We meet the creator of Nissan's astonishing supercar, the GT-R.
We can at Nissan, says Kazutoshi Mizuno
I think I have finally, after more than five years, come to understand and appreciate what the Nissan GT-R is all about. It's a car that has worldwide fans in raptures, extolling its virtues whenever given the chance, quoting performance figures and Nürburgring lap times by rote. And yet, whenever I have handed back the keys to Nissan after a few days playing around in a GT-R, I have never wanted to keep it. I reckon that may change the next time it happens.
This minor epiphany of sorts has been the result of spending a few precious hours in the presence of the man who has come to be known as the "godfather of the GT-R", Kazutoshi Mizuno. He was born in Nagano, Japan, in 1952 and joined Nissan when he was 20, in 1972. His estimable career has seen him spearheading the R32 Skyline, heading up the Nismo racing team and acting as chief vehicle engineer for Nissan's V35 Skyline and the excellent 350Z.
But Mizuno really made a name for himself as chief vehicle engineer and product specialist for the GT-R, and he's at Dubai's Autodrome to launch its latest variant: the Track Pack Edition. Before I get to test the new one for myself on track, Mizuno has a few things to say in front of a select group of motoring hacks, most of whom have had plenty of experience in the GT-R and are pretty hard to impress.
"The GT-R is rightly recognised as a remarkable car. It has re-written the supercar rule book, promising exceptional performance in a car that can be driven skilfully by just about anybody in just about any road condition," he says with his trademark grin. "GT-R Track Pack, however, is aimed at drivers who want that extra edge, a car that's been fine-tuned for the ultimate race track performance, yet which can still be used on the open road. GT-R Track Pack is a serious, hardcore machine."
His English is just about OK, which is a good job because our interpreter has given up trying to convert his quick-fire Japanese and has left his station. Mizuno apologises profusely but there is no need, because the natural warmth and enthusiasm that shines from this unassuming and good-humoured man is enough. Even if we weren't able to understand a single word, we'd still know what he was talking about. And what he's talking about is engineering passion.
Yet passion is what I've always found the GT-R to be lacking in. Every one of them has been blisteringly fast, with safe and predictable handling. Every one of them has utterly destroyed any road I dared to point it at. But every one of them has felt somehow aloof, detached and too perfect. Sure, the gear linkage movements have always made a racket, serving as a reminder that there are actual mechanical pieces at play within the chassis, but I've always felt that the GT-R's incredible abilities have made me seem like less of a driver, where other supercars have sought to flatter my relative lack of driving finesse.
Passion is what fizzes through Italian exotica like Ferraris, Lamborghinis and Alfa Romeos. They perfectly represent the country in which they were born, where knockout style, outrageousness and a sense of "so what if it goes wrong?" pervades. Mizuno is adamant, however. In his book, the GT-R is passion on wheels, and it's now I start to understand. "GT-R is a car that represents Japanese culture," he adds. "There is nothing else like it, nothing to touch it, and its evolution is a slow and deliberate one."
What he's saying, is that this is the physical embodiment of Japanese vehicular passion and, if you think about it, it's obvious. Where some of us actually like the fact that supercars are, by and large, imperfect, this would never do for the Japanese. As a race, precision and perfection are what drives them. Flaws? There's simply no room, no excuse for not being the very best you can be in whatever sphere you operate within.
"This is why, for GT-R," says Mizuno, "one person builds the entire engine. One person builds the entire transmission. On each handbuilt engine there is plaque with its builder's name, so our customers know who pieced it together. By using one person only, the GT-R's engine is built to within much finer tolerances than by using traditional workstation methods of construction. Which is how everyone else does things. GT-R is unique."
He talks also of "omotenashi", the "spirit of hospitality" that is extended to the car's owners. Wanting to instil a sense of family belonging, Mizuno says that this, too, is part of the Japanese culture that seeps through the GT-R's very pores. He takes the opportunity, while he has our attention, to point out a few things that other manufacturers would probably pour scorn on, too.
"What is a supercar's ideal weight?" he asks. Someone attempts to answer him along the lines of the lighter, the better. "You are wrong. Ideal weight is 1,740kg. Why?" At this point he grabs hold of a chair and moves it along the carpet with ease. "When I put weight on, it sticks to the surface. Same with cars - you must have weight to gain traction, which is why the GT-R is the world's fastest accelerating four-seat production car." Makes sense to me.
I ask him what, if any, cars were used as inspiration when developing the big Nissan. Were any used as a benchmark? He stares me down. "No. None. Only the GT-R can do what it does." Okay, I get that, but what about the Porsche 911 Turbo? It has four seats, four-wheel drive, is devastatingly efficient and is probably closer than any other car to the Nissan's admittedly huge breadth of abilities. "No. The 911 Turbo cannot be used every day like a GT-R." I try to interject, to say that plenty of people do, indeed, use their 911 Turbos as daily drivers, but he's having none of it. "You cannot fit in luggage with a 911 like you can with this car. And the rear seats are much smaller than ours." Both statements are true, but I get the impression that this line of questioning will get me nowhere.
So it's time to try out the new model. Mizuno might have his blinkers on but I can forgive him that, because whether or not I feel the desire to own a GT-R, the car is undeniably a towering achievement for Nissan. And while the motoring press can, at times, be rather derisory about the lack of an all-new model, the car's evolution has, as the man himself says, been steady, measured and precise. While the technical specification for the 2014 model year is exactly the same as last year's, that's not to say subtle design improvements haven't been implemented, and I'm promised that these will become immediately apparent once I'm hammering around the twisting Dubai circuit. Changes to the 3.8L, twin turbo V6 have seen power rise to 550hp at 6,400 rpm, and maximum torque rise to 632Nm, which comes in between 3,200 and 5,800 rpm. When using the standard R-Start mode (launch control to you and me), standing start performance is staggering, with 0 to100kph taking just 2.7 seconds.
Developed by Nissan in collaboration with Bilstein and NordRing Corp, the tuning company owned by Toshio Suzuki, this model's suspension setup transforms it into a stiffly sprung trackday weapon. With virtually all compliance dialed out of the suspension, Nissan says it corners as flat as a racecar. Other track-focused features include six-spoke lightweight RAYS alloy wheels and additional brake cooling ducts and air guides that help reduce brake temperatures by around 50 degrees during track use.
Cooling air is directed onto the front brakes via a special duct on the carbon front splitter, while air guides behind the back wheels direct cooling air onto the rear discs. The interior has, predictably, lost its rear seats, saving just 14kg over the regular car, which seems a bit pointless to me, but it definitely ups the hardcore vibe. The part-leather front race seats, Mizuno is proud to point out, have a special covering for extra grip under hard cornering. He calls it "magic cloth" - the high friction fabric covers the face of both seats and "sticks" to the clothing worn by the driver and passenger to, hold them in place under track driving conditions. Mizuno first used the material when coaching Group C sports car racers in Japan and reckoned it instantly helped lap-times.
"I also developed a special sewing machine for stitching the leather," he says.
I cannot help but like this guy, for he's a genuine enthusiast. I mean, who else would bang on about a sewing machine he designed for the interior? With him, though, it's all part-and-parcel in fine tuning, honing and refining what is very much his baby.
On the track, the GT-R shines like never before. Even with the windswept surface covered in swirling sand, there is grip aplenty, and the car takes corners, chews them up and spits them out while practically sneering at its driver, egging me on to explore the upper reaches of my limitations. The car knows I'll never be able to beat it. On the main straight, I get to play with launch control, to get the full 0-to-100 hit. Left foot on the brake, throttle down with the right, take it to 3,000rpm and hold it there for three seconds. Then let go of the brake and hang on for dear life as the GT-R posts a time that should have Bugatti Veyron owners properly worried.
The Track Pack GT-R goes on sale in the UAE from next week, but prepare to dig deeper into your pockets for the privilege of ownership. With a price of Dh509,000, this Nissan is straying into proper supercar territory, so as a parting question I tap Mizuno on the shoulder and ask him if he's worried that the GT-R is getting a little bit expensive these days. Once again he stares me down and I know exactly what he is going to say.
See more photos of the GT-R Track Pack at www.thenational.ae/multimedia