If there’s one manufacturer which enjoyed a mammoth turnaround in fortunes over the course of the 1990’s it could arguably be Nissan. From the disappointment of the early 1990’s which yielded just one race victory from 1991 – 1994, Nissan returned in 1996 with a partial factory effort before a full-blown assault on the BTCC from 1997 – 1999. Whilst Nissan will be mostly remembered for their dominant march to both drivers and constructors titles in 1999, the Primera GT BTCC began its BTCC history in 1997, the year I’ve stepped back to investigate the history and legacy of one of the most finely-tuned and dominant cars of the Super-Touring era.
Chassis: Nissan Primera P11 GT BTCC
Engine: 1998cc, SR20DE Straight 4
Power: 320bhp / 8300rpm
Brakes: Ventilated discs (front) solids (rear)
Gearbox: Xtrac 6 Speed Sequential
Drive: Front-wheel drive
(Stats sourced from Ultimate Car Page.com)
Nissan’s works effort was run by the Wellingborough-based, RML team. RML’s previous manufacturer, Vauxhall jumped ship at the end of 1996 to form a soon-to-be historic partnership with Triple Eight.
The Primera GT made its race debut, backed by a full factory effort from Nissan in Japan on March 31, 1997, at the opening round of the ’97 BTCC season at Donington Park. With backing from Vodafone and a proven BTCC race winner in David Leslie, Nissan started the season strongly with Leslie securing 4th place in the opening race. Leslie’s strong form continued throughout the season with 3rd place finishes at Brands Hatch Indy and Croft helping him to 8th in the final championship standings.
Teammate and BTCC rookie Anthony Reid had a dismal start to 1997, retiring from the first four races. Reid recovered from a tough start to his BTCC career with a good midseason run of form, before two podium finishes in the final three races of the year ensured he finished just 4 points off the championship’s top 10 in 11th place. In a season where DNF’s plagued Reid’s car, and the whole field struggled to keep pace with the dominant Williams Racing Renault Laguna’s Nissan finished 5th in the constructor’s table.
They continued into 1998 with Leslie and Reid as their drivers, but unlike in 1997, the chance to undertake a full winter of development work had transformed the Nissan Primera into the class of the BTCC field. 9 race wins from 26 races ensured Nissan finished 1998 as both constructors and teams champions, a remarkable achievement for a BTCC program just two years in the making.
Anthony Reid enjoyed a stunning second season in the BTCC and carried on where he left from 1997, scoring 7 race wins and 6 further podium finishes on his way to 2nd place in the driver’s standings, 15 points behind eventual champion Rickard Rydell. With the DNF’s which hampered him in 1997 a thing of the past, Reid was one of 1998’s standout performers and it remains one of his equal best seasons in the BTCC.
Leslie’s 1998 season proved to be more difficult and a collection of DNF’s over the opening half of the year dropped him from championship contention. Despite this, Leslie still picked up 2 race wins, and 4 further podium finishes on his way to 6th in the championship.
A third Nissan Primera GT joined the grid full-time in 1998, run by a team and driven by a driver who would go on to make history the following year. Matt Neal campaigned the 1998 season in a ’97 build Primera GT from round 6 onwards following a close tie-up with Nissan’s factory operation. The Primera’s speed in the Independent class was quickly established and Neal scored 4 class victories in the second half of the season.
1999 was Nissan’s final season in the BTCC and the final season of the Primera GT. It also proved to be the most dominant of Nissan’s return as the team won 12 out of 26 races on their way to a clean sweep of drivers, constructors and teams titles. With Anthony Reid making the switch to Ford for 1999, David Leslie stayed with the team and BTCC rookie Laurent Aiello was bought in to take Reid’s place.
With a background in German Super Touring, Aiello proved to be a BTCC sensation and he claimed the 1999 title at the first time of asking, a stunning achievement for a rookie in the series. 10 race wins and 5 further podium finishes helped Aiello secure the title with a 15-point cushion over teammate Leslie who scored a further 3 race wins for the team. Whilst 1999 would also be Leslie’s best ever finish in the BTCC (2nd), Aiello’s speed and consistency throughout the early part of the year which saw him score 6 race wins in the first 10 races established himself as Nissan’s top championship challenger. Despite strong challenges from Volvo’s Rydell, and James Thompson in the Honda Accord, the Primera’s status as the fastest car on the grid was rarely challenged, and Aiello finished outside the points just 6 times during the course of the season.
Matt Neal also made history in 1999, in a year old German-built Nissan Primera. With a £250,000 reward on offer for the first to do so, Neal drove himself into the BTCC history books by becoming the first ever privateer to win an outright BTCC championship race in the feature race at Donington Park. Neal would go on to dominate the Independents championship in 1999, scoring a class win in 20 of the 26 races, and a further 3 outright podiums along the way. In a period of enormous manufacturer budgets and presence in the BTCC, such success for an Independent outfit was unprecedented.
The end of 1999 also bought an end to Nissan’s works BTCC programme as like their fellow manufacturer rivals Volvo and Renault, they left the BTCC. Despite testing for Honda, Laurent Aiello also left the series to race with Audi in Le Mans and the new iteration of the DTM in Germany. Nissan stalwart David Leslie was another who didn’t return in 2000, and although he made a handful of appearances during the year for both Honda and PRO Motorsport. he didn’t contest a full-time BTCC campaign until he returned to spearhead Proton’s unsuccessful venture in 2002.
Nissan left behind a legacy that firmly places them as one of the most memorable teams of the Super-Touring era. Whilst a 3-year stay is short compared to some manufacturers, the progress and rapid rate of development shown by Nissan on their BTCC return is a reflection of the sheer size, scale and budgets the BTCC enjoyed during its boom years. 1999 was one of the most dominant starts to a season I can remember, and in the hands of Reid, Leslie and Aiello, the Nissan Primera GT will be one of the most fondly remembered cars of the BTCC in the 1990’s.
If you’re interested in reading more about some of the BTCC’s most iconic cars, let me know which ones you’d like me to cover either by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org or getting in touch over on Twitter @hairpin_corner.