The Nissan Rally Raid Team had to work round the clock in order to complete two brand-new Nissan Pickup racers as well as a revolutionary new independently-sprung “silhouette” Pickup vehicle in time for 12 December, when they were due to leave from South Africa (where they were built) from Europe.
Despite the pressure and workload, there was no question of standards dropping, and the engineers, technicians and machinists were all aware of the fact that attention to detail had to remain of paramount importance. “There are two very simple guiding principles that we work to here,” said Glyn Hall, Nissan’s South Africa Motorsport manager and technical head of the Dakar campaign. “The first is that motorsport events are won in the workshop, and the second is this: how come there was time to do something a second time, when there wasn’t time to do it right the first time!”
As well as logging up 160 hours of overtime over two months, the team members had to start to prepare physically for the event, where their stamina and general state of fitness may have a bearing on events.
Painted bright red, the Pickup vehicles for Ari Vatanen (the four-times winner, for whom Tina Thorner will navigate) and Kenjiro Shinozuka (along with Thierry Delli-Zotti) spent many months at the centre of the Nissan Motorsport South Africa headquarters in the Johannesburg region, being joined later by the “Proto” version, which will be driven by Giniel de Villiers (whose co-driver will be the previous Dakar winner, Pascal Maimon). A real spider’s web developed around these three formidable machines, from the engine room to the machine shop, via the engineering office, the spare parts section, the fabrication department or the administration office … a thick web, with every thread being both complementary and reliant on the others.
The original concept of the Pickup cars – like most racing cars – started out as a set of ideas, and that concept found its way into a number of roughly-executed pencil drawings. In the case of these cars, from concept it went to the drawing office where an overall engineering drawing was created around the regulations, factoring many of the key dimensions and positioning of main components.
“In a perfect world, the design that comes from the drawing office would have every component correctly placed in the car, but in reality in seldom works like that because of time constraints,” says Glyn Hall. “But the more you have on a drawing as a holistic concept then the safer you are when it actually comes to building the car, and with three-dimensional modelling many basic errors can be reduced.”
While the cars for Shinozuka and Vatanen are evolutions of the cars raced in South Africa this year, the prototype, all-independent suspension car for De Villiers is very different, mainly because the ladder frame chassis has disappeared completely, and been replaced by what is a true space-frame. In terms of time spent on it, Hall estimated that it had actually accounted for about 1,000 man-hours of design time.
During the preparation phase, throughout the workshop, the refrain was essentially the same: accuracy, attention to detail, and precision are the words that came up again and again. There was also a strong consultative element, with those people who handled the final assembly of the cars free to make suggestions as to how certain elements could be improved upon. As the first people to go under the car at a service point, they have a unique perspective, and can pinpoint areas that could save time and problems later. They are convinced that in terms of field maintenance, the car is the best it has ever been.
The engines fitted to all the cars make use of variable valve timing on the inlet camshafts for the first time, but despite this, will produce marginally less power than those used in the South African off-road series, where they are not required to run with a restrictor. According to Colin Holmes, who is in charge of building the VQ35 six cylinder engines, the powerplants have a wide powerband, plenty of torque, and will be relatively unstressed. “As we are not allowed to change the engine, we’re not taking any chances,” he explained. “We’ve fitted steel connecting rods, special pistons, and will also run a new kind of oil pump for the dry sump system this year.”
An area of the car that deserves special mention is the wiring harness. Because of the extremely high temperatures under the bonnet, reaching 170° Celsius, the highest specification aeronautical electrical cable and heat shielding has been used for the engine management computer harness. Eight separate sub-harnesses make up the wiring system, with a total of 450 metres of wire and 37 separate electrical connectors.
That’s not all. Administration, budgets, ordering parts, controlling outsourced work, dealing with suppliers – not to mention making sure the travel documentation and arrangements were in place … the task of getting the Nissan Pickup cars ready in time for their Dakar adventure was like assembling an extremely large and complex jigsaw puzzle. A puzzle which will finally come together when the cars finally set off on 1 January.