I have just been privileged enough to spend the past week sharing the journey of our 12 GT Academy winners. As you may know, GT Academy is the competition we run in conjunction with Nissan to find the fastest Gran Turismo gamers and see if we can turn one of them into a racing driver.
It turns out that it is possible – as proved by Lucas Ordoñez, the Spanish who won the first Academy in 2008. Lucas went on to race two seasons in the European GT4 Cup before Nissan gave him the chance to race in the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup this year in what’s called an LMP2 car (Le Mans Prototype 2). These are amazing looking cars with some serious power and so the stakes were high.
Well Lucas went to the Le Mans 24 Hour and with his more experienced Signatech Nissan team-mates, Franck Mailleux and Soheil Ayari, they came second in the LMP2 class. From GT gamer to the Le Mans 24 Hour podium in less than three years – incredible.
So, we decided to take the 12 GT Academy finalists – 2 each from Germany, France, Italy, UK and Holland and one each from Spain and Portugal – to watch Lucas’ story unfold and show them what they were fighting for. Le Mans was an incredible experience. Hundreds of thousands of people, an amazing race and an incredible opportunity for the boys.
On Saturday night they had a nation vs. nation endurance kart race that started in daylight and finished in the night, to give it a real Le Mans flavour. The track was right next to part of the circuit so on one side you had the real cars roaring past while our guys raced each other. The French contingent did a really good job on home soil.
After that it was a long, tired journey back to Silverstone. The guys all drove in convoy in six identical red and white Nissan 370Zs. Quite a sight.
On Monday the Academists were woken by some serious looking ex-military men with flash grenades in their dorm at Silverstone. They were then put through some punishing physical tests. It’s called ‘beasting’ in the army and I can see why. The serious side is that you need to be very fit to be a racing driver. The fitter you are the better you will concentrate, especially in 24 hour endurance racing.
Tuesday was a full day in Nissan cars at Silverstone. 370Zs and GT-Rs and they looked really good fun. Contestants recorded a benchmark lap time which was repeated at the end of Wednesday to see who had made the most progress.
There was some more fun on Wednesday with a special ‘Triathlon’ that involved pulling the car, racing it around the Stowe Circuit, cycling and then a run. Pretty exhausting but won by a confident Dutch pair.
Wednesday saw high pressure pursuits with a black GT-R driven by a professional chasing down the competitors. Very entertaining, but also an indication to the judges as to how the drivers would cope with pressure.
On the subject of judges, Eddie Irvine, former Ferrari and Jaguar F1 driver, was our head judge. He was helped by a team of mentors including Johnny Herbert (UK), Vitantonio Liuzzi (ITA), Jeroen Bleekemolen (NED), Franck Mailleux (FRA), Sabine Schmitz (DEU) and Lucas Ordoñez (Iberia). Imagine being taught how to race by that line-up.
A fantastic experience for all the competitors but, sadly, some had to go. On Wednesday night the mentors had to choose their strongest territory contender and eliminate the other. James from the UK, Alexander from Germany, Bastien from France, Edwin from Holland, Bruno from Portugal and Federico from Italy were all out.
The final day started with something pretty special for the competitors, aerobatic dogfights in stunt planes. They were then back at Silverstone and had the chance to drive a Renault Clio race car and the 350Z GT4 car that Lucas had raced in Dubai previously.
Another difficult one as the judges had to decide to drop two of the competitors before the final race. It was a bit of a shock that Sascha from Germany, a former mountain bike champion, went out, but chatting to the instructors afterwards it seems he was over-driving the car. Thomas from Holland had done well early on with a strong team-mate as well, but just didn’t cut it. I should say at this point that this had been a really good bunch of 12 guys. I am sure all of them had a great time and took a lot away from their week.
And so the final race…
Jann Mardenborough, the young contestant from Cardiff, Wales, took pole position. The race was nail bitingly close. Jan led and looked comfortable until he missed a gear and Thibault Lacombe from France passed him on the outside of the last turn. Thibault had been quick all week and looked to be pulling out a lead. But Jann kept a cool head and reeled him back in eventually passing him. He then managed to pull out a second a lap and took the flag with an eight second lead. Incredible stuff!.
The judges decided that Jann was a clear winner and so we have a British GT Academy champion who now embarks on whole new journey as a racing driver.
My congratulations not only to Jann, but also to all the guys who made it that far.
You can see everything that went on at www.facebook.com/gtacademy, www.flickr.com/gtacademyeurope/sets and www.youtube.com/gtacademyeurope . You’ll also be able to follow Jann’s progress on these channels as he enters a driver development programme to prepare him to race in the Dubai 24 hours in January. And don’t forget, there will be a TV series in the autumn.