In 2008, PlayStation® and Nissan posed the question - “can a Gran Turismo® gamer become a real racing driver?” The success of the first competition demonstrated that this answer is a resounding “yes”. Since then, GT Academy has gone on from strength to strength.
The competition in 2008 saw 12 countries participate across Europe. 25,000 PlayStation®3 fans downloaded the Gran Turismo®5 Prologue time-trial and put in fast lap after fast lap, determined to set the best time they could. At the end of the qualifying period, the 20 fastest gamers from each country competed in National Finals, with the 22 fastest drivers overall making the International Final - the GT Academy at Silverstone, the heart of British motorsport. This week-long boot camp aimed at turning them from virtual racers into true endurance drivers, giving the two best contestants the opportunity of a seat in the Nissan-backed RJN Motorsport team at the Dubai 24 Hours race in January 2009.
At Silverstone, the 22 gamers didn’t just have to prove their mettle in a series of racing cars. Written tests, medical tests, fitness challenges, driver psychology workshops and more were interspersed with a range of driving challenges, from a 4 hour karting race to a Caterham car control session to stints in the Nissan 350Z and Nissan GT-R. Even their media presence and professional attitude were tested during the intensive training programme.
Steve Deeks was the head judge at GT Academy 2008, making the final decision on who went through to learn to race professionally with the Nissan team. Steve was armed with 3 assistants – Rob Barff, Mike Garff and Elliot Charifour – who each have a wealth of motorsport experience and knowledge behind them.
Johnny Herbert, who has three Formula One Grand Prix wins and a Le Mans 24 Hours victory on his CV, was on hand as a mentor and completed the judging panel. His masterclass on what it takes to be a successful racing driver let the competitors know what to expect if they wanted to see their dream become a reality.
Over the course of the week at Silverstone, the trainees were judged by the experienced panel each night and the weakest drivers were eliminated from the competition. By the last day, this had whittled the 22 gamers down to only eight:
The rain was falling on the final day of the competition, which brought the most out of the new skills they’d learnt over the week and let their natural talent shine. A dog fight race in the heavy rain was followed by a session in single-seaters on an incredibly slippery track. The contestants needed to show adaptability across different racing cars, and unfortunately for both Giacomo and Matthew, they recorded the slowest lap times in the single-seaters by a long way and were eliminated.
Next up was a final series of knock-out races, won by Lucas from Spain. The competitors then drove individual sessions in the Nissan GT-R accompanied by Rob Barff. Rob used this time to assess each driver’s car control, style and approach to driving, to give the judges an insight they hadn’t had previously.
Finally the drivers were interviewed by the whole panel of judges, to prove their commitment and desire to be the first GT Academy Champion. Steve Deeks and his team then put their heads together and, after much deliberation, Lucas Ordoňez from Spain and Lars Schlömer from Germany were crowned the winners.
Having won GT Academy, there was no guarantee that Lucas or Lars would be rewarded with a seat in a powerful Nissan 350Z GT4 race car for the Dubai 24 Hours. Both drivers underwent an intensive Driver Development Programme, during which Lucas showed he had what it takes to tackle the rigours of a demanding 24 hour endurance race. With Lars having struggled to adapt to the racing car’s sequential gearbox, it was up to Lucas to fly the flag for GT Academy in Dubai racing alongside Johnny Herbert.
Happily, Nissan and Sony’s confidence that a gamer could become a real world, talented racing star was well placed. While the team’s result did not truly reflect their speed and potential due to some technical issues, Lucas performed admirably at Dubai only nine months after the qualifying stage of GT Academy, handling daytime and night stints without becoming involved in any accidents.
It wasn’t part of the original script, but after Dubai both Nissan and PlayStation knew they had unearthed a special driver talent. After his Middle East adventure, Lucas was rewarded with the chance to build a career with Nissan in top level motorsport. He has since gone on to come second in the 2009 GT4 Cup and be the first gamer to race at the Le Mans 24 Hours (with a podium finish!). His team won the 2011 Intercontinental Le Mans Cup series and Lucas was soon making motorsport history once again, helping to guide the Nissan DeltaWing to its first ever finish, taking fifth overall in the gruelling 1000-mile 2012 Petit Le Mans race. He now continues his career as a Nismo Athlete for the Nissan brand.
Without doubt, GT Academy proved in its first year that a Gran Turismo gamer really could be turned into a world-class racing driver.