Why My Favorite Racecar in Recent Memory is the One That Came In Last

This is the Nissan GTR-LM Nismo. For those of you that don't follow endurance racing (which I can assume is probably 99%+ of you), this is a car that was built by Nissan specifically to compete in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, one of the most famous endurance races in the world.

Most cars competing in its class at Le Mans look totally different. They look like this:

The reason these cars look the same, generally speaking, is that they are built on the same basic plan - engine in the middle, behind the driver, driving the rear wheels.

The Nismo car looks different because fundamentally, it is different. Its engine is in the front, right in between the front wheels, and even weirder, it drives the front wheels. There's an absolutely fantastic video of why the car is different here. However, if you're not a racing enthusiast or an engineering wonk (hey, I'm both of those things!), then chances are the video's going to be largely unintelligible. But the point is that essentially, they've decided they're going to try something totally different.

Instead of competing with reigning champs Audi, they're taking the basic rulebook and challenging every core assumption of how things should be done. Instead of trying to beat the winners by incrementally improving things (which is what Toyota and Porsche have essentially been trying to do (Porsche successfully won Le Mans this year with that approach)), Nissan's basically gone back to ground zero & redefined what a race car can or should be.

The things they're doing with this car are bananas. Front-wheel drive where rear-wheel drive is common. The engine exhaust doesn't go out the back, it goes out the hood right in front of the driver. Instead of venting air from the intakes out the sides, they're running huge channels through the whole car to vent the air out the back. Unless you're into the details, though, the main thing is that everything they're doing is insane.

So they're doing everything differently. They're also doing it on an insanely tight schedule. Where Porsche took 3 years to build their competitor, Nissan's taken less than a year to put these together.

So how did they do?

They came in dead last. But they survived.

One of the three cars finished the 24 hours. It spent a ton of time in the garage getting repaired, and even when it was running it was relatively slow (about 20 seconds per lap off the fastest cars). They learned a ton by having the car run in the race, since there's essentially no way to "simulate" a 24 hour race on a specific circuit. They had a lot of difficulties, but a lot of them were part of the cost of development. Their hybrid system wasn't hooked up - it would have driven the rear wheels, making the car AWD instead of FWD, which dramatically changes the dynamics of how it's driven. The unique front tires weren't ready (or weren't functioning correctly), so they ended up on narrower "standard" tires, and as a result, it put a lot of crazy stresses on things that wouldn't be there if all the systems were functioning.

So why did they race at all, if they weren't up to snuff? Because they learned a lot, and not racing would have kept them from that learning. There are obvious tradeoffs - look at the relatively negative public reaction to their effort and you can see that the "brand" takes a hit from doing this - but if your priority is to learn fast, there's no replacement for just doing it.

So in the end, a lot of folks paint Nissan's outing as a failure. And correctly so - in many ways it was a disaster. If they were a small team & this was their one shot, it would have been fatal. But they have resources to ensure this isn't the end of development. They will (almost certainly) have another shot, and when they do, they'll have a much, much better shot at making this a success because they had the stones to go out and run this concept before it was "ready", and before they were sure they could win.

There's so much in this that's applicable to a startup, particularly a startup working on iOS games. So many folks are trying to beat the folks at the top by out-optimizing the people at the top. And for the vast majority, it just doesn't work. The resources you need to try to fight the winners on their turf is astonishingly high, and the space you have to differentiate what you're doing is incredibly small. Nissan did something radically different, and it hasn't been successful yet. But what they've done is create a new space to compete in. If you can't compete just on money, you have to do something that comes out of left field.

Just because they came in last this time doesn't mean that this was the wrong thing to do. It just means they haven't got it right just yet. If they've got the resources to give it a few more swings at the plate, I'm incredibly excited to see what they can do.

But more - I love this car. I love that it's insane. I love that it's different. I love that it's scrappy, and weird, and unique. And I want to see it succeed. And I hope that one day, the folks who are watching what we're doing will feel the same way about us.