From Gran Turismo to Le Mans

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During this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans, Nissan performed a world first with their highly experimental ZEOD RC electric hybrid prototype race car. During the warm up laps just prior to beginning the race proper, the ZEOD RC piloted by Spanish driver Lucas Ordonez became the first ever vehicle to complete a full lap of the legendary Circuit de la Sarthe on electrical power alone. It may not sound like much, but this is quite a feat and a big step in the development of electric and hybrid vehicles. Being able to complete a full lap at one of the biggest, fastest, and difficult race courses in the world while using zero gasoline is no easy task. By now I’m sure you’re asking yourself “Yes, that’s wonderful. Now what does this have to do with video games?” That’s where driver Lucas Ordonez comes in.

You see, Lucas Ordonez got his gig as a professional race car driver with Nissan by virtue of being really, really, really good atGran Turismo 5. Back in 2008, Gran Turismo developer Polyphony Digital and auto maker Nissan got together for a wonderful publicity stunt: they formed the so-called GT Academy. A contest where the fastest Gran Turismo players in the world could compete for a chance to become a real race car driver in one of Nissan’s motorsports programs. Of the 250,000 people who entered the contest playing Gran Turismo 5, only 20 or so were good enough to go try-out in a real race car. By the end of the real-life driving competition Luca Ordonez proved that he was just as good in a real GT-R as a virtual one.

GT6-Lucas-Ordonez-2Most racing fans, myself included to be honest, probably rolled their eyes and said “OK cool, so he gets to spend a year driving a Nissan in some low-level amateur series and go home with a cool story to tell.” That’s pretty much what happened when he was given a ride in Nissan’s team for the GT4 European Cup. An amateur “feeder” series where amateur drivers try and get noticed by bigger race teams in bigger series. The surprise being that in his very first real race, Lucas took the podium. He went on to take second overall for the season. Impressive, but he was up against other amateurs and had Nissan’s money backing him up, can he “really” drive a race car? In 2011 Ordonez and his team took second in their class (LMP2) at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Extremely impressive. He would repeat his success taking the podium at the Dubai 24 Hours, and then again when he took first place in his class at the 24 Hours of the Nurburgring in 2012. His team mate and co-driver for that event was none other than Kazunori Yamauchi, the creator of Gran Turismo himself. This weekend at the 2014 24 Hours of Le Mans, Lucas was chosen by Nissan to drive their most advanced experimental race car, and make electric/hybrid car history in the process.

Lucas’ story isn’t a fluke either, other GT Academy winners have also gone on to successful professional racing careers: Jann Mardenborough had zero racing experience of any kind whatsoever until he won the GT Academy contest in 2011. He went on to take 3rd in his class at the Dubai 24 Hours. He is currently competing in the Formula 3 championship, and was recently signed on to Red Bull’s Junior Team driver development program. He is heavily favorited as a future candidate for Red Bull’s hugely successful world championship winning Formula One program.

In 2013 the British GT Championship banned Jann Mardenborough from competition. Why? He was literally banned for being too good. That’s right, a PlayStation gamer was banned by one of the largest racing series in the UK because he was too good at real-life racing. The technical reason is because since he lacked real-life racing experience and credentials he was relegated to competing in the “Amateur” class of the series for the 2012 season. This is all well and fair, except that Mardenborough kept winning. This would be fine too, except he wasn’t just winning the Amateur class; he kept beating the professionals too. He couldn’t legally run in the Pro class, but was too fast for the Amateurs. He and 4 other GT Academy winners who were seeking entry to the series were banned from the 2013 season. In 2013 Jann took 3rd in the LMP2 class at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and this year was leading in his class until mechanical issues took him out of contention.

As gamers, we all know that gaming is a legitimate pastime, but we also know that much of society at large doesn’t always agree. E-Sports are all well and good, but are still looked at by many as little more than some kind of fad. The likes of Lucas Ordonez and Jann Mardenborough stand as proof that with enough work and dedication, sometimes virtual skills can be translated  to real-life skills and success. For all of you sitting there playing Gran Turismo dreaming of one day being able to sit behind the wheel of some of the most advanced race cars ever built: keep at it, your dreams really can come true.

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