Johnny Herbert admits that it has been 'an interesting journey' as he has overseen the transformation of two racing virgins into International C licence-holders who will take to the track alongside him in the fourth running of the Dubai 24 Hours in February.

Lucas Ordo?ez, 23, and 28-year-old Lars Schl?mer are the two successful products of the inaugural GT Academy, an international driving competition launched back in May and organised jointly by PlayStation and Nissan. The practical side of the initiative has been planned and orchestrated by Silverstone International, alongside a pan-European driving experience for customers of the GTR super saloon.

Three months ago, Ordo?ez and Schl?mer saw off some 25,000 fellow competitors in the virtual motoring world on the game Gran Turismo 5 Prologue on the Sony PlayStation, in so doing securing themselves a place in the GT Academy alongside 22 other national finalists.

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Following that, a series of physical, mental and driving challenges at Silverstone awaited the 24 most promising candidates, and Ordo?ez and Schl?mer emerged on top to claim their prize - a drive in the Middle East's round-the-clock endurance test alongside former British, Italian and European Grand Prix winner Herbert and up-and-coming sportscar ace Alex Buncombe.

"It's been a very interesting journey," Herbert told Crash.net Radio. "I think we had 25,000 online to start with, then it was all whittled down to 24 when we were here at Silverstone, and then down to the final two.

"Obviously you've got the virtual side of it - playing racing games on the PlayStation online, and then actually going to the real thing, seeing the guys adapt and now getting to the last two with Lars and Lucas.

"It's something that has always been spoken about, for many, many years, but for racing drivers it's always been the opposite way around - you've gone from the driving to the PlayStation to learn some tracks somewhere.

"Nowadays you hear so much more about the big Formula 1 teams having proper simulators, which allow them to change all the settings on the car before they even go to a grand prix. Simulation is still a very important part of racing, so what we have now are two guys with very limited previous experience who are going to race in Dubai with me and with Alex, and we're going to kick a**e!"

The former Lotus, Benetton, Stewart and Jaguar F1 star admitted that the calibre of entrants had spanned the entire spectrum, but he added that the Spanish-German duo that had made it to the very final stage to be immersed into a specially-designed, intensive training programme had come on in quantum leaps and bounds - and was full of praise for Ordo?ez and Schl?mer's progress over the seven months.

"Yes, there were big variations of drivers," the 44-year-old reflected, "which is what we expected, but there were some real, proper hard-core guys as well. You're going to get the guy who thinks he's damn good until he goes online, and then of course there are the guys who really are sh*t hot.

"I saw some of the guys when they had the 24-hour race at Silverstone, and they had a PlayStation set up inside the garage. When I get on it I turn the wheel and the thing shoots over to the left, hits the barrier, ricochets across - and I get in a race car! - but they just sit down and get on with it and do it.

"It's quite incredible how they adapt to driving by sight, and they said that's all it is; there's no feeling, no nothing - it's totally by the eyes. Of course when I drive a race car it's all done by the eyes and the feel, and a little bit of the sound and everything else - it's a whole body experience of feel, whereas in playing a game online it's a totally visual thing.

"You haven't got all the guys around you as such - it's just basically seeing the track - so again, for them to adjust and get the feeling of being in the car is a big, big change. It's a completely different story.

"Lars has come from just being a taxi driver with no background at all in motorsport - I think even from the watching point-of-view it's been very limited - but from when we first saw him we've seen him adapt and grow through the time.

"Lucas has had a little bit more experience, and he's been able to adapt to it in a very natural way it seems. He's been able to do the job very confidently to be honest, and he's given back a lot of feedback at the same time that has gone down very well with Bob [Neville - team principal of RJN MotorSport, which will run the Nissan Playstation outfit in Dubai], for example, who has been mentoring them all the way through. They've both come through well and they gel together - which is very important when they're going to be driving together - and also with the programme itself.

"We haven't got the same two drivers we had here at Silverstone earlier in the competition; we now have two drivers who have moved on a long way, which again is a good sign of the adaptation from the game to the original day we had here to what we have at this stage, going off to Dubai shortly. I think once we get to Dubai it will be a very interesting four-driver line-up in the Nissan."

Herbert has an enviable career CV both in F1 and also sportscar competition, having triumphed in the race dubbed 'the toughest in the world' - the iconic Le Mans 24 Hours - with fellow Japanese manufacturer Mazda back in 1991. He has more recently competed for legendary British marque Aston Martin in the GT1 class of the La Sarthe classic, and acknowledged that times have changed somewhat since he started out.

"When I first did 24-hour races in the nineties, when I won Le Mans in a Mazda, I used to hate it," the man affectionately referred to as the 'Romford Rocket' mused, "but I was spoiled because I was still doing Formula 1 at the same time.

"The sportscars we had back in those days were not the sportscars we have today; even when I drove a GT1 car a couple of years ago, it was nearly better than when I drove a sportscar (prototype) way back. Everything has progressed - the technology has got better from a sportscar to a GT1 car for example, and even the lap times are only a little bit slower now in a GT1 than what they used to be in a sportscar.

"They've moved on a long, long way, and what I'm thoroughly pleased about - driving this car for the first time at Silverstone - is that it's very driveable, very forgiving and you can actually get a little bit of a drift on, whereas I was expecting it to be quite snappy and to really try to bite back at you. It doesn't; you've got a good feeling under braking, a good gearchange feel - all the right feelings for a 24-hour race, which is what you want.

"Back in the old days they were horrible things; they were very, very raw, the gearbox was slow and clunky, the tyres were like basketballs - the car just bounced down the straight and it was bloody uncomfortable. This thing is very smooth, and from a 24-hour point-of-view, it's important to have a car that you can actually be still comfortable in at the 24-hour mark.

"That helps me to drive a 24-hour race, because I find it much more tiring trying to drive a car that's difficult. I'm really looking forward to it; it will be the first time I've driven anything like this [car], and I think it will be a nice challenge to be with these guys at the same time and to race in Dubai, because it's an event now that seems to be building up as well."

by Russell Atkins

TO LISTEN TO THE INTERVIEW IN FULL: CLICK HERE