Jann Mardenborough is an unassuming, articulate and affable racing driver.
He is not, however, your conventional driver who’s worked their way up from karting and other similar entry-level motorsports. He’s 21 years old, and, as of 2011, had never driven a race car – at least, that is, not a real one.
In 2011 Jann was on a gap year and idly wondering what to do next. He spent a lot of time on the PS3, playing Gran Turismo to a seriously competitive degree, but that didn’t really seem set to open any doors. Then, as luck would have it, he heard about the GT Academy, a driver discovery and development scheme.
Launched in 2008 by Sony, Polyphony Digital and Nissan Europe, the GT Academy allows Gran Turismo players to compete for a chance to become a real-life racing driver, by proving their skill in the game and then seeing if those talents translate in to a real car. The top prize is a spot on the Nissan racing team, and all the training and licensing necessary.
Online time trials, using Nissan cars, are used to narrow down the candidates, after which a national final takes place where the remaining competitors race in a series of elimination rounds. The top performers are then invited to drive real-life Nissans at Silverstone to test their agility, skill and stamina, allowing the judges to see who has what it takes to become a professional driver.
After winning season three of the GT Academy in June 2011, Jann started on the path to becoming a professional racing driver. He raced to a podium finish in the Dubai 24 hours in 2012, and had a competitive first season in the British GT championship in the Nissan GT-R Nismo GT3.
He’s even competed in the Le Mans 24 Hours, where he achieved a podium finish with Michael Krumm and Lucas Ordonez. Most recently he participated in the Spa 24 Hours, driving the No 35 Nissan GT-R Nismo GT3 to a third in class finish, and seventh overall, with his GT Academy teammates Lucas Ordonez, Wolfgang Reip and Peter Pyzera.
That’s no mean feat, I’m sure you’ll agree, especially given the endurance, concentration, finesse and modicum of luck required to even complete a 24-hour race. During last weekend’s visit to Spa, I was fortunate enough to catch up with him just after the race – and I was curious about how difficult the change from virtual reality to hammering past very real trees at 180mph had been.
“I don’t think it was difficult to transition, but one of the more difficult techniques to get to grips with, I’d say, was the vision side of things. For me, I had a small 14-inch screen at home to play the game on. My eyes were constantly fixated on the small screen, so much so that they would barely move.
“When I got in to a car with instructors and say, came up to a corner at Brooklands, I'd be going straight and need to be looking far ahead. But, because you’re going so fast, your self preservation’s telling you that you need to be looking closer - ‘I’m doing 90 miles an hour, I can’t look at somewhere I’m not heading to’ - which was difficult to master. That was the biggest difference.”
More on my mind is whether the simulation of driving a high-performance race car is really like that of real life. “The basic inputs, throttle, trail braking, keeping the car flat, that’s all modelled quite realistically in the game", he says. "In my first race in the Group N cars at Pembrey, I remember thinking ‘This is my first race, I’ve no idea how it’s going to feel, and how am I going to do?’. Fortunately there are many similarities.”
Despite his impressive achievements, Jann remains open-minded about further development and the experience he needs to gain, particularly when it comes to the 24-hour races. “It’s the sleep side of things that have been really difficult to get to grips with though. Some drivers get in something called a sleep band. So, days before the race they get in a routine of going to sleep quite early and getting an hour or two's nap, which becomes their sleep band.
“I’ve not got used to the necessity for sleep – this is my fifth 24-hour race – so I’m still learning how to cope with that and the stress of it. I got a lot more sleep this time than I did at Le Mans though, and I felt a little better for it. It’s a lot tougher to drive Spa than Le Mans, too, especially with the heat inside the car - that’s the hardest aspect, it just drains you.”
One thing’s for sure, you can expect to hear more of Jann in the future. “Next will be Brands Hatch, British F3, and then a Euro round after that. I like a lot of motorsport but I’d like to do, say, Dakar, or something really challenging like that in the future. But at the moment it’s more the single seaters and protoypes that I’m interested in.”
Nissan’s move to give this kind of opportunity to the likes of Jann, who clearly have the right talent and character, is a superb undertaking. I, for one, am glad that these gamers are getting the chance to show what they’re capable of, injecting new blood, enthusiasm and interest in to the sport.
So, here's to the next - and current - generation of GT Academy drivers.
To find out more about the GT Academy, read what happened when Autocar's Darren Moss checked into Nissan's race school for the day.