Driver Jann Mardenborough earned his racing stripes on his PlayStation instead of on the track. By John Pearley Huffman
Great racers start young. Seven-times Formula 1 world champion Michael Schumacher won his first kart championship at age six. The parents of four-time Nascar Sprint cup champ Jeff Gordon moved from California to Indiana when he was 14 so he could drive 485 kW sprint cars. By conventional wisdom, if you’re not on a track by 12 or 13, you’re already too old. But a new breed of drivers who spent their formative years playing racing video games instead of behind the wheel are challenging these traditional notions.
Take Welsh driver Jann Mardenborough. At 22, he’s ancient in driver years, but he’s also running strong in his first season in the tough European Formula 3 open-wheel series. “I had no experience on a track,” Mardenborough says about his first time on a full-size racetrack at 19. “I was the biggest novice you could get.”
Mardenborough honed his driving talent playing Gran Turismo – a racing video game – on the Sony PlayStation gaming console in his bedroom. Mardenborough’s migration from virtual to real racing came with his victory in the 2011 European Gran Turismo Academy online competition sponsored by Nissan and Sony. Started in 2008, GT Academy awards the winner a comprehensive race development course with Nissan and, in Mardenborough’s case, the chance to co-drive a racing version of the Nissan 370Z in the Dubai 24 hours in January 2012.
Mardenborough’s other three co-drivers? All previous GT Academy winners. Mardenborough drove the final anchor leg, and the team of gamer-racers earned a spot on the winners’ podium by finishing third in their class.
With such a delicious opportunity as a prize – plus the chance to appear on a TV reality show built around the competition – thousands are flocking to GT Academy. Last year, more than 400 000 gamers ran off against one another on Sony’s Internet-based PlayStation Network during the month-long tournament. (One of those was South African Ashley Oldfield.)
The leap from virtual to real-world racing might sound daunting, but a racing simulation such as Gran Turismo is light-years beyond early arcade games such as Out Run or Pole Position. And the latest versions (Gran Turismo 6 hits stores this month) are specific in both the behaviour of particular cars and the contours of particular tracks. Along with developments such as force-feedback controllers – steering wheels and pedal sets that actually bite back – the result is an amazing simulation of reality.
Then there’s the science. Daphne Bavelier of the University of Rochester and University of Geneva has found that playing video games can essentially rewire the brain. In tests, participants playing a first-person shooting game were up to 50 per cent better at identifying, locating and tracking objects – skills that are also critical in real race driving – than non-gamers.
But this doesn’t mean that the transition to reality is always easy. “I had a fairly small TV in my room, so my eyes were constantly fixated on that screen,” Mardenborough says. “In racing for real, you need to look deeper into the corner. I found it really difficult to retrain my brain to look into the corners instead of just focusing straight ahead.”
Still, the simulation is spookily accurate. Before GT Academy, Mardenborough had never been sliding in a car before. “During the national final, I was sideways in a 370Z and I was just doing what I was doing in the game,” he says. Mardenborough’s ultimate goal is to race in Formula 1, and for that he needs to continue stocking real-world track time.
Consider Sebastian Vettel: the three-times and current Formula 1 champion is only 26 and already has 22½ years of kart and car racing experience. Indeed, a video game can only take you so far. But for aspiring race drivers, it might be enough to get started.
“It’s a bunch of engineers spending days walking around sniffing dirt,” explains Taku Imasaki, a senior producer at Sony PlayStation America, about the process of creating digital replications of real racetracks for Gran Turismo. Tracks don’t fit on a flatbed scanner, so software engineers have to measure everything. And there are no fancy tools or shortcuts – just tape measures, distance wheels, digital cameras and patience. That time spent collecting data is followed by months of programming to create the painstakingly detailed replica.
Illustration by Andy Gilmore | Picture by Ryan Young