A little over two years ago Spanish student Lucas Ordonez was working hard for his master's degree, dreaming of a career in motorsport but settling for playing racing games on his PlayStation is his bedroom. Now, after being selected for Nissan's racing driver programme, the former video gamer is basking in the glory of finishing in a coveted podium position at last weekend's Le Mans 24-Hour endurance race.
Ordonez, 26, a self-confessed addict of ultra-realist and top-selling racing game Gran Turismo 5, turned his high-octane dream into reality after winning the GT Academy competition. A combined project by Sony PlayStation and Nissan, the GT Academy was launched in 2008 to prove the theory of Gran Turismo creator Kazunori Yamauchi: that he could turn a gamer into a real-life racing driver.
This is all great PR for the automotive and entertainment giants, but can a game really improve your driving? Ordonez, and the 30 or so aspiring Lewis Hamiltons I met at Brands Hatch during the British qualifier for this year's GT Academy competition last month, suggest that perhaps it can.
Ordonez, speaking to me via Skype from a pit lane before he left for his performance at Le Mans, is cool, calm and collected: "Gran Turismo is a practical learning and training tool as well as a game. And even now, as a real racing-car driver I still use it prepare for races and sharpen my reaction speeds, just as Formula One drivers do. For example it's great to help me familiarise myself with tracks, corners, when and where I need to brake and when I need to hit the accelerator."
Darren Cox, of Nissan, who helped launch the academy, is keen to talk up its safety and education standards but also the quality of gamers-turned-drivers it has delivered: "When we first tested the idea our professional racing instructors were really impressed with how well some of our gamers performed on the track. They were calm and well-disciplined, but most importantly, they were quickly able to learn to relax and take instruction while understanding all the complex racing telemetry that we put in front of them."
Jann Mardenborough, a 19-year-old student from Cardiff, who has battled through the Brands Hatch heat to the GT Academy world final at Silverstone today, is a case in point. Having played racing games since he was eight years old he impressed the judges with his physical fitness off the track and his left-foot braking (a sign of a pro-racer I'm told) and controlled understeer on the track. "I love driving but I drive a 20-year old car and I failed my first driving test for hesitation at a roundabout. My instructor said I was too cautious," admits an embarrassed Mardenborough.
Hardly boy racer material, but nonetheless the perception that video games cause dangerous driving is a hard one to shake off and not without foundation. In 2007 the Daily Mail reported that boy racer Christopher Hayden, then 19, caused a fatal crash. He had, it emerged, been playing the first Gran Turismo on a computer screen he'd rigged up on his car's dashboard moments before the accident. What's more, numerous studies, supported by the likes of the Institute of Advanced Motorists, the driving school BSM and Allianz insurance, have argued that video games can turn into a deadly reality on the road as they encourage drivers to take excessive risks.
The link is far from certain though, as Andrew Howard, head of road safety at the AA, says: "All the research points to the fact that young drivers know how to drive safely but choose not to do so, often because they want to impress their friends. They are seeking peer-group approval and to them driving becomes an expressive behaviour rather than simply a mode of transport. In these cases I think there is more in common with skateboarding and BMX biking, where you show off your stunts, than firing a machine gun from your car window on Grand Theft Auto or crashing into a tyre wall on a Formula One simulator."
Driver behaviour aside, it is easier to prove a relationship between gaming and driver skill, if not road sense. Professor Daphne Bavelier, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Rochester in New York, has found that playing action-based video games helps to improve the brain's ability to learn and process information and adapt to its surroundings.
"We have a large amount of data that shows playing fast-paced games improves hand-eye co-ordination, the ability to focus on the task at hand and your ability to make decisions, as gaming improves your brain's allocation of resources," says Bavelier. "These are a whole range of skills that we had not thought of as being related to each other, but what is most striking discovery in gamers is the effects on vision. Normally, improving contrast sensitivity means using glasses or surgery to correct the eye. But we've found that action video games train the brain to process visual information more efficiently and improve vision."
Not that technical skill is the same thing as road safety, says Bavelier: "We all know that Michael Schumacher doesn't have a stellar reputation for controlling his speed on residential roads. Behaviour and skill are two very different things and being a good technical driver doesn't necessarily make you a safer driver."
Despite that Bavelier sees video games as a useful tool for education and rehabilitating the visually impaired, as well as for training soldiers for combat. And the US and Chinese militaries seem to agree – both have recently invested tens of millions of dollars in ultra-realistic combat simulators to train their infantry.
But not all games are equal. In the past five years a lucrative industry of brain-training games has sprung up with titles such as Big Brain Academy and Brain Training being described as "edutainment" and the Nintendo DS console selling more than 90 million units worldwide with celebrity endorsement from the likes of Nicole Kidman and Cheryl Cole. But, according to Bavelier: "studies of social games, puzzle games and brain-training games have shown they have little effect on the brain despite often being marketed as improving memory and reaction speeds".
In fact, says Bavelier, it is actually stimulus-heavy, first-person shooters such as Call of Duty: Black Ops and action-packed racing games such as Need for Speed that are most likely to improve the skills and develop the area of the brain required to be a successful racing driver. "This is because they tend to be unpredictable. Gamers have to think on the fly and adapt, rather than just practise one specific skill," she says
And for Mardenborough, the shy student I was rooting for at Brands Hatch, it seems to have made a difference: "All those hours up in my bedroom have finally paid off."
Driving lesson: The GT Academy
I was surprisingly nervous as I approached Brands Hatch to try my hand at the GT Academy. Thirty or so gamers were battling for two places at the GT Academy race camp which takes places today at Silverstone and I was to follow in their footsteps. Their prize was driving Nissan 370z sports car at the Dubai 24-hour race and a possible career in motorsport. Mine, returning home with my automotive and gaming pride intact.
Despite the tension, the contestants, who had posted the fastest lap times of 20,000 entrants via Sony's online Play-Station network, seemed calm and relaxed as the slower virtual drivers were knock out one by one in a succession of heats with patient parents and bored-looking girlfriend looking on.
My turn on the simulator meant a lap at Monza, an Italian circuit know for its straight-line speed and deadly chicanes. Aside from smashing into a few tyre walls my weeks of Call of Duty: Black Ops gameplay on my Xbox and some helpful advice from a previous GT Academy gamer helped me put in a respectable time against some fellow journalists from various motoring magazines and a few restless parents.
And after a spine-shattering passenger lap of Brands Hatch with Jordon Cresson, last year's GT Academy in his Nissan track car, I was ready for six laps of a baby circuit behind the wheel of a 370z coupé, complete with go-faster stripe and of course all the correct corporate branding.
I'm no Jeremy Clarkson but being pitted against several motoring hacks my competitive spirits soared. The next 10 minutes are an engine revving blur of burnt rubber. I'm not sure I was able to bring anything like the poise and control that many of the entrants displayed but thanks to the crazed extortions of a Nissan racing instructor in the passenger seat ("Power, power, power, don't brake"), I was quicker than the man from Fast Car magazine. He'll have had more practice than me in sports cars, but I don't know if he has an Xbox 360.