Nissan announces a bold new future for Nismo, but leaves questions about Infiniti unanswered

Last night, Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn announced his plan to elevate Nissan (via its sub-brand Nismo) to become one of the world’s top Motorsport brands.

The announcement followed three main themes; Nissan’s return to Le Mans in 2014, the development of a new high-performance GT-R Nismo, and Nismo’s new strategy as a road-car and motorsports brand with a new HQ bringing all its programmes under one roof. He also briefly touched upon the company’s return to Australia’s V8 Supercars Championship and Nismo’s assault on the Japanese GT3 and SUPER GT Series with the flagship GT-R GT500 car.

There is an ‘Elephant in the room’ though, which I’ll come onto shortly.

Le Mans

Nissan will contest the Le Mans 24 Hours in 2014 with an all-electric car that will take the ‘Garage 56’ entry reserved for experimental cars. This was the same route taken by the Nissan Deltawing in 2012 and Ghosn hinted could lead to a full assault for outright Le Mans victory in subsequent years. It’s over 20 years since Nissan’s last success at Le Mans, with the winning R391 prototype.

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In a statement made at last night’s press conference, Ghosn said “The entry will test innovative new powertrain technology and provide the Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO) and the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) with data to enable all parties to evaluate the incorporation of this breakthrough technology ahead of a potential return to LMP1 in the future.”

Nissan’s Global Motorsport Director, Darren Cox, spoke about the speculation of this being a ‘first step’ towards participation in Formula One, “Endurance Racing is the future for Nissan, as long as I have my hand on the tiller. Nissan sees Motorsport as a key element in building our brand globally. Our focus is providing Motorsport fans access to our Innovative and Exciting programs from around the world from V8 Supercars to SUPER GT in Japan and the global sensation that is GT Academy. These will be complemented by surprises on and off track as we explore more innovative approaches to motorsport.”

He went on to say, “We have said all the way through this journey that we have to have the maximum relevance to our road car technology and Nissan is the leader in electric vehicle technology, so we should be doing something in that line on the racetrack.”

In his statement, Ghosn added “We will return to Le Mans with a vehicle that will act as a high-speed test bed in the harshest of environments for both our road car and race car electric vehicle technology,”

GT-R Nismo

This is where the road car strategy might begin to confuse a few people. Nissan has announced a high-performance GT-R Nismo model which will join the recently launched Juke Nismo and 370Z Nismo.

“It would be unthinkable for us to develop a range of NISMO road cars without including the GT-R,” said Nissan CEO Ghosn. “The standard road car is a global supercar and the GT-R’s performance on track reflects the passion and talents of the NISMO team. The GT-R NISMO will be special and I can’t wait to drive it.”

“Nismo will democratize performance and bring new excitement to the Nissan portfolio with a broader range of affordable and innovative performance models for more markets and more people,” said Mr. Ghosn. “Whether it’s a small car or a sports car, if it’s wearing the NISMO badge it offers something special – quality, functionality, and efficiency, with Nismo’s distinctive styling, sporty handling and dynamic performance capabilities.”

While there is clearly sense in producing motorsport versions of ordinary road cars, the GT-R is no ordinary car.

Cox calls Nismo a “Democratized AMG, developing ‘everyday performance’ as well as the most extreme variations.” Presumably everyday performance is the Juke Nismo, while ‘extreme’ would apply the GT-R Nismo. What Nissan actually mean by this we’ll have to wait and see, but it will take a little more explaining (and illustration) before it rolls naturally off the enthusiast’s tongue.

While BMW’s ‘M’ (for Motorsport) applies to a highly custom range of models, as does Audi’s RS, Mercedes have been more liberal with their use of the ‘AMG’ brand (although a true Affalterbach product remains comparable with its M and RS competitors).

Nissan however will start to crank out Nismo versions of its mainstream products at the rate of at least one model every year during the Nissan Power88 period, encompassing the breadth of the Nissan model range.

Clearly we need to see what the Nismo brand materialises into before drawing any further conclusions. The GT-R already seems to be ‘Nismo compatible’, so we’re keen to learn of its technical details and performance figures, which Nissan will release closer to its launch (sometime within the next 12 months).

New Nismo Headquarters

Last night Nissan officially opened the new Nismo global headquarters and development centre in Yokohama, Japan. It’s a redevelopment of a former production site located inside Nissan’s Powertrain Engineering complex.

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The new headquarters facility allows the 180-strong Nismo team to be co-located in one place, bringing together the technical, functional and competition competencies for Nismo’s key activities under one roof.

The workshop, engine shop, rooms for fabrication, grinding and carbon composite processes are consolidated into the same floor space along with the parts warehouse.

A new larger showroom allows up to eight vehicles to be displayed, while the retail area is now almost twice the size of the previous store in the Omori factory. The new facility will open to the public from March 1st.

The Elephant in the room

Nissan are to be applauded for following through on the promise initiated by its GT Academy programme with Sony Playstation. I was briefly involved in supporting that programme in its early years and it’s grown far beyond the ‘marketing exercise’ which cynics initially accused it of.

In much the same way that Porsche, BMW or Mercedes have their ‘factory drivers’, Nissan will now be able to offer a long-term commitment to its Academy drivers and sustain the momentum it has built with the millions of gamers, who could go on to become future customers.

The opportunity that was missed, at last night’s Nismo launch, was to clarify the positioning of Nissan’s other sub-brand, Infiniti.

Nissan’s closest Japanese competitor, Toyota, has a main car brand ‘Toyota’ and the premium/sporting brand ‘Lexus’. Both Infiniti and Lexus were launched 24 years ago, but it’s Lexus who’ve gone on to carve a distinctive identity for its luxury (GS & LS) and sporting models (LFA, IS F).

The segmentation in play is simple and easily understood – Toyota equals technology, functionality and good value, while Lexus targets those customers who are willing to pay a premium for more (technology, luxury and performance).

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For 2013, Nissan has chosen to push the boat out in Formula One with its title partnership in Infiniti Red Bull Racing. It’s not a branding exercise, they tell us, but in fact an engineering and marketing partnership that pursues real innovation which will benefit Infiniti’s road cars.

Sounds a lot like the rationale behind Nismo, using motorsport to improve the road car product and vice versa. And while Nissan’s Infiniti brand continues in F1, the Nissan Motorsports endeavour pins its colours to the mast as an endurance and GT racing programme – only.

Perhaps another statement will be forthcoming soon, stating where Infiniti fits within Nissan’s road-car/motorsport landscape, because at the moment if you want the best of Nissan’s high-performance EV technology you must go to Infiniti (the 355bhp Q50 Hybrid), or a chassis developed with the input of a three-time world champion (Infiniti again).

As recently as early last year, Ghosn was pondering the closure of Infiniti, before he recruited Audi’s Johan de Nysschen to take one last go at turning the brand around. Nissan’s Vice President, Andy Palmer, said in an interview with WardsAuto at the NAIAS “Very frankly, very candidly, we don’t need Infiniti, we just don’t need that brand,” but the decision he took together with de Nysschen was to turn Infiniti into a desirable premium brand.

The shift in strategy isn’t a huge one, but it would imply that Nismo (as was stated last night) becomes the sporting brand of Nissan, while Infiniti takes a more progressive line in the areas of connected driving, future powertrains and personalised luxury. Both are premium brands, but the consumer needs to understand where the boundaries lie.

Without an overarching statement about Nissan’s brands, we’re left wondering how an Infiniti supercar (based on the Essence) would sit alongside a GT-R Nismo. Presumably Nissan sees itself rather like VAG, where Audi’s R8 sits happily alongside Lamborghini’s Gallardo, but until such time as they ‘say so’ there remain a few loose ends that still require tidying up.