Playstation to podium: Gamers to Le Mans with Nissan?

Nissan’s LMP1 project was launched amid a lot of fanfare late last week, not least from the three GT Academy winning drivers who were present. As they smiled for the cameras and spoke to reporters an interesting question hung in the air: could somebody really go from their living room to Le Mans and take the overall win? We asked Lucas Ordóñez and Jann Mardenborough:

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“For sure that's what Nissan and Nismo want; hopefully I can be there as the first GT academy winner and I'll work hard every day to be on the top step of the podium at Le Mans.”

In 2008 Lucas Ordóñez sat down on his sofa, booted up his Playstation 3 and drove a few timed laps. Half a decade on and he’s won his class at the Nurburgring 24 Hours and twice been on the podium at Le Mans. Six years since it all began, GT Academy has become a motorsports phenomenon and is still finding hidden racing talent from around the world.

The basic formula is simple but effective. Every year players of the racing simulator Gran Turismo take part in a series of in-game challenges against the clock. The fastest go through to the regional heats and then the best go through to a boot camp session at Silverstone. The winner of that becomes a part of Nissan’s stable of racing drivers.

And so with the announcement of a return to Le Sarthe for the Japanese motoring giant there’s now a real chance that the ‘game to glory’ story might come true. A tall order, perhaps, but Ordóñez isn’t put off: “We know it’ll be tough but that's why we're competing; we want competition and we want challenges.”

Nissan, who have sponsored the GT Academy competition since its inception, are starting to reap the rewards of their early belief in the idea. Ordóñez is piloting a GT-R in the 2014 Super GT championship in Japan, and with fellow winner Wolfgang Reip will also drive the company’s ‘ZEOD RC’ prototype electric racer at this year’s Le Mans 24 Hours.

This will be his fourth outing at the world’s most famous endurance race: “Every second I've been in Le Mans has contributed to my experience and to the new projects ahead. I've done a lot of laps and was lucky to finish all three races so far.”

“It’s taught me that I want to work as a team player and to develop as an endurance driver, to be consistent and to be good on the fuel consumption, to keep the tyres in good condition, to consistently finish and to be fast. My main goal is to be a complete driver not just a qualifying driver.”

It’s an impressively pragmatic outlook, and you get the feeling that Lucas is constantly amazed that his life has taken off in this direction. He’s not uniquely down to earth among GT Academy winners though, as 2011 winner Jann Mardenborough proves:

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“For me LMP1 would be amazing but it’s a goal for the future. Nothing's a given at the moment and I just have to impress the people at Nismo and Nissan and then... we'll see!”

The 22 year old from Cardiff is proving to be something of a success story. A podium in LMP2 at his first ever Le Mans 24 Hours, success in the Dubai 24 and Brit GT, a budding career in GP3 and now signed up as a Red Bull Junior, his talent is being recognised.

Because of the way his career began, and despite his refreshing lack of ego, Jann is a strong supporter of doing the unorthodox to find the next great racing car drivers. This makes him the perfect match for Nissan who are theming their return around innovation and bucking the clean cut German status quo:

“You have to inspire the younger people and to get them involved you have to do things a bit differently. Audi, Toyota etc. have all chosen different power trains; super capacitors, flywheels, 6MJ or 2MJ and stuff like that. I don't know what Nissan's specific plans are but the way they go about motor sport isn’t like how other people do it.”

“To be around people that don't do things normally is refreshing. I'm expecting the car to look different to the other cars, pretty funky hopefully, and look like something that you'd want to have plastered across your bedroom wall as a kid.”

This attitude certainly bodes well for the next generation. Nissan are producing a project that instead of focussing on men with beards, oily rags and a working knowledge of motor generator units will appeal to every 10 year old with a controller and a passion for cars.

Look how it turned out for Mardenborough: “The things I want to own in my life are the things I had on my wall as a child; I had a 400R Nismo on my wall when I was a kid.” If he earns a seat in a 2015 GT-R LM Nismo and takes it to the chequered flag in first place, maybe Nissan will give him one and the passion will have come full circle.

Four GT Academy winners will be travelling to Le Mans for this year’s edition of the great race. That’s four people who, just a few years ago, decided to break out their Playstation and have a go at going quicker than 90,000 other gamers.

Ordóñez, Mardenborough, Wolfgang Reip and Mark Shulzhitskiy all have a chance of competing for the victory over the coming years. Only time will tell whether that chance will be in a factory LMP1 car, but with the way that Nissan are going the extra, different mile we can be sure that there’s more to come from all of them.

Playstation to podium does have a nice ring to it, after all.