At the peak of Group C racing, this Nissan R90CK set what is considered one of the greatest laps in modern racing. At the qualifying session of the 1990 running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, newcomer Mark Blundell put the hammer down on its V8 with malfunctioning twin-turbos and set a pole position qualifying lap beating the next closest Porsche 962C by over six seconds, a gap that’s still not been bested.
Considered the pinnacle of Group C, entrants in the early 90s were some of the fastest cars ever built. Technology, though, was still largely analog and teams did not use armies of computers to analyze the temperatures of each tire on every lap. With no power steering and manual transmissions, drivers wrestled with the beasts as they hurtled down Circuit de la Sarthe at triple-digit velocities. It was a time of maximal Japanese involvement as well, with Toyota, Mazda, and Nissan all traveling halfway around the world to the turf of established European manufacturers like Porsche, Mercedes, and Jaguar.
Nissan was neck-deep in motorsports campaigning two different versions of the R90C. The NISMO Europe-developed R90CK did battle at Le Mans and in the WSPC; the Oppama-developed R90CP dominated the hometown JSPC series. At the same time the R32 Skyline GT-R was ruling Group A, the Primera was competing in touring car races across Europe, and in North America Nissan was fielding cars at all levels of IMSA.
Nissan had six official entrants in the 1990 race, but there was a lot of newness at play. It was the first year chicanes had been added to the legendary Mulsanne Straight, a formerly 3.7-mile strip of top speed-testing tarmac. The specific car Blundell was driving, No.24 co-piloted by Julian Bailey and Gianfranco Brancatelli, had not been completely sorted and was in an untested configuration. New driver, new track, new setup; With no brake and turn-in points to refer to, Blundell called his qualifying run “a stab in the dark”.
And the untested Nissan did fail in spectacular fashion, but not quite in the way one might think. During Blundell’s lap the turbo wastegates welded themselves shut. With exhaust gases spinning the turbos to the verge of self-destruction, what should have been a 700 to 800 horsepower tune was boosted to approximately 1,100 horses. From the pits, the crew chief instructed him to quit pushing the car, let its 3.5-liter twin-turbo V8 detonate. Instead, the 24-year-old Blundell simply switched off his in-car radio and kept going.
Blundell grappled with the car the entire time. “For about 50 percent of the lap I felt like I was on the verge of a massive accident,” he explained. Strapped to the haywire powerplant, he hit 238 mph on the Mulsanne straight, and that was with the chicanes. By the time he returned to the pits he had set an untouchable lap time of 3:27.020, putting the Nissan R90CK in pole position. Incredibly, Blundell remained certain that the car could have gone much faster.
Aside from the second-place Porsche 962C, which logged 3:33.060, Nissan ended up in four of the top five spots. The difference between the Porsche and second-highest qualifying Nissan, the No.23 R90CP driven by Masahiro Hasemi, Kazuyoshi Hoshino, and Toshio Suzuki, was only 0.11 seconds, a far more typical time gap for top spots.
Unfortunately on race day Nissan’s luck went a different way. Blundell’s car collided with Aguri Suzuki’s Toyota 90C-V while Brancatelli was at the helm, eventually knocking it out of contention. Only two Nissans finished at all. The No.84 car driven by Steve Millen, Michael Roe, and Bob Earl placed 17th, while the Hasemi/Hoshino/Suzuki car placed 5th.
After Le Mans, the car went on to race in several other WSPC rounds in the 1990 season. Its best finish was 4th place at the 480 Kilometres of Mexico. According to the RM Sotheby’s auction listing, after retirement the R90CK was loaned to the Le Mans Museum. In August 2000, not a great financial period for Nissan, it was purchased from NISMO and brought out to historic events like the HSR Classic Daytona 24 Hour. It continued to race under a series of historic race drivers — Anders Olofsson, Henry Camferdam, and Aaron Hsu (no relation), who sold it to the current owner, Phil Stott Motorsport.
The year after Blundell’s lap Mazda would famously become the first Japanese carmaker to win Le Mans, and also the first and only rotary-engined car to take the checkered flag. Just two years later, in 1992, all the excitement around Group C would come crashing down with regulation changes. New rules would limit the class to naturally aspirated 3.5-liter engines, putting an end to the horsepower wars. tmil
The R90CK is scheduled to go up for auction at the RM Sotheby’s sale at Le Mans on June 9, 2023. The auction house is predicting a price of $1,050,000 to $1,600,000.
Images courtesy of Alex Penfold/RM Sotheby’s.