The traditional route to a career in motorsport used to go something like this: karting, junior car racing, bigger car racing and then Formula 1, sports cars or some other paid racing driver series.
Either that, or have very rich parents.
Now though, with rapid progress in the world of simulation gaming, there’s another, arguably more affordable way in. Racing simulators.
Darlington-born 24-year-old Jann Mardenborough is the poster boy for this route. Winner of the 2011 GT Academy, he beat 90,000 fellow computer gamers to earn himself a professional racing seat with Nissan.
Five years on from his win, Mardenborough has progressed from being a wide-eyed hopeful to an ultra-cool professional driver, now competing in and currently leading the Super GT championship in Japan.
“The culture is very different, but I really like it,” he tells me when I ask what he thinks of his new home. “The car culture out there is mad. It’s just like it looks in films.”
I’m about to experience Mardenborough’s talent first hand from the passenger seat of a brand new Nissan GT-R, which lines up in the supercar category of the Goodwood Festival of Speed. We quickly get onto the subject of sims.
“Gaming is really good at teaching you the dynamics of racing,” he tells me. “But don’t take too much notice of the lap times. You should be faster in a sim than real life purely because there’s no fear.”
Mardenborough still games now when he’s not in his racing car, partly for practice but also because he loves it. “Nothing compares to 'bum in seat time', though,” he says.
He explains to me that while sims are effective at training drivers, they still can’t compete with karting. Gran Turismo 6, for example, is great at teaching the basics of car control, but like most games is slightly unrealistic in some areas.
“It doesn’t simulate pitch movement in cars so well and the cars can be very oversteery,” he says. “It means you have to accelerate before the apex, but it’s not like that in real life.”
Nevertheless, Mardenborough is evidence of how effective racing sims can be at revealing talent. So while right now it seems the traditional route into motorsport is still arguably the best way, it may be only a matter of time before we see a driver in F1 who started out as a gamer.
If given the opportunity, I think Mardenborough could be that driver. The way he hangs onto the GT-R as it throws its tail out on the way past Goodwood’s flint wall is evidence enough for me. The boy really can drive.