Aca­demic suc­cess


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

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