Fancy yourself as the next big racing talent? Then the Nissan GT Academy could be your passport to champagne, podiums and pit girls
Lucas Ordoñez looks like a pretty cordial chap, a nice guy. As I stand watching him in the morning sun, he could easily pass for a barrister or a student or, at a push, one of those young accountants you see spilling into the Sandton Baron every Friday night. There he is, palming back his hair, chatting to a group of strangers as if he has known them all forever. Now I don’t have a daughter (or any kids for that matter), but if I did I’d be happy to see her go off with Señor Ordoñez on a dinner date. Nice guy.
Unfortunately I soon learn that this easy-going Spaniard has a dark side. Behind that harmless, boy-next-door demeanour lurks a man with a mean competitive streak. Ever heard that old mantra, “if you aren’t first, you’re last”? I’m pretty sure Ordoñez has it tattooed on the inside of his eyelids.
I consider myself a pretty decent driver but here, today, at the Zwartkops go-kart track, he’s cutting me down to size in a major way. In just three laps I can’t see him anymore; 10 minutes later the dude is more than half a lap ahead of me. This is embarrassing.
But then again, what did I expect? You see, Ordoñez is a professional racing driver; a pilot of high-speed metal who’s competed in everything from the 24-Hours of Le Mans to the World Endurance Championship. No wonder he’s so damn quick in a go-kart; he must have been driving them since the age of four. Yeah, I’m putting his runaway victory down to this. Experience, after all, is everything.
But the ego-salving consolation I derive from this thought is short-lived when somebody mentions that the first time Ordoñez sat in a proper race car was in 2008. “No way,” I mutter under my breath. “How can this be?”
Well it turns out that the 27-year-old Spaniard’s rise up the ranks of professional motorsport can be attributed to his well-developed thumbs. A keen gamer, Ordoñez entered something called the GT Academy. The brainchild of Nissan and Sony PlayStation, this virtual-to-reality racing competition uses the Gran Turismo driving simulator as a platform for unearthing future track talent.
How does it work? You log on to the GT Academy network (using your trusty PS3 console) and set a lap time on a predetermined course and in a predetermined car.
The 25 fastest competitors are then whisked off to the national final for an intense and emotional showdown. Once this pixelated grudge match has been fought, the eight quickest “drivers” are invited to attend the gruelling GT Academy race camp based at Silverstone in the UK. And this is where, as the Americans would so eloquently put it, sh*t gets real. Made to step out of their digital comfort zones, this handful of hopefuls have to prove their race mettle by taking part in a variety of real-life challenges.
And I’m not just talking about piloting real cars around a real track. To see if they really have the big match temperament that high-level motor racing requires, the GT Academy brass test their fitness levels and see how they react when put in front a panel of sporting hacks. Crashing is one thing, explaining why you did it to a room full of shoot-from-the-hip media types is another.
At the end of race camp, one person is crowned GT Academy Champion of the year. And this is a pretty big deal. How big? Well he (or she, you never know) gets a chance to compete in the annual Silverstone 24-Hour, driving a cutting-edge Nissan race car. Never mind winning MasterChef, this is like being made chef de cuisine in one of Gordon Ramsay’s restaurants. Or skipping that Idols nonsense and securing a five-year recording contract with Universal Music Group.
Winning the GT Academy contest can change your life forever. Ask Ordoñez, who won it in 2008. It allows you to get to the top — driving in events like the British GT Championship and US Grand-Am Challenge — without having to spend an absolute fortune climbing through motorsport’s various minor tiers.
But what about all the doubters out there (and there are many) who don’t believe a bunch of burger-scoffing gamer-kids can really hack it away from the reset button?
“If we did not believe in the drivers they wouldn’t be in those seats,” says Darren Cox, general manager of Nissan Europe.
“GT Academy has exceeded our original expectations and each year has provided us with some outstanding driving talent. As our drivers continue to impress on a world stage, GT Academy continues to expand. I would urge anyone that feels they have the talent to get involved and give it a go.”
And looking at Ordoñez, now busy chatting up two rather attractive blondes in the pit lane, why wouldn’t you want to? After this lighthearted frolic around the Zwartkops go-kart track, the polite Spaniard will be boarding a flight to the US where he’ll be driving the radical Nissan DeltaWing around Road Atlanta.
He’s living the life all right; a life that maybe somebody in South Africa (with a little luck and the right thumb skills of course) might very well get to sample too.
The South African GT Academy opened on October 15. For more information, click on http://gtacademy.nissan.co.za/
I think the idea of the GT Academy is really encouraging for all gaming enthusiasts out there. At last, there is something beneficial that gamers can reap at the end of their gaming sessions which is non-virtual. Gamers spend hours daily hitting their consoles for virtual gaming pleasures but with such an establishment, they can now put their gaming skills into real action and achieve success in the real world.