[This interview was originally published in June 2012 by Race Tech International. With Jann having today won his first GP3 race, it seemed an appropriate time to re-visit the feature.]
Nissan has quietly been increasing its motor sporting activities in recent years, particularly in the endurance racing arena. From a bespoke GT1 racer based on its iconic R35 GT-R and GT4 efforts with the 350Z and 370Z coupes, the marque is now planning an attack on that Antipodean institution – the Australian V8 Supercar Championship. Nearer to home, the GT-R made its British GT debut in GT3 guise last season, preluding a full campaign in 2012.
On top of these various endeavours, Nissan is the engine supplier and major backer of the remarkable Deltawing project hammering around Le Mans this weekend. Its engines also power a good percentage of the LMP2 field at La Sarthe. You might say this would be the perfect time for an aspiring young racing driver to become involved with the Japanese manufacturer. Step forward Jann Mardenborough.
As well as involving itself in some serious engineering endeavours on both road and track, Nissan has launched an all-new way of approaching the business of finding and selecting its professional racing drivers. The Nissan Playstation GT Academy finds promising racing drivers from the finest online gamers in the world and – via a long and rigorous selection process – has given contracts and racing opportunities to drivers who might otherwise never have sat in a real racing car, let alone ended up competing at Le Mans, or the Nurburgring.
Jann Mardenborough was one of the winners of the Academy in 2011 and the 20 year old from Cardiff has been on a rollercoaster ride from gaming in his bedroom to the race tracks of Europe. At a time when the career racing ladder is confused and expensive, Jann finds himself contracted to compete for one of the world’s foremost motor manufacturers. Appearing on behalf of Nissan at the Cholmondeley Pageant of Power, RT caught up with Jann to learn more.
Jann started out on Gran Turismo “It was the first racing game I ever played. Visually it looked the best and played so well too” but a chance meeting with a kart ignited a passion for racing on the track. “When I was 7 years old, I went on holiday with my parents to Ibiza. I had the chance to drive a kart and loved it. For my 8th birthday I was given karting lessons. I went every fortnight until I was about 11 when it became too expensive. They were just indoor four-stroke karts, not Rotax Max or whatever”.
So Jann returned to the bedroom and carried on playing a succession of Gran Turismo games until finding himself a winner in the 2011 GT Academy, where his skills transferred immediately from the game to the race track. “I bought a pretty expensive steering wheel to play Gran Turismo at home – it had force feedback so you had a bit of feel from the car. The first time I was in the 370Z and it went sideways I just did what I did on the computer game and it worked”. This notion of feel is perhaps one of the more perplexing aspects of how a gamer can immediately become successful in racing. So much of a driver’s ability relates to the sensations their body is giving them – feeling the car in pitch, roll or yaw and having a sense of the limit of adhesion built up from a lifetime of experience in karts and cars.
The latest iteration of Gran Turismo was on hand to try at Cholmondeley and it’s a fiendishly complex game with innumerable setting for suspension, gearbox, tyres and the like. With Jann’s tutorship I immediately knocked 7 seconds off my best lap time, but relaying only on your vision and necessarily artificial steering feedback for information makes progress occasionally fraught. “Brake in a straight line, brake in a straight line” I was reminded, honestly believing I already was.
My own travails on GT5 offered some food for thought – perhaps the gamers may approach motor racing at an advantage compared to the traditional route up through the ranks. They build an innate feel for the car’s behaviour and its reaction to changes based on an incredibly narrow set of parameters. They cannot detect suspension changes via the old seat of the pants – instead it’s a very finite feel through the steering wheel. This absolute sensitivity using only a fraction of the sensory interaction enjoyed by young karters might actually help those coming from the PlayStations. It’s a theory but the fact that Jann has already scored a pole position in British GT in only his full season of racing in a national-level category offers tremendous credibility to the selection process, as well as computer gaming in general.
It won’t be lost on anybody that simulation is also becoming increasingly important in car and driver development as on-track testing proves financially prohibitive. “I’ve spent a lot of time on the iZone simulator at Silverstone. Andy Priaulx owns it and it’s the best simulator I’ve used – it’s awesome. They have the best people around to help you improve. I mainly use it for learning tracks which aren’t on Gran Turismo”. An ability to adapt to this technology and understand how to use it to a team’s best advantage could be a major asset for a manufacturer over the coming years.
Jann’s story also reflects that of some many aspiring racers. “Like everyone, I’ve always dreamed of being a racing driver since I was 4 years old, but I had no chance of funding going racing. I couldn’t afford a TKM or Rotax kart, I wouldn’t have had a chance without GT Academy”. It’s worth mentioning that the thought of letting a total amateur, with precious little experience, out in a racing car was a brave decision by Nissan and the team lead by Bob Neville. Jann is unequivocal “It was a really ballsy decision – a brave, ambitious programme. And Lucas [Ordonez] drove the programme – it wouldn’t have worked without his success. Until GT Academy you either had the money or the contacts. If you didn’t have those you had nothing. I don’t know much about the finance of Ginetta racing, or whatever, but I couldn’t have afforded it.”
As the career racing ladder faces confusing times with so many conflicting categories it now necessitates an FIA Commission, perhaps the time is right for more drivers to turn professional having learned in their bedrooms. While Jann was on duty for his employers at Cholmondeley, his predecessors in the process Lucas Ordonez and Jordan Tresson were at Le Mans. Both recorded finishes in the top-10 in the fiercely contested LMP2 category. Jann has proven his speed in British GT among an incredibly tight field. Perhaps now is the time to appraise whether the existing career ladder is ready for an overhaul. The PlayStation Generation is coming.