By Spencer Hart
When Nissan offered to take T3 down to Le Mans for a weekend of driving, racing and fine dining we jumped at the chance, packed our bags, and headed down to Dover.
Then were told we'd be leaving in three weeks and catching the Eurostar from Folkstone.
So we waited around for a bit, and on Thursday (11 June) met the Nissan team at a hotel in Maidstone.
We left our cars in the hotel car park (locked and empty, before you try anything), and took a look around the fleet of cars we'd be driving to Le Mans
2. The cars
The cars we'd be driving in? A Nissan GT-R (R35), Skyline (R34), 370Z Nismo, two Juke Nismos, a Japanese import El Grand. Oh, and a Qashqui, just incase we get too excited.
We set off from Maidstone for the first leg of our journey in one of the Jukes.
The Juke Nismo was the first Nismo branded road car -- part of Nissan's motorsport arm. The Juke, which in standard spec usually rivals the Mini Countryman and other fairly dull crossovers, has 197bhp and it doesn't hang about.
We hoofed it down to the Eurostar terminal, and safely boarded the train for a driver swap and a little snack.
A group of English school children approached and we prepared ourselves for a car jacking, but luckily the seven year olds were more interested in taking pictures on their smartphones than beating us up.
Strangely the kids gave more attention to the 370Z than the GT R (probably becasue the Z looks more aggressive). But after we began lecturing them as to why the GT-R was, infact, the superiour car, they seemed less interested.
3. Why are Nissan entering Le Mans LMP1
Perhaps now's a good time to provide a little backgroud to Le Mans and endurance racing in general -- as it's not a widely watched sport, and Nissan thinks it doesn't get the attention it deserves.
Le Mans is a 24 hours endurance race, where several classes of cars speed around the 8.4667 mile track.
It's been held anually since 1923, and features big cars and big crashes. Despite being more exciting than Formula 1, with much more overtaking, the long races mean it doesn't capture most peoples' imagination, or attract media attention.
So why would Nissan enter into a race they think is dying? Because the Japanse companys race division, Nismo, believe they have the answer to help save it.
4. On our way to Calais
Off the Eurostar now and speeding through the autoroutes of Normandy as the sun sets.
Nothing much to say here, but the picture was nice.
5. The Nissan Nismo team
We arrive at our first destination, a converted mansion on the outskirts of Calais.
This gives us some time to talk about what the Nissan Nismo team are doing, in a surprsingly open chat about the sport and team.
Nissan decided to enter the race 18 months ago, which didn't give them much time to develop the car. They've been working tirelessly since then with the mantra that 'innovation excites'.
They hope by trying something completely different to the rest of the manufacturers, it'll make the sport more interesting. There aren't strict rules like Formula 1, which means the cars can be developed significantly different.
They're treating this weekend as a testing opportunity, with three cars they'll mine massive ammounts of data. And they hope to challenge the front runners next year.
6. An early start
Early start this morning and on the road by 7.00 AM. No time for breakfast, obviously.
We're in the Skyline this morning.
7. Rainy Skyline
As you can see, the weather wasn't exactly in favour of rapid progress (it's what Nissan is hoping for, but more on that later).
The seats were as firm as the ride (but after the plush goose down bedding from the night before, anything would feel firm), so a coffee break half way to Le Mans was a welcome rest.
This gave us some time to talk about the Nismo GT R LM the car that Nissan are entering into the race.
The LM is unlike anything in recent LMP1 history, for those who don't follow the sport -- the race is generally dominated by either Audi, Porshe or Toyota, all who use (mostly) rear wheel drive, rear engined cars.
Nissan have come in this year and done something completely different, creating a front-engined, front wheel drive car. Are they genius, or completely crazy? Only time will tell, but one thing's for certain, having such a variety of cars makes the racing much more interesting than Formula 1 (and this is coming from a die-hard F1 fan).
8. Nissan GT-R LM Nismo
The team believe this is the perfect set up for endurance racing, and from an engineering persepctive at least, it makes sense.
The Nissan GT-R LM Nismo, has most of its weight at the front of the vehicle (65/35 split), whereas the mid engined vehicles have around a 55/45 split. This layout should be more fuel efficient, making space for more innovative aero design. Afterall, its not speed that wins Le Mans, its the most reliable with the least stops.
Just becasue it's designed to be fuel effieceint doesn't mean it's under-powered, this monster has 1,250hp when KERS kicks in.
We're on our last leg to Le Mans now in the Qashqai, which was a welcome change in comfort, pace and volume from the Skyline.
9. The driver's parade
Upon ariving at the Circuit de la Sarthe we had a quick meeting with the Nismo race team, and then headed into the centre of Le Mans, where the drivers are paraded through the streets in classic cars, while scantily clad women chucked postcards, stickers, wristbands, and other tat into the crowd.
Mirroring their approach to driving innovation, the Nismo team also have a different approach to picking team members -- with the GT Acadamy.
The GT Acadamy gets the PlayStation Gran Tourismo gamers into one tournament, and gives the winner that opportunity to race with the team -- even if they've never driven a real car before.
This year's team consists of three GT Academy winners, including the British Jan Mardenborough. Hotly tipped by some to be the next Lewis Hamilton.
Other drivers, include the UK's Max Chilten (pictured above) former F1 driver with Marussia, and other drivers from France, Russia, and Japan, so it's a properly international team.
After most of the drivers have past (and bagging a free baseball cap), the parade is unofficially ended by three drunk (probably British) streakers, who make it 80 metres with their meat and two veg flapping about before being wrestled to the ground by security guards. We head back to the track for some shut eye.
10. Race day
The race kicked off at 3PM. It wasn't a great start for Nissan, with one car missing the start, and the other two receiving a grid place penalty for not having a qualifying time within 10-percent of the leading car.
We watched the start of the race from NIssan's hospitality suite overlooking the Dunlop Curves. There was a disappointing amount of flying carbon fibre on the first lap -- which iI suppose is good for the teams.
The thunderous roar of the engines is really something to behold in person -- with varied sounds, from the whooshing of Audi's hybrid diesel, and the screaming of the petrol-powered Ferraris.
Porsche, who had been looking strong all weekend, got off to the best start, and managed to keep first place for most of the race.
11. Nissan's garage tour
Soon after the race began we headed over to the pitlane for a sneak peek behind the scenes of Nissan's garage.
The whole scene is actually more laid-back than we expected, with the crew catching 40 winks before the next pitstop (and their mates taking pictures of them).
In the background Ben Bowlby, Nissan Nismo Team Principal and Technical Engineer (pictured above), calmly kept things ticking over.
The GT-R LM Nismo is Ben's brain child, and Nissan approached him to design something completely different to the current crop of LMP1 cars.
12. Into the night
As the sun set over Le Mans the race continued. We watched well into the morning, but eventually the engine noise became too much and we retied to our hotel room.
Unfortunately, the hotel was only around 300 metres away from Tertre Rouge, right where the cars accelerate hard into the main Mulsanne straight.
Looks like sleep is off the cards for tonight then.
13. We want to sleep
We have to wake up early for the helicopter tour -- but we really want to curl up with these two hung-over gentleman.
While we were trying to sleep, one of the Nissan cars had a problem and had to retire from the race.
14. Birdseye view of Le Mans
The helicopter flight of the track was a really special experience.
My previous chopper flights have always been very sedate affairs -- usually over cities and from air controlled heli ports.
This was a bit more rough and ready -- taking off in a field, with the mute French pilot seemingly racing the cars around the track in a shaky old aircraft.
It was certainly exhilarating, and you get an amazing view of the track.
15. GT-R home
Any seasoned Le Mans veteran will tell you getting out of the place is hell -- especially after the race, when people pour out of the venue to make their way home.
With that in mind we left before the race ended in the spectacular GT-R. Nissan provided us with the 45th Anniversary Edition GT-R, which comes in a rather tasteful champagne gold (not our first choice of colour, but we won't complain).
The GT-R's speed was exceptional, at low speeds it sounds like an aeroplane taxiing, with various whoops, whooshes and clicks, but stick your foot down on the throttle and the engine canes it to 62mph in around 3.5 seconds.
It's incredibly fast, on par with the Tesla Model S P85D we've driven before, but thanks to the GT-R's engine sound, the Nissan seems like a much more exhilarating experience.
As we drove back on the Autoroutes, still amazed by how quiet and smooth the roads are, some diehard French car enthusiasts waited on bridges across the road to take pictures of the exotic cars.
At one point, we followed an Aston Martin V12 Vanquish, Bentley Continental GT3, and a black and gold Ferrari 458 under the bridge -- we saw a man go weak at the knees.
A quick trip on the Eurostar and we were back in the UK -- switching from the GT-R to my regular Fiat 500 was a shock, and the trip back home didn't feel fast, at all.
Porshe came in both first and second place in the end, and Nissan managed to get one car passed the chequered flag -- which was a massive achievement for the team.