Many of us use video games as a form of escapism, as a chance to live out our dreams and fantasies, if only for a few hours in a virtual world. However, there is a video game that is truly changing lives and giving a select few players the chance to live their wildest dreams for real. That game is Gran Turismo. Gran Turismo's game director, Kazunori Yamauchi, has long spoken about his desire to bridge the gap between racing simulations and real motorsport. He has achieved this himself, racing for professional teams and winning at events like 24 Hours Nürburgring.
In 2008, Yamauchi's studio, Polyphony Digital, teamed up with Sony and Nissan to create GT Academy, a competition within the Gran Turismo games that gives winners a chance to become real racing drivers. The contest starts with a series of time trial events in the game, with the winners flown to Silverstone in England to take part in a reality TV show and racing driver bootcamp that determines which player will be put behind the wheel of a real racing car by Nissan.
The 2014 GT Academy has just started in Gran Turismo 6 with the first round of time trials, so we met up with 2011 winner Jann Mardenborough to talk about transferring his experience from the game into reality. While Mardenborough started with virtual racing, he's now part of the Red Bull racing team and is being touted as a potential Formula One racer in the near future.
"For me, the biggest similarities between virtual and reality is the way that you control the balance of the car. Braking, throttle, and steering input. The way the car pitches forwards on the brakes and yaws in the corners," says Mardenborough.
"The game is quite similar to real life in that sense. In GT6 you can really feel the car moving around underneath you, and if you put too much yaw or pitch into the car, it will react as it would in real life with a bit of a snap. It was crazy to jump from the virtual world into a sports car for the first time. I didn't feel like there was much difference in terms of the way the car feels and how you deliver your inputs."
For me, this is the only thing that I have ever wanted to do, so fear never came across my mind until after I had won the competition.Jann Mardenborough
Of course, while a game can teach you the basics of car control, especially if you play with a force feedback steering wheel, there are things it can't prepare you for in a real car. There is no threat of injury or the financial cost of damaging a car in a game. You'd think that would make a virtual racer like Mardenborough nervous in a real car, but he claims that nerves never come into the equation.
"You just have to have that innate fearless thing inside you. I was young anyway, 19 at the time I entered GT Academy. You think you're invincible and you take more risks than you would if you were a bit older," Mardenborough says.
"For me, this is the only thing that I have ever wanted to do, so fear never came across my mind until after I had won the competition. You end up thinking about the things that could have happened. It's about passion really. If something is your passion, then you won't dwell as much on the things that could happen. Things like danger don't come into your mind. That's how I felt when I jumped into the Nissan GT-R for the first time at the Academy. I was just thinking 'Wow! I'm doing 140mph for the first time on a circuit I've never driven before in a really fast car!' The idea of crashing and hurting myself never came into my mind."
The biggest challenge for Mardenborough was to get used to looking through a windshield instead of looking at a TV screen.
"It was difficult to train myself during GT Academy and in the months afterwards to cope with the visual side of real racing. In racing you need to look a long way ahead of you for complexes of corners. You have to look into the corners even when they're far in the distance. You look for accidents and debris and things like that. Because I came from gaming and because I had a really small 16-inch TV in my room, my eyes never needed to move. I could see everything that I needed to see," Mardenborough tells us.
"Jumping into a sports car for the first time at Silverstone, a Nissan 370Z, the instructor sits next to you and watches your eyes as well as the track. They were constantly telling me to look further ahead, but I found it really difficult. My mind only wanted to look at what was right in front of me. It took a while to get used to it. That was one of the biggest things, if not the biggest thing, to train myself after winning GT Academy, but it's all fine now!"
Since winning GT Academy, Mardenborough has competed in the Dubai 24 Hours, the British GT Championship, the Blancplain GT Series, Toyota Racing Series, British and European Formula Three Championships, and the 24 Hours of Le mans. In 2014, he now has the backing of the Red Bull Racing Formula One Team as a member of its young driver training program, and he is competing in the GP3 series, a single-seater championship just two classes down from his ultimate dream, the FIA Formula One World Championship.
Other winners of GT Academy have been taken down a career path into sports car racing by Nissan and Sony. Mardenborough is the only winner since 2008 to be given the opportunity to pursue a career in single-seater racing and potentially Formula One. We asked him how he copes with the extra pressure of being GT Academy's first genuine chance to produce a Formula One racer, not to mention receive the backing of a huge sponsor like Red Bull.
"I wouldn't say that I'm under more pressure. Nissan know that I put more pressure on myself than anyone else does! We've spoken about this quite a few times. During 2012, when I was driving the Nismo GT3 car, I was given the chance to do some single-seater testing. I was definitely assuming that I would be racing sports cars again in 2013, in the LMP2 class. We used the single-seater testing to get used to downforce because I needed that experience, to jump into a high downforce LMP2 car and get confident," says Mardenborough.
"The testing went really well, and Nissan decided to put me in a proper single-seater, a Formula Three car, so we did some more testing and took it from there. In 2013, I found myself racing in New Zealand in a single-seater series to get some more experience, and I was also doing Formula Three as my main championship in Europe."
"During GT Academy and during 2012 it wasn't the plan for me to drive single-seaters, but Nissan thought that I would excel in this area, and it has helped me to develop more quickly as a racing driver as well because these cars are constantly on a knife edge."
So does Mardenborough's success so far in single-seaters mean that other GT Academy champions could be given the opportunity to pursue this career path in the future?
"Yeah, I think so. If you look at what Lucas Ordonez (2008 Academy winner) is doing at the moment, he's racing a factory-backed Nissan in Japan. Wolfgang Reip (2012 winner) is a Nissan Zeod test pilot, and Mark Shulzhitskiy (2012 Russian winner) is doing some testing in an LMP2 car. If you look at all the things that the winners are doing, we're covering a lot of areas. Anyone competing now should be inspired, just as I was watching Lucas race at Le Mans for the first time."
It has been fascinating in recent years to watch the GT Academy winners competing and see how they fit into motorsport alongside established names and other up-and-coming drivers. Most of the guys that Mardenborough and the other winners compete with have been brought up on racing. Some of them will have been karting from as young as 6 or 7 years old and will have spent their entire lives chasing the dream of motorsport, facing financial hardship along the way. We asked Mardenborough what the atmosphere is like in the pit lane when he competes. Surely some of his competitors must be jealous of the fast-tracked path to top-level racing and the huge sponsors that GT Academy gives to its winners.
"I'm sure there is jealousy. If you've been karting since you were a little kid and have been working your way up the ranks and some guy jumps in from playing games to join a major single-seater championship after only three years of real driving, that's going to get people's backs up. I like being called 'The Gamer Kid.' There's only a few of us that have come through GT Academy, so that's a cool, unique title to have."
Mardenborough might be coy about his relationships with his competitors, but there's no doubt that GT Academy opens doors that drivers taking a more traditional path would kill for. As part of his preparation for the 2014 GP3 Series, Mardenborough has been able to use some of the most advanced simulators on the planet, including the Red Bull Racing F1 simulator used by four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel to prepare for Grand Prix races. It's certainly a step above GT6!
I'm sure there is jealousy. If you've been karting since you were a little kid and have been working your way up the ranks and some guy jumps in from playing games to join a major single-seater championship after only three years of real driving, that's going to get people's backs up.Jann Mardenborough
"I've driven quite a few simulators recently. The one that I'm currently using to prepare for GP3 races is the Red Bull Racing simulator in Milton Keynes in England," says Mardenborough.
"That's the first time I've driven a simulator that's on hydraulic rams and lifts. It's not based on Rfactor like most other simulators. It's their own software, so it's very secretive. It's quite amazing to see what they can do. We can test new parts and aero maps as well as setup changes for each track. It's an amazing tool. The Rfactor-based sims are good as well. Especially for learning circuits and setup changes."
Interestingly, Mardenborough's video game experience means that he benefits more from simulator work than even some seasoned professionals do. Some pro racing drivers struggle to benefit from sim racing because they are so used to practicing in the real car.
"I sometimes work with guys who have never used simulators before. They're incredibly quick racing drivers, but they just can't manage in the sims. They feel sick or they just can't get used to having no feedback through their backside. That sometimes leads to them saying that the sim car doesn't have as much grip as they expect. For me, there are differences because developing a tire model is insanely difficult, and grip levels at real tracks change from corner to corner. Replicating that in a game or sim is extremely difficult," Mardenborough says.
In the last few years, online sim racing has become more and more popular and is beginning to find its feet as a spectator sport, with events like the iRacing.com World Championship Grand Prix Series live-streamed with commentary and analysis that mirrors the style of real TV broadcasts. Some budding racers are even turning to PC racing simulation as a cheaper alternative to trackdays or karting. So, could sim racing start producing the real racing drivers of the future, outside of contests like GT Academy?
"I think so. The market for people that are really quick on sims or just racing games is becoming really important," Mardenborough says.
"You see Formula One teams and sports car teams that are looking to simulators more and more often because testing is hugely expensive and is mostly banned in F1. It costs hundreds of thousands of pounds to go testing for a few days. In the sim you don't have a tire bill, a fuel bill, or any accident damage to deal with. It's a great alternative."
The 2014 GT Academy is happening right now, with the first time trial events taking place in Gran Turismo 6. Over the coming weeks, virtual drivers will be competing on the leaderboards for their chance to go to Silverstone and compete in real cars to become the 2014 champion and win that real racing opportunity. Mardenborough lets us in on the techniques he used to win in 2011.
"When I did it, I would choose a ghost car from the leaderboard that was maybe 20 positions in front of me, try to beat that ghost, and then move on to the next one and so on," says Mardenborough.
"It's very difficult if you focus on the lead ghost car because it's going to be very close to the limit of the perfect lap. It can be disheartening to see how fast the leader is as well, if you use that ghost from the beginning. If you chip away at it, it's easier to improve your lap times and not get too frustrated."
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"I used a ghost car to learn the correct lines, but you can ruin your lap by trying to outbrake it all the time, so I managed it during each lap, turning it on and off for certain corners. If I knew a corner really well, I'd leave it off to see if I could go quicker on my own."
"My biggest advice is never give up. It's so easy to put the controller down and not bother, but if you really put in the leg work, you can do it. The time trials are probably the second most tough part of the competition, the first being the army assault course at Silverstone! It's properly difficult because anyone can enter, and everyone has the same tools. You have to work harder than everyone else. I thought of chucking in the towel many times, but nobody who has won it did, and we've all done really well out of it. You have to have a determined attitude. That's the biggest thing that Nissan and GT Academy look for."
You can enter GT Academy 2014 right now by setting some lap times in the first time trials that are available in the main menu of Gran Turismo 6 on the PlayStation 3.
If you want to follow Mardenborough's progress in 2014, follow him on Twitter and check out the GP3 series too.