It was the time when rules were bent out of shape to let barely disguised hypercars rule the Circuit De La Sarthe. In response to the McLaren F1 unprecedented domination of the GT1 class in 1995, Porsche had come back to win in 1996 with a made-for-racing prototype that blithely stepped around the FIA’s homologation requirements.
When Mercedes and Toyota went the same route too, Nissan had no choice but to follow suit as their Skyline GTRs had been getting pummeled. Called the R390 GT1, Nissan’s entry was developed in partnership with Tom Walkinshaw Racing and designed by Ian Callum and Tony Southgate. To speed up development, an all carbon fibre chassis was built to fit an older 3.5 litre V8, called the VRH35 which had powered Nissan’s Group C cars.
1997 saw a trio of R390 GT1s on the starting grid. The #22 car even qualified 4th overall and 2nd in class behind the eventual winning Porsche 911 GT1. But this #23 car was the only one to finish. It’s 12th overall finish is credible considering it had to go through 2 gearbox changes during the race.
Interestingly, while Nissan claimed they had built two road legal cars to meet FIA homologation requirements, it was revealed much later that they only built one. Infact, when Nissan decided to go to Le Mans in 1998 with a “long tail” R390 GT1 (in response to changed FIA rules), the same old car was modified with a changed VIN to meet those new regulations as well.
As they say, bodies may come and go, but the soul lives on. While Nissan’s Le Mans GT1 campaign fizzled out in 1999 after 3 unsuccessful years, its DNA still survives. When Ron Dennis and McLaren decided to get back into the business of building road cars, they chose the R390 GT1’s VRH35 engine as the starting point for the MP4-12C’s power train and bought the engine rights from TWR.
Since then, McLaren has worked on developing that engine, basically made the thing their own and it is now known as the M838T which has gone on to be part of the P1’s hybrid setup and has most recently powered the 720S in a 4 liter avatar. And so, 20 plus years afterward, parts of the almost forgotten R390 GT1 continues to live on.
The scale model featured here is a cheap 1:43 casting by Highspeed. And as with all Highspeed models that I have, this one has a pull-back motor powering it too.
Some more reading materials in case you are interested.