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Virtua Racers: from bedroom to track

  1. There is a general feeling amongst the non-gaming fraternity that all
    videogame enthusiasts are fat, chip-eating, socially backward stay-at-homes
    with nothing better to do than level up.

    But Sony and Nissan decided to put this to the test.
    Their ground-breaking joint venture – GT Academy – was designed to throw up
    actual, proper racing drivers from the ranks of the greasy fingered. It’s an
    innovative scheme that sounds lightly comical when you break it down: gamers
    race against each other on Gran Turismo to find the quickest virtual racers, who are then
    whittled down to a select few to learn how to race in real life. The winner gets a race seat. Simple. From sofa dweller to race-winning legend in a few, not-so-easy steps.

    But, insane as it sounds, it’s actually thrown up some of the finest
    racers of our modern era: four men who between them have finished up winning
    GT3 championships and ended up on the podium at Le Mans. World of Warcraft, this is not. An TG has been following their progress with great interest. So, without
    further ceremony, let’s meet the winners…

    Words / interviews: Vijay Pattni 

  2. 2008 GT Academy Winner Lucas Ordóñez

    What were you doing before you
    entered the GT Academy?

    I was just a normal student, studying for a
    business MBA in Madrid. I was halfway through my studies when I saw the advertisements for GT Academy, and so I entered. I was 23 years old.

    How many hours of games a week did
    you play?

    My family background is rooted in motorsport: my
    dad and my brother were both racing drivers, and my ultimate goal was always to follow in their footsteps, to become a racing driver. So to be honest, I was not a big gamer. I had the PlayStation 3 and Gran Turismo,
    but I played with my friends only occasionally, sometimes online. The hard work
    started when I heard about the competition in a magazine. I found Gran Turismo as my way into
    racing. Then I started playing two to three hours a day.

    Can you explain the process, step
    by step?

    The first challenge was playing online on the
    PlayStation. To get into the national finals in Spain, I had to get one of the
    20 fastest lap times in the country. Then came the national final, racing
    against these 20 fastest guys, and I got into the top three to get a prize to
    go to Silverstone. That was unbelievable. I then spent one week at the
    Silverstone ‘race camp’, against 22 contestants from Europe, and that’s when
    you leave the PlayStation behind and start on real racing cars – things like
    single seaters – and undergo heavy fitness training.

    What was the hardest thing about
    going from gaming to racing?

    The fitness test. It was extremely difficult. I
    couldn’t even speak during the test – I was in that much pain. We really
    suffered during it, but that’s how it works.

    What was your reaction when you
     won?

    It was the last opportunity in my life I had to
    become a racing driver, so I really couldn’t believe it. The prize on offer was
    huge if you think about it, a dream come true. I fought really hard to become a
    racing driver.

    When you first walked into a
    paddock as a fully fledged racer, what were the reactions from your fellow
     drivers?

    At the Dubai 24 Hours race, I overheard some
    people say something like: “What the hell is a PlayStation gamer doing racing here in Dubai in a proper racing car?” but that was the beginning. Some people were sceptical
    at first, but GT Academy sets fastest laps, wins races, wins championships. I
    like the way they’ve changed their mind and their
    idea of how to become a racing driver.

    What’s been your racing highlight?

    The podiums I scored at Le Mans, no? I finished
    on the podium – second in class – in my first year at Le Mans [and third in class in 2013]. That was a really special, emotional occasion. Winning the
    Intercontinental Le Mans Cup championship in my first year as well, then winning this year’s GT3 championship.

    What’s been your favourite track?

    It’s the Nordschleife, but I can’t really call it a ‘track’ because it’s
    25km long and is completely different to the others. So I’ll say Suzuka in
    Japan, as it’s amazing. I’m lucky to have had the opportunity to race in Super
    GT there, too. Many people say Spa – I like Spa – but Suzuka is a challenging,
    technical circuit. Plus, it’s the most famous track in Gran Turismo.

    Do you miss your gaming days?

    Not really. Real racing is much cooler. Gaming is where it all started
    for me, but a proper racing car in real life? It’s hard to describe how great
    this is.

    What advice would you give to
     hopefuls?

    Follow your dreams and work really, really hard.
    You have to be committed and take the gaming process very seriously, like a
    job. You have to show you want to be a professional driver.

    What’s the most terrifying racing
    car you’ve driven?

    Terrifying? I don’t really get scared during
    racing. Maybe I did a bit at the Nürburgring 24 Hours, because it is a very
    dangerous racetrack, with a completely different level of cars and drivers. If
    you’re scared by the car, better you stay at home and play on Gran Turismo, no? But the coolest I’ve driven was the DeltaWing. It was really fast through the corners and had a
    ridiculous top speed. That and the LMP2 car I drove at Le Mans.

    What’s your ultimate ambition in
    your racing career?

    My ultimate goal is to compete and win in the top
    LMP1 class at Le Mans. I’d love to do the Dakar with my brother one day too; I
    love the adventure, it would be cool to do.

    Who is your racing hero?

    I have to say Ayrton Senna, no? I used to have a
    picture of him racing in Imola that I got on my birthday when I was a kid, and
    I’ve followed him since. He was such a talented person.

    Which classic car would you like to
     own?

    I love classic cars, and I love the old 1970 Porsche 911. Though I’d
    also like to own a Datsun 240Z. I could go on for ages…

  3. 2011 TG Academy Winner Jann Mardenborough

    What were you doing before GT
     Academy?

    I was maybe three months into my gap year, when around January-time I
    entered GT Academy. I was at home, and all my friends had gone off travelling,
    or had started University, so I was just playing PlayStation all day. My
    parents weren’t too happy, but I didn’t have much else to do. That also meant I
    could focus 100 per cent on qualifying.

    How many hours of games a week did
    you play?

    I think before GT Academy I’d play every day for
    about two hours, but when GT Academy started, for two weeks solid, probably a
    solid four to five hours a day just to qualify. That’s, erm, a lot.

    How did you first hear about GT
     Academy?

    I heard about it in 2008 when there was a TV advert for the first one.
    After that, I recognised it and happened to be on Gran Turismo at the time, noticed GT Academy was open
    again and entered it from there. I missed 2010 as I was doing A-Levels and it
    completely passed me by.

    So was it a long process to get to
    the end?

    I started off at home, on the PlayStation, on a
    six-week online time trial. After six weeks the top 20, including me, went to
    the national event held over two days, where people got knocked out of the
    competition until only two were left, who would then progress to the
    international event held at Silverstone. That had 12 finalists in total. At
    that point there’s no games involved, it’s all in-car stuff. And then you get
    lots of different challenges at that point.

    What was your reaction when you
     won?

    As soon as I was announced and I stepped up onto
    the podium, I just knew that my life was going to change, for the better, and
    drastically so. It was the best feeling I’ve ever had.

    Were you fit at the time? How tough
    did you find real racing?

    I’d say this year it’s definitely been a huge
    challenge. Formula Three is a big step up from a GT car, anyway. In GT cars you get tired more from the
    heat inside the cockpit. It’s pretty tough. I’d say the biggest thing is how
    you look at other drivers. At home on the PlayStation you’re watching a
    television so my eyes were constantly fixated on a screen, whereas being a
    racing driver, you have to look at various things. My peripheral vision was a
    big thing – you need a lot of training just to, literally, get your head around
    it, and it felt really unnatural at first. Now it’s fine, but that was one of
    the hardest things to adjust to.

    Did you get much respect from your
    fellow drivers at first?

    I don’t really pay much attention to what other
    people say. Obviously, there were one or two who gave me a wide berth, but the
    reaction overall has been very good. I’ve got a lot of respect from other
    drivers which is good. They think it’s a fantastic opportunity. Formula Three is a little bit different right now for me, because there are loads of young
    guys involved all gunning for you, but definitely for GT cars, the reaction has been good.

    What has been your racing
    highlight to date?

    Definitely Le Mans 2013 [as a rookie, Jann
    outqualified his teammates and therefore did the first stint of the 24-hour
    race]. Third in class on my first time out was just amazing stuff. I didn’t
    feel great during my qualifying laps because there was too much traffic out
    there, I think the pace was a lot more top five. But in the race it doesn’t really
    matter about qualifying too much because it’s over 24 hours.

    Were you nervous of such a big race
    on such a big stage?

    I didn’t get intimidated by Le Mans before I
    raced there. Yes, you’re aware of the actual people that are taking part in
    that track, so in that sense you do get a bit of a spine-tingling sensation,
    but then you’ve got a job to do and focus on the task in hand. You can’t focus
    on your emotions too much.

    What’s your favourite track?

    The Norisring in Germany. If you look at it on a
    piece of paper, it’s just a dual carriageway with a couple of hairpins thrown in and a chicane, but it’s so much more than that, so many bumps, little tricks; it’s a very technical circuit.

    Do you miss your gaming days?

    No, I love what I do now, to be honest – it’s the
    perfect thing. There isn’t as much free time involved, but no complaints at all
    from me.

    What advice would you give to GT
    Academy hopefuls?

    Dedication is the biggest thing. It’s very easy
    to get all high and mighty with your head in the clouds very quickly in this sport, because sometimes you have so many things going for you. Push yourself a 100
    per cent all the time and never give up. It’s very easy to start slacking. Don’t take shortcuts. Always pursue your target.

    What’s the most terrifying racecar
    you’ve driven?

    None are terrifying, if I’m honest. I’d say that
    the most exciting was probably a World Series car I tested recently, that was mega. 530-odd
    horsepower, 710kg with the driver and it’s got DRS – a proper, proper car that.
    The most exciting and fastest car I’d ever driven. But my most terrifying
    moment in a car would probably have been at Le Mans, going out on cut-slicks in
    a qualifying session, and it was damp. At one end of the Indianapolis corner it
    was soaking wet; I remember aquaplaning off the road and into the grass.
    Luckily, I didn’t hit anything but that was terrifying. Quite horrible.

    Do you ever get scared?

    Everybody gets a little bit scared of something,
    but no, you can’t bring any emotion into it. There are scary times, of course,
    but you can’t afford to go into a race being scared.

    What are your plans for next
     season?

    I’m a bit unsure just yet. I’ll definitely be
    racing, GP3 might be on the cards for next year, World Series might be on the cards, there’s the possibility of F3 or prototypes. It all sounds promising; I just don’t know what in yet.

    What’s your ultimate racing
     ambition?

    Formula One. That’s the absolute pinnacle. But
    also, competing at the top class at Le Mans – in LMP1 – would be hugely
    appealing as well, if that ever happens. Formula One’s the ultimate goal
     though.

    Who is your racing hero?

    It’s quite weird, because I’ve got quite a few.
    Colin McCrae, Tommi Mäkinen, people like Rickard Rydell and Alain Menu –
    touring and rally car drivers – that’s what I used to watch as a child, and, of
    course, Lewis Hamilton.

    Which classic car would you like to
     own?

    Classic car? Oof, that’s interesting. I’ve
    recently been looking at a few recently – one’s a childhood car that I’ve
    always wanted, and now I’ve got the opportunity to get one. It’s the E39 BMW
    M5. It’s probably going to cost me quite a lot, too.

    So how has GT Academy changed your
     life?

    It’s changed my life massively. I went from zero
    to, well, not hero, but having everything I ever wanted really. For me there are no cons. When you fill out any form, and it asks you for your job title and you fill out “racing driver” that’s awesome, isn’t it?

    Has it helped get more, ahem,
    female attention?

    [Laughs] It certainly helps, yes.

  4. 2012 GT Academy Winner: Wolfgang Reip 

    What were you doing before GT
     Academy?

    I was studying management at a University in
    Brussels. I was enjoying it, but I was always dreaming about racing, so I was
    playing Gran Turismo quite a lot.

    How did you hear about it?

    I’d known about GT Academy since Lucas [Ordóñez]
    won in 2008. But at the time it sounded so impossible to achieve that I never
    tried. And then in 2012 I had no other options, so I thought, “Why not, you
    never know.” I entered the online competition, which was quite difficult, but
    at the end I finished 16th in the world overall, out of 800,000 people in
    total, which isn’t bad.

    So I had my ticket for the national final in
    Belgium, with 15 other finalists. I won that and went to race camp at
    Silverstone. There, of course, we had seven days of very difficult challenges.
    Everything was hard there, because the pressure was extremely high, we had a
    lot of different challenges and fitness tests, a lot of driving. You had to
    push 110 per cent all the time, and that was difficult. Of course, the more you
    go through the week, the bigger the pressure, because you know the target is
    closer and closer. But I finally did it.

    Were you a massive gamer?

    I’ve been playing since I was a child, so quite a
    lot! I played the first Gran Turismo when I was young,
    and then I played PC driving sims too, but now I have less time at home, so if
    I play anymore my girlfriend won’t be very happy.

    What was your reaction when you
     won?

    Intense. There were a lot of different emotions. I
    cried a bit, yes. It was the most incredible day of my life. I’d been dreaming
    about this since I was a child. I did quite a lot of karting as a kid and my dream was to become
    a racing driver, but unfortunately at 12 I had to stop, because my father
    couldn’t afford it anymore. So winning the GT Academy
    was a big day, a big moment.

    What was the hardest thing about going from games to
     racing?

    I would say the pressure of the reality. In
    games, the only pressure you have is to get a good result. In reality, there is
    the risk, the money, plus the adrenaline of driving itself is quite difficult
    at the beginning. This year we did a few national races in England, and after
    racing in Dubai, we did two races in GT4 and got put straight into the
    Blancpain series – it was a big step.

    What were the reactions from other
     drivers?

    Some were quite friendly, but I remember some of
    the first races – I could hear some people talking about us and joking. But not all, because some
    other drivers were extremely friendly and told us to ask them lots of questions if we needed it. I guess it’s normal; it’s a very special way to enter racing. It didn’t bother me at all, to be honest.
    When you see the pace we had, people can think what they want. At the end, the
    results are there.

    What has been your racing
     highlight?

    In terms of results, the 24 Hours of Spa, where we
    finished seventh overall and third in class. That was my biggest achievement,
    although I have to say, every time I drive I enjoy different things. When I have
    a good battle on track, I love that.

    What’s the most most difficult
    racer you’ve driven?

    The Radical SR8 I drove at Snetterton. It was a
    private test, and there was an LMP2 car running alongside me. It scared me
    because there was proper English weather: wet. And in sixth gear doing 240km/h,
    you get quite a lot of aquaplaning. There was a river on the track. Plus, you
    don’t feel extremely safe because your head is exposed, and my shoulders were
    nearly above the cockpit. No aids, no traction control. Though near the end of
    the session, I was faster than the LMP2 car.

    What’s your ultimate racing
     ambition?

    I am realistic – I’m not very young anymore. I’m
    not old, but I’m not a young man. I just turned 27, so everything about single-seaters I can
    forget. That’s fine. My biggest target is to drive as long as possible and to
    win as many races as possible. The target is to grow and achieve as much as
    possible. The category? I would prefer sprint and endurance racing, as both are
    completely different, but I like both. In sprint, like DTM or Super GT, for
    example; it’s really exciting, but on the other side it’s nice, too.

    Who is your racing hero?

    Not original sadly, but I’d have to say Ayrton
    Senna. I’ve been following him since I was a child. I began to watch Formula
    One when I was four with my father, and it sounds really stupid, but I liked
    his yellow helmet. When you are a child these things matter. I saw his crash
    live when I was seven, and I didn’t see his yellow helmet anymore, found out
    about his crash and I learned a little bit more from books about him and his
    racing. I’ve met his nephew Bruno a few times, too.

    Which classic car would you like to
     own?

    My first car was like a classic – a Peugeot 106.
    But a proper classic car? Good question. Well, I think, only for fun, an AC
    Cobra, maybe? Just for fun, mind.

  5. 2013 GT Academy Winner: Miguel Faisca

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    What were you doing before GT
     Academy?

    I was studying mechanical engineering in Portugal.
    In fact, I’ve still got five modules to finish. If I can still do one or two
    modules this year that will be good, but, honestly, GT Academy is now my
     priority.

    How did you first hear about the
     competition?

    I didn’t play that much. I even borrowed a
    PlayStation from my cousin, and I only played to qualify when I stopped
    studying for my exams. I first heard about it three years ago; I think a friend of mine told me. It was a long time ago.

    Did you think you were going to win
    when you started out?

    In Portugal there were two ways – the first was online and the other was
    a live event. Only seven people could qualify online for the national finals,
    but I couldn’t qualify doing that so I did the live event. In this, only three
    people could pass through to the national final. I got through, and in the
    national final there were 10 contestants, of which only two people could go to
    the Silverstone race camp. I was one of them.

    At Silverstone, we were divided into groups, I was
    in the Iberian team: there were two guys from Portugal and four from Spain. In
    the race camp, I was expecting to have much more physical training – the
    training we had was difficult, but it wasn’t that much. We did Marine tests,
    crawling and running through mud and catching electrical shocks, things like
    that. It was pretty tough, but lots of fun.

    What was your reaction when you won?

    I wasn’t expecting it. The last day, although I
    won both the races, I knew it was tight, and even when I was on podium, I looked down at my instructor, and he looked at me and shook his head as if to say, “No, you
    didn’t win.” So I was very thrilled to win. There was almost no reaction, because I didn’t expect it.

    What were the initial reactions
    from other drivers?

    Some like us and talk to us, but some I think are
    a little bit jealous. They started the ‘hard way’ and we started the ‘easy way’; it all depends on
    the people, but our cars are very pretty so everyone looks at them! We’re in
    the limelight a lot, I suppose.

    You’re the newest winner – have you
    raced competitively yet?

    Not yet. We’re doing a driver development
    programme at the moment, so we’re just getting signatures for next, so that I
    can compete and try to win. We are participating in the races – we have cars much slower and much faster than ours – but we’re learning spatial awareness.

    What track have you driven on so
     far?

    Castle Combe, Silverstone, and Donington. I’ve
    only raced in the UK.

    What’s been the hardest thing going from games to real
     racing?

    The heat in the car was the most difficult thing
    I had to get used to when I started racing for real. Sometimes it gets up to 50 degrees in the
    car. I did lots of physical preparation and training to help with that, but I
    try to forget about it. When I’m in the car, I try only to focus on the racing.

    What have you been driving so far?

    I’ve only driven the 370Z Group N car so far, and
    the 350Z GT4 car.

    What’s your favourite track?

    Donington, so far anyway. I’ve actually been
    racing around Donington on a sim in the Nismo Lab, doing a bit of simulation
    training and a bit of reaction training.

    Do you miss your gaming days?

    Not really, I quite like being here.

    What advice would you give to
    wannabe racing drivers?

    Try as hard as you can and not give up. I always
    wanted to become a racing driver – sometimes the path didn’t lead me where I wanted to go – but
    my friends helped, convinced me not to give up. And look at me, I won the GT
    Academy. If you have a dream, don’t give up.

    What are you plans for next season?

    I’m not quite sure, but it’s our plan to race a
    full championship in GT3 in the Nissan GT-R.

    What’s your ultimate racing
     ambition?

    I would love to try rallying, but to be happy I
    don’t have to be in rallying. What I ultimately wanted was to become a racing
    driver, and make a living out of it. I’ve only ever rallied in my grandmother’s
    car – it’s an old Ford Fiesta. And when I say “rally”, I don’t mean I raced. I
    just had some fun in Portugal when my grandmother wasn’t looking.

    Who is your racing hero?

    Travis Pastrana. He’s very persistent, he
    doesn’t give up on his dream and although he has physical limitations, when he
    has an objective in his head – say the finish line – he will work as hard as he
     can.

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