FHow the next generation of top motorsport drivers is being trained by Gran Turismo
our months ago, Miguel Faísca was not a race driver. But in January, he and three other Gran Turismo players – Florian Strauss, Nick McMillen and Stansislav Aksenov – finished first in the Dubai 24 Hours SP2 class. These GT Academy graduates were recruited based on their performance in the Gran Turismo 6 demo last year and all qualified for their race licences after just two months of intensive training. A second GT Academy team came in third.
The question of whether virtual skill could translate to real-world success was first posed by GT Academy back in 2008. In the years since, the alliance between Sony and Nissan to find new racing talent has become a reliable source of drivers for Nissan’s Nismo race team.
When Bob Neville of RJN Motorsports, Mark Bowles of SCEE and Darren Cox, the head of Nissan’s motorsports division, first met in 2008, Neville gambled on a mad proposition: that he could take a gaggle of Gran Turismo fans, put them in Nissan cars, and find a genuine racer. But Neville isn’t exactly short on confidence. “If you gave me 20 bricklayers,” he says, “and if they were of the right age, fitness and temperament, with the determination to become race drivers, we would find one with talent and we would train them into a professional driver.”
Founded in 2000, RJN Motorsports has a close relationship with Nissan and a record of success that makes it ideal as a virtual racer’s university, but RJN struck lucky with its first round of students. Lucas Ordóñez was GT Academy’s first shining
“The GT Academy winners have a unique talent when it comes to adapting to the real thing”
light, having won in the inaugural 2008 competition. He’s since placed second and third in class at Le Mans in 2011 and 2013, and he’s also taken a class victory at the Nürburgring 24 Hours, driving alongside Kazunori Yamauchi.
Since Ordóñez, GT Academy has found new talent with each passing year. UK winner Jann Mardenborough shared Lucas Ordóñez’s third place at the 2013 Le Mans and is now working through the single-seater ladder.
Ordóñez’s own journey started with downloading a demo for 2008’s GT Academy. From there, he went through the national finals in Gran Turismo pods, and then onto GT Academy’s race camp, which is based at Silverstone in the UK. On-track tuition is accompanied by physical training, overseen by a judging panel of experienced racing professionals. After the intensive programme, the best are selected based on raw speed as much as temperament and fitness – the triad a real race driver needs.
For Neville, taking on a raw talent like Lucas Ordóñez was a revelation. “What surprised us with Lucas was the speed at which he adapted to the track cars,” Neville says. “In our experience over the years, the GT Academy winners have a unique talent when it comes to adapting to the real thing.” For the team director, a childhood spent playing race sims is a perfect virtual foundation course. “When we took Jann to Monza, he was running competitive laps within five minutes,” he says. “Gran Turismo clearly educated him.”
Neville draws a distinction between motorsport tradition and GT Academy’s virtual filter, though. “In the traditional path from go-karts to professionally licensed racing, there’s actually no selection filter. Talent isn’t as important as money. Licences are earned via experience. You can get pretty far without winning a thing… With GT Academy, the selection process is so tight that the drivers are all winners. The fact they’ve made it through the process means they’re the right fit.”
When Mardenborough met
Lewis Hamilton, Neville notes, they talked about games and Gran Turismo. It’s no secret that many of the current F1 drivers play videogames, and for Neville, GT Academy is the formalisation of a trend that’s been building since the ’90s. With Nissan committed to racing in Le Mans’ highest category in 2015, and with so many GT players on the team, the prospect of a virtually trained driver winning one of motorsport’s hallowed triple crown events – Le Mans 24 Hours, Monaco’s F1 GP and the Indianapolis 500 – seems close to being a reality.
2013’s GT Academy alumni, pictured before their Le Mans class victory. From left: Florian Strauss, Stanislav Aksenov, Nick McMillen and Miguel Faísca
Lucas Ordóñez will be heading to Japan to race in the Super GT this year, a move designed to broaden his real-world experience and build on his training since finishing the GT Academy programme in 2008