9 August 2014
F1: Another way to the top
Crash.net takes part in the UK Finals of the GT Academy as 2011 winner Jann Mardenborough continues on the path towards F1
Karting has long been the accepted first step on the path to F1 for any motorsport hopeful, but another route could be emerging…
Nismo – the motorsport division of Nissan – and Sony Playstation through Gran Turismo have been running the GT Academy since 2008, searching for gamers who could become real-life racing drivers. In 2011, Jann Mardenborough became the first British winner of the Academy and soon progressed in to single-seaters.
After a year in F3 in 2013, Mardenborough is competing in the GP3 Series this season supporting numerous F1 events, winning the sprint race at Hockenheim in July. Currently ninth overall in the standings, Mardenborough remains involved with the GT Academy process and was present at Silverstone – along with Crash.net – for the UK Finals this summer.
As the Academy's reputation grows, so does the size of the tests. Finalists are put through their paces in terms of fitness, media questioning, gaming and driving, before 28 are whittled down to six.
“It's changed a bit from when I did it,” Mardenborough tells Crash.net. “When I did it there was only two finalists from the UK – so there was 12 finalists in total – whereas now there's a lot more. But in turn there's a lot more participation going on online than when I did it.
“There was only 90,000 when I did it from Europe, whereas now there's hundreds of thousands of people from across Europe, so it's a lot more tough to get in in the first place. The challenges – some are similar – but there's lots of other stuff, the training has got a lot better, the amount of cars we use is better and it's just getting bigger and bigger each year. So it has changed, but fundamentally it's still very similar to when I did it.”
The finalists reached Silverstone via Gran Turismo 6 online, at the Goodwood Festival of Speed and Facebook but have to show they can translate that speed in the game in to the potential to be a full-time driver. Having been scored in each discipline of the UK Final, the best six go through to Race Camp.
Mardenborough is watching intently throughout the process to understand who he could be working with as a mentor come Race Camp, in order to gauge progress. And he's got one big piece of advice for all of the hopefuls.
“Drop everything. Girlfriend, wife, kids, job! No, but seriously, you have to. You live up here at Silverstone and you're expected to perform. There's a huge amount of money pumped in to you from Nissan and from Sony Playstation, so you have to give 100% all the time. If you don't, you're going to get cast aside and it's a waste of the instructors' time and everybody else's time if you're going to get to Silverstone and you can't fully commit because you have other commitments elsewhere.
“It's just a waste of everybody's time and effort and resources. So the best advice is to make sure that if you do progress on, make sure you're willing enough to drop everything and put all your eggs in one basket and push on. Because if you don't, you're going to get found out very quickly and there's been previous winners as well who have not had the commitment there because they have commitments elsewhere and they've been dropped. It's a big area that you need to be fully committed.”
Mardenborough was under no illusions when he entered – and subsequently won – GT Academy, and that has played out in the success of his career so far. After showing promise in sports cars, a move to single-seaters followed in 2013 with one goal: F1.
“[Nissan's] goal is to get the person to the top, so they'll continue backing me as far as possible. They fully fund me in GP3, every drive I've had for the last three years has been fully funded by Nissan. They paid Arden for my drive and if I moved up to GP2 or went to somewhere else like World Series or something then they'd be funding that again.
“They've invested a lot of resources in to me and they personally want to see how far we can push this. So they would not be willing to give that up – which is perfect for me – as long as I keep improving and impressing.”
Laurence Wiltshire – managing director of GT Academy – says the first version of the Academy was an experiment with positive results and sees Mardenborough's attempts to reach F1 as a similar undertaking at this stage.
“With Jann it's more of an experiment than a strategy,” Wiltshire says. “Formula One is – rightly or wrongly – the biggest and most globally recognised form of motorsport. If you could get a Playstation kid in to Formula One then that's just massive isn't it?
“Even if he's only there for a year or two, just the fact that that is now a route that you could get to Formula One in would just be huge.
“With Nissan, their Infiniti arm is the major sponsor of Red Bull so they are involved in single-seaters with the Infiniti name, but are Nissan going to go down the single-seater route? With Jann, but we're not looking for that to be for the rest of the Academy kids to go through that. Nissan's strategy – motorsport wise at the moment anyway – is very much around GT and Le Mans.”
At the 2014 Race Camp, Karl Chard takes the honours from the UK but it's France's Gaetan Paletou who is crowned overall European winner to begin his journey towards a new career in racing. Ahead of him lies the opportunity to potentially follow Mardenborough on a currently untrodden path from casual gamer to F1 driver.
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