“Brake, more brake, right off the brake and now full power” are the softly spoken Welsh tones coming from youngster Jann Mardenborough. Surprisingly, I’m not on a race circuit but sat in the Gran Turismo 5 simulator at a very wet, Chomondeley Pageant of Power, trying to knock down my lap times and make myself look respectable, despite the fact I’ve never played racing games.
Now some might say that virtual racing is no match for the real thing, but two major players in the car industry and gaming world would disagree.
The Nissan Playstation GT Academy Competition was set up to, as they put it, ‘grant wings’ to Gran Turismo gamers who wanted to make their dreams become a reality. And since 2008 they have done just that with varying levels of success and even entered an all gaming team into the Dubai 24 Hours this year.
Driving a Nissan 370Z GT4 in the race was the prize for 2011 GT Academy winner, Jann. “We had four gamers: me, Brian Heitkotter, Jordan Tresson and Lucas Ordonez all in the same car. There was another Nissan car and the factory Nissan drivers called us the kiddie car. We proved them wrong when we finished the race and they didn’t. It was an absolutely amazing experience to race those guys there and finish 3rd in class in the first ever gamer car in a 24 Hour race.”
In what has been a whirlwind for Jann during the past twelve months since he applied, never did he think he’d make his dream a reality through playing a game.
“I’d heard about the academy from the first year when Lucas won it and the second year I didn’t enter. I was too young and you needed to be 18 and have a valid drivers licence.
I heard about the competition again last year in January over the internet. Nothing was really going on in my life, I was a student on a gap year and I was doing nothing day to day, so I thought why not. I’m glad I did it as it really has changed my life massively.”
As in all forms of motor-racing, money plays an important part in becoming a regular driver. But even several karting sessions every couple of months for a few years when he was younger proved too costly. So Jann gave up his dream and like many wannabe racers, took to the Playstation to satisfy his ambitions.
Jann beat off over 100,000 entrants to take the next step to becoming a professional racing driver and this year even more are wanting to follow in his footsteps, with over 150,000 in the UK alone trying to set a time to take them to the second round of the competition.
“The last event in the competition was a race around Silverstone and they didn’t tell us at the time that the winner of the race would become the GT Academy winner. There was just four of us left and I won the race, not expecting to be crowned winner of the competition. They said they’d congratulate the winner at the same time and there was a long pause which seemed like an eternity and next thing I knew there was champagne spraying in my face. It was definitely the best moment of my life.”
For those wanting to enter, it’s more than just about being fast in the virtual world, the next stage will see contestants being put through their paces in a boot camp and as a winner you’re packing in at least ten years racing experience into six months. Something which hasn’t always been easy for the 20 year-old.
“The training for GT Academy was definitely intense. I won the competition in June, started training and racing in July and by January I had my International C Licence. I ran the New York Marathon which was part of the training and although it was a good experience, I never want to do it again as it was very tough.”
Preparations for Dubai were also vigorous and Jann lost four kilos in fat alone from the heat chamber work. But his hard work has paid off enormously and with a podium in Dubai and one at the Nurburgring 24 Hours, he is another GT Academy winner who has proved any sceptics wrong.
“Definitely in the early stages, at a couple of club races at Pembrey, I was aware of what people thought of me. But now I haven’t got a clue and let it go over my head. Hopefully the performances on track makes them change their mind. Weirdly the first couple of races people came up to me and would say, ‘Congratulations on winning the competition.’ They knew about the competition because of the previous winners that have raced at the same sort of events, so that sort of put me at ease. Hopefully all my results and the performance in Dubai I’ve changed that stigma of ‘can’t do the real-life thing’ ”
With the Le Mans 24 Hour race having just run, the first ever winner, Lucas Ordonez has already taken a podium at the prestigious event last year, something Jann is keen to emulate. “Lucas did amazing last year, his first ever Le Mans finishing 2nd in LMP2 which is absolutely amazing. Many drivers will spend years doing Le Mans, coming away with nothing really and obviously to win there is one of the best things you can do in motor-racing, so I’d love to compete there.”
And that I’m sure he will do, as a bright future beckons for the Welshman. As for me, with his expert instruction I managed to knock down my lap times quite considerably and even think he was impressed, especially as I was driving in wellies. You never know, I might just enter next year...
For more information on the GT Academy head to: https://eu.gran-turismo.com/gb/