that went into this project.
So, what does one do with a bonafide GT1 car with license plates? I like Érik’s plan: for the 100th running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans next year, he plans to drive the R390 from his home to the event, on the motorway, backroads, and everything in between. You can follow along on his Instagram page dedicated to the project, and in the meantime it’s probably best to check your rearview mirrors a bit more frequently should you find yourself sharing the road with a race car.