There are hundreds of tiny pieces that go into creating the giant puzzle that is a successful racing team. While race fans get to see a completed car running flat out around a track, creating that completed puzzle involves the careful management of engineers, marketers, drivers and sponsors. So, how do they do it? Gizmag recently had a chance to look around Nissan Motorsport Australia’s factory, before sitting down with team director and driver, Rick Kelly and general manager of engineering, Craig Spencer, to find out.
The V8 Supercars is one of the most closely fought, competitive series in the world, with cars from Volvo, GM Holden, Ford and Mercedes rubbing panels over 15 rounds across Australia and New Zealand. The cars might look different, but they’re all underpinned by the same chassis and powered by 5.0-liter V8 engines. As well as the usual set of shorter, sprint-style races, teams will tackle four endurance races in 2015, including the world-famous Bathurst 1000.
The racing is rough, and there's very little separating the bottom cars from frontrunners.
Nissan Motorsports Australia was formed by brothers Rick and Todd Kelly in 2009, but ran GM Holden Commodores under the guise of Kelly Racing until 2013, when the team first raced Nissan’s mid-sized Altima. Everything on the cars is manufactured on site at Mordialloc in Victoria, and the 55 strong staff runs cars for Todd Kelly, Rick Kelly, Michael Caruso and James Moffat.
Our tour took us past shelves of immaculately machined metal parts sitting ready for action at the next race weekend or testing session – the team is constantly using software from companies like Autodesk to create parts that are added and tested in the search for a few extra tenths here and there. Although drivers might be keen to get their hands on new kit that will help them on the track, there is a painstaking process of performance analysis that goes into attaching anything new to a racer. Once a prototype part has been tested, the data from that test is taken back to HQ where it is analyzed and, if it passes the test, put into production on site
Also on display is the team’s glistening set of engines. Each manufacturer has its own engine in V8 Supercars, and there is a small disparity in power across the field. Nissan’s engine is based on the 5.6-liter V8 from the Patrol, before it gets de-stroked cylinder liners and a de-stroked crank to bring displacement down to 5.0-liters. Running on E85 Ethanol fuel, V8 Supercars says the cars produce about 635 hp, although Nissan's engine is 10-15 hp behind where the drivers would like it.
Just in case the roll cage, slicks and massive aero kit didn't give it away to you, these V8s are miles removed from the cars they mimic. Altima road cars are designed to be comfy and quiet, and most owners wouldn't be too fussing about handling nuances – being able to hook their phone up to the infotainment system is generally a higher priority. As you'd imagine, the V8 Supercar is a super-stripped out affair. Nissan doesn't start with a road going car, it builds the racer around a control chassis. Inside, there is no dash and just one race bucket, designed to support the driver as they pull massive g-forces through the corners. It's tough to even get a look inside thanks to the roll cage that forms a skeleton around the driver's compartment. Even when the carbon fiber bodywork is mangled and broken in a crash, that roll cage will stay in tact.
As good as the gleaming engines look, perhaps more staggering is the wall of tires that Nissan has to keep. Supplier Dunlop has a barcode on each tire and if they are unaccounted for when it comes time for recycling, the team can be fined $10,000, which means there is a huge collection of used rubber carefully catalogued and stored in a warehouse on site.
Holden and Ford have been in V8s since 1997. While teams might swap factory allegiances every now and then, the basic blueprint for the sport changed very little between 2003 and 2012, when it introduced new regulations and opened itself up to more manufacturers to stay relevant and competitive. Rick and Todd Kelly’s team was the first to jump ship from the established suppliers, and Kelly Racing became Nissan Motorsports Australia. With that switch came a whole raft of time consuming, costly challenges unlike those faced by anyone else in the competition.
"It’s basically seen a three-year patch of difficult results from our team," Rick Kelly tells Gizmag. Sitting in one of the conference rooms on site at Nissan HQ, he gives off the impression of a man who understands the business well. Six years of running a team will do that for you.
The team spent 2012 working on that year’s Holden, as well as pouring time and effort into developing a Nissan racer from scratch. Kelly describes this as having "one team doing two jobs."
As well as managing the switch, trying to put in good performances on the track and maintain a life outside of racing, team bosses need to maintain a strong relationship with advertisers and sponsors.
"There’s a lot of stress and pressure on us to keep it rolling, and keep it going as a healthy business, because it’s not like a normal business where we do work and get paid for that work," says Kelly.
"We’ve got to go and find sponsors to keep the doors open. Our business relies on; about 85 or 90 percent of our total turnover relies on sponsorship. So, that’s very difficult, particularly in today’s economic climate, the first thing businesses do is they cut down their marketing and almost cut completely out sponsorship.
"We’ve got a lot of pressure on us to ensure we can keep the doors open and keep 55 staff employed here, and perform at the top levels in one of Australia’s leading sports."
Those 55 people are absolutely crucial to the team’s development. There is a lot of focus on the drivers come race weekend, but all of the achievements are the result of having a tight team working behind the scenes. In any sport, one weak link can spell disaster for the entire organisation, so Nissan Motorsports puts a great deal of time and effort into finding and keeping the best people on board.
"Getting the most out of the team is the most tricky thing in V8 Supercars or in any sport, and so that’s where we’ve invested a lot of time," says Kelly. "And in previous teams that’s why we’ve achieved success. It’s not because we’ve had the most resources, it’s because we got the most out of the people we had there.”
Just as it looks like the Nissan Motorsports team is starting to get on top of things, V8 Supercars has gone and shuffled the rules around again. In 2017, the series is opening itself up to a wider variety of body styles and engines. Having created a totally new package for 2013’s revised regulations and refined it over the subsequent years, Nissan Motorsports might have to rip it all up and start again. As exciting as it will be to see a variety of body styles rubbing panels around Bathurst, it must be frustrating to work so hard to create a new package only to see the goalposts moved again.
For Nissan Motorsports, it’s about being "a bit careful" about how they deal with the changes. The rules are very broad, and Kelly is keen not to rush into anything, especially after playing the role of guinea pig when V8s expanded to include other manufacturers.
Despite the rapidly improving results, Rick Kelly isn’t stopping to pat himself on the back.
"We’re proud of what we’ve got here, but we’re only in this for one thing and that’s to get to the front. So when we’re not at the front, you don’t feel very proud.
"You’re working your backside off to get to a point where you can go home going ‘yeah, we did that ourselves as a team of 55, of great people and got to the front.