AOL Cars joins the Nissan GT Academy


Nissan GT Academy

It took just three years for 2011 GT Academy winner Jann Mardenborough to prove the doubters wrong.

As he crossed the finish line in first place in the Formula 1 feeder series, GP3, at a sweltering hot Hockenheim last weekend, the bedroom gamer turned racer had finally made his mark.

Many people were skeptical when Nissan and Sony announced it planned to take Gran Turismo fans from the virtual circuits to the real deal. However, Mardenborough's success will finally silence the critics.

"People definitely think I just play PlayStation all week and go racing on weekends, but it's not like that at all," Mardenborough told us.

The 22-year-old is proof that playing games isn't a waste of time – and to prove their point Nissan and Sony invited us along to the final stages of the UK GT Academy at Silverstone to see if we had what it takes too.

The driving challenges

GT Academy has already produced 12 top-class racing drivers. The majority have gone on to finish in the top 10 of some of the toughest endurance races in the world with many making it onto the podium. One thing became clear very early on in the driving challenges, though, and that was I wouldn't be joining them anytime soon.

Our first test involved throwing a Nissan Juke Nismo around a series of cones in a timed challenge. This included slaloms, parking in a pit box, and making tight turns. I failed miserably, receiving 12 seconds worth of penalties after scattering a number of the cones.

Luckily, I wasn't the only one to struggle with this relatively simple task, but then again some of my rivals hadn't driven a real car since they passed their tests last year.

The digital challenges

The gaming stage is where the competitors feel most at home. Their task was to go head-to-head on a virtual Silverstone lap in Nissan GT-Rs with the fastest time winning.

Although this is a crucial part of the competition, those who progress beyond the Academy will find gaming a rarity. However, understanding how the car will behave and being confined in a small space (usually their bedrooms) for long periods of time are two skills that pay off in real-world racing.

"A lot of these guys would probably beat me on Gran Turismo now," said Mardenborough as we watched the latest crop of hopefuls set their laps. "I don't get a chance to play anymore. I'd need at least a day to get back up to speed!"

AOL Cars at the Nissan GT Academy

AOL Cars at the Nissan GT Academy

The fitness challenges

The fitness trials were designed to test strength and stamina, something any graduate would need in bundles to finish an endurance race.

These involved planks, press-ups, a sergeant jump and the dreaded beep test. If, like me, you hadn't heard of the sergeant jump, it involves measuring how high you can leap against a wall to test your core strength. If you don't know what the beep test is, count yourself lucky that a sadistic PE teacher didn't torture you in your adolescence...

I graciously declined to take part in this activity. These guys had nothing to lose but I had absolutely, categorically nothing to gain from sweating it out in the baking Silverstone sun.

The media challenge

The last task of the day tested the gamers' communication skills when faced with a group of nosey journalists and a camera shoved in their faces. This was one test I was looking forward to.

Preparing to ask the questions that would knock the gamers sideways, I asked Mardenborough if there were any crucial things I should ask.

He was quick to answer: "Ask them if they're willing to give up everything for this. If they can't answer that, then they won't make it."

But surprisingly, despite some nervousness, none of the gamers failed to answer our questions. All of them were willing to give up any information about themselves for a place at Race Camp (think boot camp from the X-factor).

It's fair to say I am not the young racing hopeful of tomorrow that I wished I was. The gamers proved at every stage how far they were willing to push themselves to change their life completely. I on the other hand simply didn't fancy getting sweaty.

Six racers were selected and will return to Silverstone next week for Race Camp. For each of them, there is still a long way to go before they can give a second thought to winning GP3 races like their hero Mardenborough – but at least now they know genuine racing glory isn't just to be had in their bedrooms on Gran Turismo.

Author: Rebecca Chaplin