Oh how they laughed. When Nissan and Sony teamed up to provide bedroom gamers an opportunity to see if their digital talent could be extrapolated and quantified in real racing terms - actual, proper, blood, sweat, petrol and oversteer - it's safe to say the collective racing fraternity let out a few laughs. Surely, someone with zero actual racing experience couldn't cut it amongst the elite, the professionals?
PlayStation gamer edges closer to F1
Nissan GT Academy winner Jann Mardenborough has secured a GP3 seat for 2014. We have a chat
Well, it was plucky Spaniard Lucas Ordonez who had the last laugh, because he was the first winner of Nissan and Sony's ‘GT Academy'; a tortuous process where Nissan's crack team of mentors and racers polished online gamers into racing diamonds. And how they succeeded: Lucas raced at Le Mans and has just been announced as a Super GT racer in Japan.
His successor at the GT Academy, 2011 winner Jann Mardenborough - the first and only Brit to take the crown - has similarly made the racing fraternity sit up and take notice. Because this former GT3, Formula 3 and Le Mans racer has now signed up with Arden Motorsport. Arden Motorsport currently competes in GP3. GP3 is a feeder into Formula One.
Are you connecting the dots? A former PlayStation gamer who never raced a single day in his life who then went on to win GT Academy, raced GT cars, stood on the podium at Le Mans and raced in Formula 3 is now one step closer to starring alongside his hero Lewis Hamilton.
And TG.com has charted his rise from GT Academy student to full-time driver. Time for a little catch-up chat...
Hi Jann. A hearty, backslapping congratulations on your seat in GP3 with Arden Motorsport. You must be chuffed.
This year has started off pretty good, right? It's been a crazy ride since 2011, loads of ups and quite a few downs, but it's amazing to see how much I've done in two and a half years.
Last year was tough in Formula 3 because it was such a jump from GT3. I mean I remember doing a lap in practice or indeed in qualifying, coming in and thinking ‘yeah that's a good lap, that', and finding I was still half a second off, P14 or something, or worse. I was thinking: ‘How on earth do I find that extra pace?'
Things like that take it out of you mentally, and I found it really tough. I think last year was a learning year, but this is the year to show how much I've improved. That's the aim. Certainly last year was a massive hurdle, a building block I suppose, and in a lot of ways it was a character-building year. Now I hope things will fall into place a bit easier.
Fingers crossed. How did the opportunity come around though?
Well, after the Formula 3 season ended last year, I had a test in a Renault World Series Car, and I just remember thinking it was insane, I couldn't believe how much speed it had. From there, a few people asked if I'd tried the GP3 formula, because it might suit me better.
To be honest I still wanted to do another year of F3, I had unfinished business there. I wanted to do it again because I wanted to improve, but motorsport doesn't work like that, you take your opportunities when you can, because you never know when they come around again. So I did the test, and really liked the car, within the first hour I was really enjoying the speed, power and downforce of the GP3 car, I just felt more comfortable in that car than I've ever been in F3. I just felt more at home in it.
And... I was one of the quickest drivers over three days.
Wow. We hear you've also been accepted into the Infiniti Red Bull driver development programme?
Yep. I first spoke with Christian Horner down at Arden at the factory, He knew who I was, which was baffling, but it basically entails a lot of simulator work down in Milton Keynes at Red Bull, which is going to be really good for me. There are a few tracks that GP3 goes to that I haven't driven - the new Russian track, and the Hungaroring.
They've got close links with Arden too, and we can practice certain areas that are weak for the race weekend, as well as having the RB simulator technician guys there on hand. I'm looking forward to that kind of structure. I'll still be training under the NISMO athlete programme at Silverstone, though.
Arden are a championship-winning outfit. You must be feeling some kind of pressure to perform?
If we were the team that didn't have the history of Arden, would I feel less pressure? I'm just looking at the positives, and because of the team's pedigree, I'm in the best position possible to get the best results as possible. I'm in this game to progress.
How will you manage the step up from Formula 3 to GP3?
To be honest it's nowhere near as big a jump as it was from GT3 to F3 that I did the year before; physically last year was insane, it was an actual hurdle I had to overcome. It's like going to the gym for the first time, everything is incredibly difficult, but you do it over and over again and it gets easier Sure, GP3 is a change in driving, power and looking after the tyres, but it wasn't as much of a jump as it was last year.
Which circuit are you most looking forward to racing in GP3 this year?
Abu Dhabi. It's actually my favourite circuit. I never thought that would happen.
Nor did we...
I mean, I really like Norisring too, but Abu Dhabi is mega: the last sector is great because you have that long right that leads into where all the boats are, and you have a hotel right in front of you where people are sitting on their balcony just eating their dinner, and you're sitting there bombing around at 140mph or 150mph.
Will you still be able to race at Le Mans this year?
I hope so, I still want to, because last year was so much fun [he eventually ended up 3rd in the LMP2 class last year after a disqualification pushed his team up from fourth]. I love the fans at Le Mans too, probably the best experience I had from last year. So yes, potentially it could be on the horizon.
It can't have escaped your attention that people like Daniil Kvyat and Jean-Eric Vergne made the jump from GP3 to F1. What are your chances, realistically, of doing the same?
I know, and to be able to achieve what those guys have done would be amazing, but let's just see what happens. For me there's a goal, and that's to get into Formula One, but I think the correct way of going about it is to drive as well as I can in what I'm doing at the moment and see what happens. If it happens, great, if it doesn't, I'll just keep pushing. But it's good to know it's possible. I'm in the shop window, so to speak.
How will you make sure you don't become... how do we put this, a bit of a hot shot, a - dare we say it - diva?
It's probably easy to let your head go into the sky with all the attention you get from what you do, but the moment you stop focusing on the small details, is when you fail. I still respect everyone, I mean you have to treat people with respect.
Yes, it's glamorous and so forth, but when it comes down to it we're still motor racing, and you have to perform. You still have to have the right attitude to progress. Also, Nissan and my GT Academy mentors have drilled that into me from the start, and they've told me if I ever started being one of those ‘hot shot' guys, they'd drill it out of me. My dad and friends are the same.
OK, but let's say you did become a diva-driver. What would you absolutely demand in your suite before a race?
[laughs] Haribo, maybe a pack of Tangfastics. If I became ‘that guy', I wouldn't race unless I had these.
Excellent. Good luck Jann!