It’s more than a game: Gran Turismo champs compete for the real thing at Silverstone

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Academy offers select few a fast track from bedroom to F1 glory

Most parents take a dim view of their children spending hours locked away playing computer games.

But not the mothers and fathers who turned out at Silverstone today to watch the nation’s most talented bedroom racers try their hand at the real thing – for a chance to forge a professional career as a driver.

The home of British Motorsport is the venue for the 2013 Gran Turismo Academy, in which players of the popular racing game battle to show they can be as fast on the track as they are on their consoles.

The academy has ballooned in popularity since its inception in 2008, with almost 150,000 people in the UK applying this year. That number was whittled down to 24 by Monday morning and, following a two-lap time trial at the Laguna Seca track on the Gran Turismo arcade machines, the final 12 fought it out in Nissans for the top six international qualifying spots.

It is not hard to see why the academy is so popular. Watching over this year’s finalists was the 2011 academy champion, Jann Mardenborough, who, in the space of two years, has stepped on the podium several times in the British GT Championship, including victory at Brands Hatch, third place at the Le Mans 24 hours race in the LMP2 class and, last year, second place at Spa- Francorchamps in the FIA Formula 3 European Championship, where he now competes as a professional in the single seater cars.

Teenager Ben Spurge is keen to emulate the Darlington-born Mardenborough, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Lewis Hamilton.

It is a hectic week for Spurge, who is just two days away from hearing whether he has achieved the two A*  grades and an A he needs to study aerodynamics at Southampton University.

Finishing 17th at last year’s academy, the 18-year-old from Waterlooville has been putting in the hours at home – up to nine hours a day, to be exact. It paid off when he qualified fastest in the UK for today’s final.

“This is a great way to get into the sport,” he says. “Normally you would need to spend about £300,000 over years and years going karting around the country, like Hamilton did, to become a professional. And that’s just the UK. Now so many more people have an opportunity.” Ben’s mother Theresa nods. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” she says.

Gran Turismo, the video game behind the annual competition Gran Turismo, the video game behind the annual competition

 

Philip Ward had taken his son Shane, a second-year student at Keele University, to the academy for the second year running after he finished eighth last year. “He’s been playing the game since he was a kid,” Philip says. “But he was years ahead of me when he was 12. Last year he was nervous but he knows what to expect now which is a little advantage. The hardest part is watching him as you can’t do anything by that stage.”

Real road skills are also tested. With many of the finalists having only recently exchanged their provisional licences for full ones, thrashing a Nissan Juke Nismo 1.6 turbo around a cone course in a car park proves quite taxing. One driver stalls, the horn beeps several times and the odd cone is knocked over, with a one-second penalty incurred each time. But given that they have had only two practice runs before they are timed, the video game racers impress in the real world.

Finalists went on to try their skills in real cars Finalists went on to try their skills in real cars  

They are not quite at Gran Turismo level – where apparently the secret is to race in your socks for smooth pedal control – but the air is quickly filled with the smell of burning rubber.

The Sky Sports F1 presenter Tony Jardine has a history in motorsport stretching back 40 years and has been involved with the Gran Turismo project since year one.

“What we have created here is extraordinary. We are putting a gamer on to the podium of Le Mans. Jann is proof of that. There are racing drivers who cannot believe what he has achieved.

“Jann is an inspiration to these young guys here, proving that you don’t have to get into motorsport through the traditional route any more. You can have latent talent, be great at the game and then take those elements such as the competitive streak, judgement, knowing when to back off and when to put the throttle down, to the road and be a success.”

The brainchild of marketing executives from Nissan and Sony Playstation, the academy was initially dismissed as a stunt. But the success of Mardenborough and Spain’s 2008 champion Lucas Ordoñez, also now a professional driver, has forced the sceptics to reassess.

2011 academy champion, Jann Mardenborough 2011 academy champion, Jann Mardenborough  

The academy now takes place in several countries and project director of GTA Global Laurence Wiltshire has designs on Japan, Brazil and other countries. A total of 1.3 million applied worldwide for this year’s national finals.

“The overall UK winner can look forward to winning the driver development process, an accelerated scheme for them to gain their professional licence in a few months as opposed to the two to three years it would normally take,” Mr Wiltshire told The Independent today.

“People thought we were mad to begin with, that we would kill someone, but the training is intense and the filtering process from so many applicants means only the very best are selected. And it will completely change someone’s life.”

Adam Suswillo, the fastest on Gran Turismo at this morning’s arcade game time trial, goes on to win overall. “I thought I would win the gaming,” he says. “But to get first overall is brilliant,”

Ben Spurge misses out, but remains upbeat. Shane Ward has improved his 2012 position, taking second place overall, as the successful six head for a showdown with Europe’s best. For this select group the Formula 1 dream remains alive.

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