Whoever wins, it’ll change their life. That’s certainly true of GT Academy. Take Jann Mardenborough, for example. Back in 2011, he was on a gap year ahead of university when he entered the Gran Tursimo time trial competition to see how he compared with the rest of the world’s players on his favourite PlayStation racing game. Three years later, the GT Academy winner has recently won a GP3 event at Hockenheim, weeks after competing at the legendary Le Mans 24 Hours endurance race on the same track as Mark Webber.
The next Jann Mardenborough could be standing alongside us at Silverstone where 28 Gran Turismo fans are hoping to come out on top in a series of tests which will put them on the road to becoming a pro race driver. Some of the competitors hadn’t even made it to Silverstone on the back of their Gran Turismo 6 skills but a simple Facebook game designed to make the GT Academy even more accessible.
But is it that easy to become a professional race driver? Can anyone do it? Just as Masterchef has given home cooks opportunities to work in pro kitchens and the X Factor has created a number of huge pop stars, so GT Academy has made pro race driving more accessible but, as we’re about to discover, to make it through to the GT Academy Race Camp you have to pass five tough tests. Could we do it?
Facing The Media
Okay, so we're not doing the media test. Instead, the first task casts us as the John Torode or Gregg Wallace of the GT Academy, judging the competitors as they attempt to prove to us that they’d be able to handle the media scrutiny that’s part of being a professional race driver.
All tests have equal weighting, meaning answering questions in this mock press conference is as important as speeding around Silverstone in a Nissan Juke Nismo. Yep, convincing a judge that, at 36 years old, you’re not too old to be a race driver is as crucial as your Gran Turismo skills.
Not everyone manages it. The key for competitors is managing to answer the questions in an interesting manner while not digging themselves into a hole by being too honest. It’s probably not the best idea to tell the assembled media that you dropped out of university twice or that you once had a go-karting accident that knocked your confidence so much that you didn’t return to the track for years.
One competitor who caught our eye at this stage was Shane Green. The 29 year-old had been this far four times and, according to the judges, has lost a lot of weight in a bid to make it to the Race Camp. We’ll see how he gets on in the Fitness Test which we’ll be taking part in.
The Fitness Test
I’m officially useless. That’s according to the results of the Sargent Jump, a test that measures core strength and flexibility. Dipping your fingers into chalk, you have to reach up and make a mark on the wall before jumping up as high as you can and touching it again. As the first person to take on this challenge, I thought I’d done quite well, only to be told that my score was 29.5cm. Useless. I was so close to being ‘very poor’, too.
To put my effort into perspective, mechanic Alistair Glen managed 56.3cm. “I wasn’t expecting to be in the lead in anything in fitness,” he told me. “I’ve not done any fitness work since I was 15.”
Still, at least I wasn’t last in The Plank, an exercise which demands that you use your forearms to raise yourself off the floor and hold your position for as long as possible. My goal was not to finish last but as my body started to shake and my back started to hurt, I didn’t have the determination to continue and stopped after 90 seconds. Third from bottom. In the relegation zone.
With the prize of Race Camp pushing them on, the rest of my group showed a bit more grit. For example, Shane Green showed that his fitness work had been worthwhile, nearly managing five minutes, his body and fists shaking as he finally slumped to the ground. How was it? “Painful,” he said. “I’ve managed five minutes in practise.”
Thankfully for him, he also managed a top score in the press ups. We were told that we’d be doing well if we managed 30. He did over 50. I did 16. Oh dear.
Tense, nervous, pacing around the car park. That was me before taking on the driving challenge in the GT Academy. The fact that I had to write down the phone number of my next of kin before we started didn’t help. Nor did Jann Mardenborough telling me that he drove a GTR sideways for the first time in his life in GT Academy’s driving test.
The driving test in this year's GT Academy is more a test of your control than speed as we were asked to weave in and out of cones in a Nissan Juke Nismo before speeding up and stopping in a gate. Run over a cone and it’s a five second penalty.
The competitors looked relaxed, watching on as their rivals screeched away, leaving an acrid burning smell behind them as they sped off towards the first cones. Many tutted about what the racers might be doing to the clutch.
There were no such worries with me as I took off as if I was in Morrisons car park rather than a Silverstone car park, cruising away gently and driving between the cones. I was told to put my foot down for the straight but you need a lot of nerve to drive as fast as possible and brake hard, making sure you don’t hit the cones in the gate. No times were given out at this stage but I asked the instructor how I did. “Well, you didn’t hit anything,” he replied.
After driving on a real track, it was time to go back to basics as the competitors got behind the wheel to compete on a few laps of Gran Turismo. The headphones went on, the shoes came off and the racers did laps of the Ascari Race Resort and Silverstone.
Completely silent, the gamers focused on getting the fastest lap times, braking hard on the tight turns before roaring down the straights. It shows how realistic Gran Turismo has become when pro race drivers begin their career by playing this PlayStation game.
Personally, I’m better at driving with the pad than a wheel (that’s my excuse for my poor lap times anyway) but some of my media colleagues managed to beat some of the competitors with their lap times. They were pleased with their efforts but remember, this is just one of five tests and they didn’t even try the next test. Don’t blame them.
The Bleep Test
The Bleep Test should take the gamers out of their comfort zone. They’re Gran Turismo experts and, as such, have been prepared for the driving test. They just have to answer questions in the media test, something everyone has done in a job interview, while even if some haven’t done a Sargent Jump before, surely most people have done the odd press up at some point in their lives. A Bleep Test, however? Perhaps not.
This is a test of endurance as all 28 competitors line up and run between points in a car park, attempting to reach each point before the audible bleep. Once again, I was determined not to finish last and despite competing in jeans (I’d come straight from the race track after a passenger lap of Stowe Circuit with Jann), I managed it. I started quickly, but soon realised I didn’t need to go that fast and began dropping back so I was running at the same pace as most of the other competitors. However, I dropped back a bit too far and foolishly missed the bleep. Second last and I wasn’t even that exhausted. I did feel a bit sick though.
You see, the passenger lap with Jann left me feeling a little queasy as he sped up to 130mph, braking hard at the bends and sliding around the bends. I was jolted violently from side to side while Jann stayed still. This is why those Sargent Jumps and Planks are so important. I’m clearly not cut out to be a race driver. Back to the pad for me.
While GT Academy can turn gamers into pro race drivers, it’s clear that it takes a lot more to make it through the National Final than simply being one of the best in the country at a video game. Jann is proof that gamers can be racing drivers but is also takes fitness, driving and media skills to make it through to Race Camp.
It also takes a lot of dedication, something fourth time competitor Shane Green knows a lot about. Earlier in the day, I asked him if he would enter for a fifth time if he failed to reach Race Camp. He told me that he would never give up but thankfully, he made it through along with Alex Porazinski, Ben Spurge, Karl Chard, Stuart Millar and Luke Wilkins.
After making it through to the Race Camp, Wilkins said: “I can’t believe I’ve got through! Now I get to go to Race Camp and drive all these different cars and it’s just going to be amazing; I can’t wait. Now I’ll be carrying on with doing my normal fitness work but practicing more on Gran Turismo, learning the track where we’re likely to be. I’ll do some karting, try to mentally prepare, and watch past episodes of GT Academy to try and prepare as much as I can.”
It’s not time for the drivers to celebrate as on 5/6 August these winners will be back at Race Camp at Silverstone where they will compete in a series of driving tests in a bid to represent Britain at the European Final. Win that and they’ll be put on a training programme for the 2015 Dubai 24 Hours endurance race in January. From gamer to race driver in just six months.