From PlayStation to Le Mans

Le Mans 2013 FREE GT Academy

How a Global Partnership Changed the Lives of Wannabe Online Racers

When leading global organisations Nissan and Sony came together eight years ago, a revolutionary plan was drawn up with the objective of turning a regular armchair gamer into a professional racing driver.

The plan was the brainchild of Nissan’s Global Motorsports director Darren Cox. A self-confessed petrol head, Cox sought a tie-up between the Japanese car marque and the world’s leading video entertainment company, co-incidentally and helpfully, another Japanese firm. The project would be based around the highest selling video game franchise in Sony’s PlayStation brand – Gran Turismo, created by Kazunori Yamauchi and launched in 1997 after five years of development.

“The project began with a promotion in the UK with a bunch of 50 PlayStation gamers,” Cox explains. “The best driver would win take part in a special GT4 event. They had drives in Nissan Micras, a Murano and off-rounding in a Pathfinder. They then had a go in the 370Z and it was at that point that one of the instructors came to me to say that a few of the drivers could really peddle these quick machines.”

The Nissan PlayStation GT Academy has since expanded rapidly across the world, with the launch of a GT Academy in the USA in 2011, three years after the inception of its European counterpart. The top gamers are identified in a series of online time trials using pre-selected Nissan vehicles. Thousands of entrants are narrowed down to a select few, who then participate in a National Final in special racing pods during a series of live Gran Turismo elimination rounds.

The top performers are then invited to take part in the European Final at Silverstone, and an intense Race Camp where the gamers switch from virtual cars to actual Nissan sportscars. Drivers are tested on their strength, stamina, mental agility and driving skills. Judges, led by head judge and former F1 racer Johnny Herbert, look for talent and dedication in deciding the winner, who will take part in a GT4 championship.

Cox reckons the success of the concept could well lead to other organisations trying to gain their own piece of the virtual gaming to reality racing market.

He says: “If someone now put forward the idea of placing a gamer into a race car, the only reason they would do that is because we’ve already done it and it’s been proven a success. We were ahead of the pack. Now another reason why people will accept us is because Formula One teams all use simulators. McLaren for example will use its simulator in Woking on a Friday to set the car up, and send the data and feedback for the team at the circuit to replicate. At some point, someone will copy what we are doing, but in 15 years time it won’t be unusual to find someone who started racing via a virtual game, within Formula One because the simulators are getting better and better with the addition of seats, pedals and steering wheels which give more of a realistic feel.”

Cox says the concept has stood the test of time to the effect that it has won over the cynics in his own company.

“One of our board members was testing the GT-R Nismo at the Nürburgring,” Cox adds. “He’s a very good driver but had never been to the circuit. He therefore called me and asked if Sony Japan could send him the latest Gran Turismo. Five years ago he would never have considered such a thing, it would have been a stupid concept. So even the conservative board members now get how influential the game has become. Once that happened, we knew that we had the cynics convinced.”

The European GT Academy’s first winner was 29-year-old Spaniard Lucas Ordóñez in 2008. The effect the concept has had on its winners has been striking. From taking part in the Dubai 24 Hours only months after claiming victory, Ordóñez was soon behind the wheel of a Nissan Oreca 03 in the LMP2 class of the Le Mans 24 Hours. Briton Jann Mardenborough was the Academy’s 2011 winner. He went one better, reaching the world’s top sportscar endurance race in only two years, standing on last year’s LMP2 podium in third place, as well as taking third in class at the Spa 24 Hours. After competing in the FIA F3 European Championship, he’s now graduated into this year’s GP3 Series and took his first international career win at Hockenheim in July.

“Back in 2008 I was an MBA Business student in Madrid,” Ordóñez says. “My dad and brother were racing drivers, and of course I wanted to join them. During my studies I saw an advert for the GT Academy and thought it could be the opportunity of my life to try to become a racing driver or at least to be part of a race in the Dubai 24 Hours.

“I played games but I wasn’t what you would call a hardcore gamer. It took me a lot of training to be on the pace and fight for the national finals. I was fortunate enough to get through to the European final at Silverstone which was extremely tough. There was a huge amount of competition and the fitness and driving tests really tested us. I beat the other 21 finalists and at that point my life changed. It was amazing to race in the UK for three months to prepare for the Dubai 24 Hours, and to race with Johnny Herbert.

“After that though, nobody, including Nissan, had any idea what to do next. I was pushing everyone involved in the programme to continue. Eventually after four months, Nissan decided to go forwards and to compete in a full season in the FIA European GT4 Cup. Alongside Alex Buncombe we finished second in the championship. After two years of GT4 I got the chance to race in the Le Mans 24 Hours, coming second in LMP2 in 2011.”

Ordóñez has since travelled the world, testing V8 Supercars in Australia, racing Super GT cars in Japan and winning last year’s GT3 Pro-Am Cup in the Blancpain Endurance Series. He’s also helping to develop the fully electric Nissan ZEOD RC prototype racer which debuted at Le Mans this year.

“It’s been an unbelievable journey and everyday I’m trying to improve as a racing driver. If I hadn’t applied back in 2008, I would have gone from being at home, playing a computer game to being stuck in an office working for a marketing company or in finance. Six years later, I still have to pinch myself to realise that what I have achieved is actually real. Whenever I see a PlayStation console, I think of how something like that turned me into a professional racing driver, competing around the world. It’s an amazing story which gives hope to those people at home, some who may not have the money, and are sitting in front of their console. They have the chance to follow in the footsteps of myself and Jann and have the opportunity to race in a car with 550 horsepower.

“Even though I am now seen as a professional racing driver, I always think how lucky I’ve been and how hard I worked for this. It’s unbelievable how the level continues to get higher each year of the GT Academy. There are some amazing drivers growing to become Nismo athletes.”

In the early stages of the GT Academy concept, Cox wanted to gather the right figures to ensure that the judging process was as professional and grueling as possible, as the victorious drivers would be figureheads for both the Nissan and Sony brands.

Cox therefore quickly approached ex-Formula One racer, Briton Johnny Herbert.

“Nissan was looking to get the right characters to help with the scheme and Darren got me on board very early, he’s a petrol head and fully understands what he wants from this project,” Herbert explains. “It was also an interesting concept for me because the only time I had played Gran Turismo on a PlayStation was to learn the Indianapolis circuit in 2000 before going out to the track for the first time. It helped a lot and within 25 minutes I felt up to speed which reduced the amount of time adjusting to the circuit when I got there.

“But the gaming industry has always been interested in how and if a hardened gamer can make it into a professional racing driver. Most of the Academy drivers have zero background in motorsport whatsoever. It has fascinated me how quickly the drivers can adapt. Seeing how they have to learn not just the driving skills, but their braking points and driving lines on the entry and exit to corners, whilst dealing with the huge amount of pressure they’re under, is fascinating.

“There were skeptics at the beginning of course, but when you see Jann, who had done no racing at all, getting into a single-seater car for the first time and setting lap times within the top seven of European F3, it is mightily impressive and justifies this concept up to now. Overall, it’s been surprisingly accepted throughout motorsport. I think Jann has been the biggest export from the Academy and to get to Le Mans in effectively 18 months is unbelievable.”

With the success of the project both in Europe and America, Cox has now targeted a further global expansion of the concept as his next goal.

“I know that Kazunori Yamauchi is very keen on more globalisation,” Cox says, “so we are considering expanding into other growing markets. I’d love to go into India and South America. It makes me proud to see how the baby is growing.”

Cox says the money invested into its driver development programme, including the recent recruitment of a former Red Bull Racing sports psychologist, is already helping to produce quality racers at a quicker rate. “We will continue to build on the development programme,” he says. “We are investing heavily in digital fitness and monitoring equipment which is improving and speeding up the level of drivers. That is taking it to the next level but can be seen with Lucas reaching Le Mans in three years and Jann achieving it in two.

“I’ve spoken with the owner of a prominent single-seater team who said we are doing more for young drivers than the Red Bull F1 team is as we’ve got to speed up their development. Jann hadn’t been to a race track four years ago and he is now in GP3 racing against other drivers who have been competing in the series for years, plus two years in a Renault championship and ten years of karting.

“We’re only scratching the surface of what is possible.”