12 Sept 2013

GT Academy: Creating a new breed of racing driver... from gamers

The world's newest professional racing driver began his career at Silverstone yesterday. Usually this wouldn't be particularly notable, but this chap - Portugal's Miguel Faisca - had never even been in a racing car before last Friday and got where he is through playing videogames.

Miguel's the latest graduate of a program dating back five years. A joint venture between electronics giant Sony and Nissan, GT Academy searches for the brightest talent in Sony's halo title racing game - Gran Turismo - to put to the test in real cars. These days a week-long "Race Camp" pits competitors from around the globe against each other in demanding physical and mental tests, alongside a series of driving challenges, eliminating the participants along the way in a reality-TV-esque manner until they are left with the very best.

They're not just looking for the fastest guy though. The players are tested on punishing SAS assault courses, thrown into situations where they need to display unusual driving skills and even have their heart rates and brain patterns recorded to check how relaxed and in "the zone" they are. The drivers are mentored by professionals like Johnny Herbert, Stefan Johansson and Rene Arnoux, constantly looking for the spark of a racing driver - if you've got a hidden streak of unwarranted arrogance or meekness, they'll wheedle it out.

The fun doesn't stop there, of course. Having found their ideal candidate, an intensive regime of training in all aspects of the trade ensues, termed the "Nissan Driver Development Program". Miguel has six months of physical training, dieting, driver coaching and even media training ahead of him before he's pushed into a GT3 class Nissan Nismo GT-R for a season of racing alongside veteran sportsmen. No small risk for Sony, Nissan and Bob Neville of RJN Motorsport who'll be supplying the car!

But Miguel is in good hands - GT Academy has some remarkable successes. The first winner, Spain's Lucas Ordonez, lit up the racing world after his first, formative season in GT4 by winning the ILMC LMP2 world championship with the Signatech team in 2011. The same year he competed in his first Le Mans 24 Hours and finished second in the LMP2 class. He's done two more Le Mans since then, with another podium finish in 2013. He's also driven the Nissan DeltaWing to its first competitive finish at Petit Le Mans in 2012 and is pencilled in for its successor - the Nissan ZEOD semi-electric racer - in the 2014 event.

If anything, 2011's British winner, Jann Mardenborough, has been even more impressive. As part of the assault on British GT in 2012, he nabbed a pole position at the Nurburgring, took the closest race win in the event's history at Brands Hatch - by 0.022s - and came within an hour of the title, twice, all in his first season of competitive racing. His first Le Mans race came this year with Lucas and former GT1 world champion Michael Krumm - but he did the lion's share of the driving, with 10 hours under his belt. Jann's also doing "old school" driving, mixing his season in European and British Formula 3 championships with GT events - hopping from his F3 car at Spa straight into the GT-R for the Spa 24 hour race the same day... Jann only turned 22 yesterday and didn't even sit in a race car of any kind until he was nearly 20.

GT Academy is central to Nissan Motorsport's world campaign too, which sees the Academy drivers hopping into Nismo teams across the world. Lucas and Jann have been testing in Japan's Super GT already this year, with races at Suzuki and Fuji coming up soon, while Lucas has also tested Australian V8 supercars with an eye on endurance races at the famous Bathurst Mount Panorama course. With other GT Academy winners racing in the USA and Malaysia this year too, Miguel's about to take his first steps into a pretty serious world.

But even the guys who get to the final and don't win have their chance - probably the biggest name to do this is Sean Johnston who finished runner-up in the 2011 USA GT Academy. He stuck at it and got a drive in a Porsche 911 for the IMSA GT3 Cup - in which he duly blew away all comers, winning more than half of the 15 races and finishing on the podium in all but one. He's now racing Europe in the Porsche Carrera Cup Germany and the Porsche Carrera Supercup.

Yet to get where they are all of these drivers had to first excel at playing Gran Turismo. So next time someone complains you're spending too long on the Playstation, let them know you're in training for a career as a racing driver...

Article by Andrew Evans