A few years ago, Jann Mardenborough was a university dropout who had little idea what he’d do with his life. Then he entered an online gaming contest. In 2011, he beat 90,000 contestants to become the best Gran Turismo player in the world. The Briton’s prize was a driver’s seat for Nissan at the Dubai 24 Hour.
And his story didn’t end there. Earlier this year, he competed in the toughest race of them all —Le Mans 24 hours.
His transition from being just another gamer to a professional racer was the sales pitch the organisers of Nissan GT Academy (GTA), held at the MMRC race track in Chennai on Wednesday, fervently made as six Indian gamers were selected for the international finals that will be held at Silverstone in August.
Karun Chandhok, who also competed at Le Mans this year, believes the event provides an alternative route into mainstream motorsport. “The conventional route to professional racing takes years of training and is also hugely expensive. What we’re trying here is something different and a route which has zero financial burden on the racer,” says Chandhok, who will be ‘mentoring’ the India finalists.
Organisers claim the format has been successful in USA and Europe. First held in 2008, the GTA has attracted more than four million participants. However, it was launched in India only in 2014. This year, 10,000 gamers took part in an online contest out of which 20 were selected. On Wednesday, the finalists went through several rounds which tested their virtual as well as actual car handling skills as well as testing their physical and psychological fitness. The six finalists will compete with qualifiers from Japan, Thailand, Indonesia and Philippines in the GT Academy Asia Championship. One winner from there will then get a chance to undergo a driver development program and compete for Nissan at Dubai 24-Hours.
The jury is out on whether the success achieved with Mardenborough can be replicated with Indian drivers, who have disadvantages in terms of the exposure of competing on proper race tracks as well as the car (India finals were conducted in Micra whereas the world finals will be held on GT).
Guillaume Sicard, president, Nissan India operations, believes it won’t be a handicap. “The drivers will get time to adapt and get accustomed to the facility at Silverstone.”
(Mihir Vasavda was in Chennai on the invite of Nissan)