Lee Bradley finally gets his owl and signs up for racing school. Photos, videos and high-octane account within.
BOOM! That’s not just VG247’s news-breaking calling card, it’s also the sound of a high-powered sports car thumping into the barriers at 120 MPH. I know this because I heard it on my PS3, over and over again, while preparing for a recent, terrifying PlayStation event.
Sony had invited me to race a Nissan 370Z around Silverstone to celebrate GT Academy, the competition offering Gran Turismo 5’s top players the opportunity to become certified racing drivers. Yet I was incapable of completing even a virtual lap without causing a spectacular, life-threatening crash. I was shitting myself.
Thankfully, however, PlayStation and Nissan were also offering training, a taster of the intense Driver Development Programme GT Academy’s most recent winner, Jann Mardenborough, is currently going through. Encompassing national level races as well as comprehensive fitness, skill, psychology and simulation training, it’s a serious business. But was I up to it?
“I saw an advert for GT Academy in January, so I looked up some YouTube videos of the previous years’ winners and thought; if these guys - just normal guys who like playing racing games - can do it, why can’t I?”
In June, Jann Mardenborough, a 19 year-old PlayStation 3 gamer from Cardiff, beat 90,000 rivals to become the 2011 European GT Academy winner. Starting in his bedroom posting lap times in Gran Turismo 5 and culminating in a Johnny Herbert-mentored victory on the track at Silverstone, it’s a win that has changed Mardenborough’s life.
Already taking part in and winning national races, in January Mardenborough heads to the UAE to compete in the Dubai 24-hour race. Beyond that, a fully-fledged racing career awaits. And it’s all thanks to GT Academy.
My targets, meanwhile, were a little more modest: Survive the day and try not to write off 30 grand’s worth of racing car.
My first task was to set a benchmark time out on the track. This is what I feared most. I was to get behind the wheel of a 330 BHP Japanese sports car and rip around the International Circuit as fast as possible, without guidance. No racing line indicators, no rewinds, full damage modelling. Real life.
I survived it. I wasn’t even close to crashing. But then it’s hard to crash when you’re going about 30 MPH, looking like Mr Bean in a racing helmet. This training better be good, I thought.
After some vital pointers on racing lines and throttle control from the instructors, the training began in earnest with Gavin Gough, a psychologist and mind coach employed to get Mardenborough up to speed. Using techniques adopted by racing legend Ayrton Senna, Gough encourages pre-race visualisation, where you imagine the perfect lap before you’ve even raced it.
To support this, Gough put me through a session of hypnotherapy. It was weird. To be honest with you I haven’t got a clue what he said or what he did – I think I remember him whispering something about “being at one with the car” - but when I came to I was completely relaxed and had a craving for a bacon sarnie. Make of that what you will.
But that was just the warm-up. Things got really serious in Silverstone’s iZone, a state-of-the-art driver training centre featuring all manner of whizzy techno gadgets, including a high-tech gym.
Don’t underestimate just how fit racing drivers are. Under the watchful eye of fitness coach Eliot Challifour, the tall and slim Mardenborough has already shifted kilograms of fat and built up vital muscle mass, all of which is essential to a successful career.
Challifour has statistics that indicate a racing driver’s ideal body fat percentage, something he has used to devise the ultimate fitness programme. Core strength, nutrition, grip strength, reaction times, it’s all covered. Next month Mardenborough jets off to New York to compete in the city’s 2011 marathon. The boy’s in good shape.
I, however, am not. After some body composition and reaction time analysis in the gym, it was established in cold, scientific terms that I’m basically a bit fat and a bit slow. Great.
For all of the physical and mental training on offer, however, it’s being behind the wheel that Mardenborough loves most, something he gets to practice alongside real on-track experiences in the iZone’s Racing Simulator.
It’s tens of thousands of pounds worth of hydraulics, huge wrap-around HD screens and state of the art human performance data analysis software - a racing game fan’s wet dream.
“I couldn’t afford a proper racing rig before this,” Mardenborough tells me later. “You’re looking at something like £600 or £700 for a metal, tubular frame. So I decided to make my own at school in my A-Levels. I built it out of MDF and bought a racing wheel with my birthday money.”
He’s clearly come a long way.
But had I? After a day of technical theory and physical and mental training, it was time for my final session in the car. I climbed back into the Nissan and headed out onto the track.
Astoundingly, it all started to go right. I hit 120 MPH going down Hanger Straight. I glided through the tight left of Vale and the long right of Club corner. I tamed Abbey and Farm Curve.
Going back over the footage it looks pretty slow and I did slide off the track a few times, but with the 370Z’s engine roaring beneath me I felt like I was flying. The day’s tiny taster of Mardenborough’s development programme knocked a full 15 seconds off my best lap time.
I was still the slowest driver on the track that day, but I was also the most improved. Get in.
Later, I sat in the passenger seat as Mardenborough roared around the track to show me exactly how it’s done. The boy’s a savage. Fearless. “Winning GT Academy and becoming a racing driver is all my dreams come true,” he told me.
As he screeched into corners and made the engine roar in terror down the straights, I gripped onto the roll bar for dear life. Perfectly calm, Mardenborough had a massive cheesy grin on his face throughout. He’s the luckiest bloke in the world
Enter GT Academy next year and you could be in Mardenborough’s driving seat. You could have millions of pounds of equipment and training at your disposal. You could be the one terrifying journalists with your blistering speed, ready to embark on a glamorous racing career.
It could be you. Because it certainly won’t be me.