Believe in better: Inside the Nissan GT Academy
Tucked away in a rural Oxfordshire cottage, two aspiring racing drivers are preparing for the biggest week of their lives. A few months ago Luca Lorenzini was working as a mechanic at his family-owned garage in Italy, while Jordan Tresson was studying for an engineering degree in France.
Now one of them is on the brink of becoming a professional racing driver by winning a sponsored season driving in the European GT4 Cup, courtesy of PlayStation and Nissan's GT Academy. First, though, they have to beat each other.
Both wannabe racers were plucked from obscurity earlier this year after posting record lap times in virtual reality. With absolutely no experience of motorsport, they entered the GT Academy: a pan-European online competition that aims to turn armchair Gran Turismo experts into real-life racing drivers. Out of the million-or-so gamers who downloaded and entered the GT Academy add-on, Luca and Jordan were fastest.
But these blokes aren't just quick in cyberspace. Both have proved themselves during an intensive five-day test session at Silverstone, where they were judged by British F1 legend Johnny Herbert while driving a range of high performance cars. The Frenchman and the Italian turned out to be the shining stars among 18 talented finalists and, since then, their worlds have been turned upside down.
In early March, Luca and Jordan were told to drop everything, pack their bags and move to Britain to earn their 'International C' motorsport licences and undergo intensive race training. Both men left behind family and friends to move in together for six weeks, and they've been cooking, cleaning, training, travelling and racing as a unit ever since.
To discover who has the most potential, RJN Motorsport boss Bob Neville is tasked with scrutinizing every aspect of Jordan and Luca's life, every step of the way. His team operates the Nissan 370Z racing cars that the boys have been driving while training to compete at the highest level. These Group N racing-spec 370Zs are similar to the road going cars in many ways, but the interiors have been stripped out, they have racing brakes, a roll cage, Bilstein adjustable suspension and a little more power thanks to a modified exhaust system. Even so, how much can really be expected of two total novices?
"A lot, if last year's competition is anything to go by," says RJN's Bob Neville. "The standard is very high because the prize is very big. But these two have both exceeded my expectations by coming such a long way in a very short space of time."
"We're like a married couple now," jokes Luca Lorenzini when we meet him and fellow finalist Jordan Tresson at the remote rural cottage where they live, situated just down the road RJN Motorsport's workshop. "I do the cooking," says laidback Frenchman Jordan "but Luca's my sous chef and he does the cleaning. Mostly I just cook pasta for him though – he is Italian."
The small and slightly claustrophobic holiday cottage is a complete mess with suitcases, race suits, PlayStation games and washing strewn everywhere. It bears all the hallmarks of a house that's not been properly lived in. "That's true," admits Luca when I comment on his poor housekeeping skills. "We're on the road most of the time going to races. And if we're not, we're in the gym or at the workshop."
Both men have spent the last four weeks focusing on winning this competition and little else. Work, family and friends have fallen by the wayside. "I don't really miss my family or girlfriend," says 21-year old Jordan. "I'm used to spending most weeks away at university studying, so this is normal for me. Except now I race, not work!" Luca, 26, is feeling the pressure a little more. "I Skype home often," he says, "but we haven't had time to miss people."
That's no surprise when you hear how grueling the two finalists' schedule has been. To qualify for an 'International C' competition licence, both novice drivers must finish at least 12 club level races in Britain. But they've had only five weeks and only 15 possible races to achieve this. It's a feat most would have considered impossible; one big crash or mechanical failure could scupper either driver's chances of getting a licence, putting them out of the competition.
"It's been tough," says Jordan. "You want to push and show what you can do, but if you crash, that could be it." Luca agrees: "It's about focusing and finding the right balance. It doesn't help that we don't know any of the tracks until we get there on the day!" Against the odds, both finalists have finished every race they've entered without incident - and in competitive positions too. Each contender has scored a second place finish on two separate occasions.
In between race weekends, both men spend their time in the gym or working on race theory and fitness with coaches at Silverstone. Jordan is a keen runner and the younger of the two competitors, and says he's found the fitness training pretty easy, but Luca, who plays volleyball regularly, has found the fitness element a little tougher, shedding half a stone while he's been at the GT Academy.
They haven't seen much of England, except the view from the motorway, and neither are very keen on the weather. What downtime they have is spent playing more GranTurismo Prologue on the PlayStation. "I used to play for ten hours each weekend to qualify for the competition," admits Luca. "But it was worth the practice. The experience has been amazing. We've raced at most of the big UK circuits - Rockingham, Snetterton, Pembrey, Castle Coombe, Mallory Park. I can't wait to drive at Silverstone, though."
That's the last session of GT Academy, a shoot-out between the two drivers, which will be their first (and possibly last) chance to show their skills in the European GT4 Cup car before one of them is crowned winner. So how does it feel racing each when there's so much at stake? "We still race as a team," insists Jordan. "We're in the same cars, racing for the same people at RJN. We try very hard not to battle much on the track – against the others, for sure, but not each other."
"You look pretty stupid if you take your teammate off," adds Luca. "We haven't been competing with each other on the track. Our lap times are very, very close, though." He's right. Last race, the two finalists' best lap times were separated by two thousandth of a second. But even though they've become friends and share a house, there's no hiding the competitive edge between the two men. Watching the way they beat each other up – virtually, of course, playing Ultimate Fighting Championship on the PlayStation 3 - reveals that neither man is prepared to give the other an inch.
"There's nothing to choose between them, even after such a brutal schedule," says team boss Bob Neville. "Both consistently set similar laptimes, they've been working hard in the gym and they're both good with the media. This year's competition will be very difficult to call."
Although we're in the last week of the GT Academy finals, there's no let-up in the pace. Before the decisive Silverstone shootout, both drivers must share a car as they compete in the 90-minute Britcar Production Endurance race at Snetterton on Saturday. This will be the first time they've had to use a team radio while driving, or performed a driver swap in the pits. Then it's straight to Mallory Park on another club race. If they finish these last two races without incident, both men will have earned the International C competition licence they need to compete in the European GT4 Cup next year. But only one man will get to do so.
"The endurance race on Saturday really is key," says Neville. "I'm looking for reliability from the drivers and style too; I'll be watching how hard they're having to work to get those laptimes." And he won't be the only one watching with interest. Kazunori Yamauchi, the legendary creator of the Gran Turismo series, has been following the progress of both finalists and will be present at Saturday's race.
Both finalists claim they can handle the pressure, though. "I only focus on the next race, nothing beyond that," says Luca. "I will just stay focused and consistent."
"Of course your heart rate increases on the start line," adds Jordan, "but once you're racing it's very different. Like you're in your own world, so you don't feel stressed."
We'll see if that's true on Saturday, when the first of the final three races gets the green light, and the pressure on the finalists is turned right up. "Until now I've told them both to take it steady," says Bob Neville. "At Snetterton, I'll be telling them to push it."