Young Brit proves gamers can become racers

From virtual to reality: British Formula 3 driver, Jann Mardenborough tells Jonathan Hart about his sensational journey from sofa to Silverstone in just two years.

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Playing a game is proven to be good practice. Photo: Jonathan Hart

It’s spring 2011 and 19-year-old Jann Mardenborough from Cardiff, is approaching the end of his gap year, unsure of which path to take in life.

He knows he should go to university, but is still harbouring dreams of achieving the impossible and becoming a racing driver. Jann decides to compete with other wannabe racing drivers in the Nissan GT Academy, an online competition on the PlayStation 3 game Gran Turismo 5, where 90,000 gamers battle to set the fastest lap-time around a fantasy circuit. The prize? A real-life race seat with Nissan in the British GT championship. Jann played the Gran Turismo game until the early hours every day for six weeks straight, in search of the perfect lap, until he knew he could go no faster.

And Jann was duly rewarded when he became the first Briton to win the GT Academy. This marked the start of his dream career as a real racing driver, which has rapidly moved from strength to strength. He claimed a podium finish in his first professional race in the gruelling Dubai 24 hours in early 2012, which acted as a launch pad for further success in the 2012 British GT championship. Along with teammate Alex Buncombe, Jann came within a whisker of driving the Nissan GT-R Nismo GT3 to championship glory, only to be undone by a technical failure at the last grand prix.

Following this impressive start to his career, Mardenborough’s meteoric rise up the motorsport ladder has been as blisteringly quick as his on-track pace. He now drives in British and European Formula 3, and raced to a stunning podium finish in the LMP-2 class at the Le Mans 24 Hours this summer. Jann says there’s only one way to describe his journey; “It’s mad.

“I’m in my room now looking at my PlayStation, and thinking wow, just over two years ago I was on this, and now I race proper cars which is crazy. I don’t often pinch myself and think oh wow I’ve come this far, but when I do, it’s a really nice feeling,” says Jann.

October this year marked the end of Jann’s debut season in Formula 3. He finished up sixth in the British Formula 3 championship and 20th in the European Formula 3 championship, and admits it’s been a steep learning curve: “European Formula 3 is immensely tough. The drivers in that championship are among the best drivers in the world at the moment. British F3 went slightly better, I got a few podiums.

“I’d say it’s been a challenging year in both championships, and my learning curve has certainly got a lot steeper since competing in both.”

In both formulas Jann drove for the Carlin team, who are renowned for producing motorsport legends, including Formula 1 champions Sebastian Vettel, Kimi Raikkonen and Jenson Button.

Jann says he’s revelled in driving for a team with such a rich racing history: “I couldn’t have gone for a better team. The engineers and facilities they’ve got down at Carlin are absolutely fantastic. It’s the perfect environment in which to thrive.”

But how can somebody who had no previous racing experience aside from playing a video game, be just as good doing the real thing?

Well far from throwing video gamers straight into the furnace of professional racing, the GT Academy gives driver rigorous preparation. Initially, the twelve fastest gamers from across Europe are subjected to an intense week-long training camp at Silverstone. This involves driving challenges included circuit racing, head-to-head sprints and advanced car control sessions. Former Ferrari Formula 1 driver Eddie Irvine is the academies chief judge and along with race mentors including many F1 veterans whittle the field down to four most impressive drivers.

The final four then compete in a 20 minute race in Nissan 370Zs to decide the GT Academy Champion. But for the winner the real work only just begins as they enter several month driver development programme to prepare them for competing professionally.

Jann claimed the 2011 crown and says there’s not a massive difference between the game and reality. “It’s weird, the first time I drove a sports car it was in the National finals. I drove the 370z around a coned circuit in a car park. I was really excited to drive this car, and I was thinking wow, this car’s going to be three time more powerful than my own everyday car. It’s 320 horsepower, it’s going to be mega.

“On one of the practice runs I had the car completely sideways, and I’d never been sideways in my life, only in gaming, so I thought I’d try to correct it like I would in gaming and it worked, and I thought wow, this is mega. It just didn’t feel that different to the game,” claims Jann.

However, the now 22-year-old says that without doubt the toughest part of adapting to real world racing is the fitness levels required. The race camps involve military style physical training and triathlons, where the competitors pull the Nissan 370Z a set distance using a special harness, then drive several laps before switching to bicycles and finally a run. And if that wasn’t enough, part of Jann had to run the New York marathon as part of his driver training.

“The marathon was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and at the start of this year one of the toughest things was getting physically ready for F3.

“The cars have so much down-force and the steering is so heavy which really gets you fit, which is something very different to GT cars, it’s unbelievable. It’s something that’s often not thought about by the general public, they just think you sit in the car and turn the steering wheel, but it’s far from that.”

Jann’s unconventional path into motorsport has attracted a wealth of attention from teams, drivers and sponsors. He now frequently flies the flag for Nissan and Sony PlayStation at PR events, and the Welshman says he relishes that role.

“It’s one of the coolest parts of what I do. I get to test the latest Nissan sports cars and test racing games for Sony PlayStation. I got to try the new Gran Turismo 6 recently. So it was like wow, I got to drive it before millions of people.”

Jann is now enjoying a well-earned rest back home in Cardiff after recently returning from a Formula Renault 3.5 Series test in Barcelona followed by three days testing GP3 cars in Abu Dhabi. It’s clear he’s hot property in the driver market but has yet to confirm a race seat for next season.

Jann admits he’s very concerned that talent alone may no longer be enough to reach Formula one, largely due to the growing prominence of ‘pay drivers’.

“People can reach the top of the sport without huge sums of money but it’s very rare. Obviously one person who did very well is Lewis Hamilton, but his dad had three jobs to support his karting career.

“It’s an exceptionally difficult sport to be successful in if you don’t have large sums of money,” says Jann.

But it’s clear that nothing will stand in the way of this 22-year-old’s racing ambitions. It’s clear he’s blessed with star quality, and will continue to push limits, of what a gamer turned racer can achieve.

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