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In 2011 over 90,000 people from 10 European countries took part in GT Academy via an online time-trial on the Gran Turismo®5 PlayStation®3 game. A series of six territory finals, held in May at locations such as Brands Hatch, Circuit Paul Ricard and the Barcelona Motorshow, whittled the fastest gamers down to the top 12 competitors overall:

Thibault LACOMBE
Federico PINNA
Mentor: Franck Mailleux Mentor: Vitantonio Liuzzi Mentor: Johnny Herbert
Alexander WELCKE
Edwin BOS
Bruno Sousa FERREIRA (POR)
Mentor: Sabine Schmitz Mentor: Jeroen Bleekemolen Mentor: Lucas Ordoñez

A week-long ultimate test for the final 12 super-quick gamers began on Friday 10 June 2011 at the iconic Le Mans 24 Hours in France. In identical Nissan 370Zs, they were invited to be part of the renowned Drivers Parade through the centre of Le Mans, to the applause of over 200,000 fans.

The finalists were given a tour of the Signatech Nissan garage and met the GT Academy 2008 Champion, Lucas Ordoñez, who was racing in the Le Mans 24 Hours for the first time. This brought it home to them that winning GT Academy had the potential to change their lives forever and make their racing dreams come true.

The competition proper also began in Le Mans where the competitors took part in a grueling endurance kart race at the Alain Prost circuit. As the sun set on the famous circuit, just meters away from the karting action the Nissan-powered prototype LMP2 cars were racing towards a class victory while Bastien and Thibault of Team France took first blood on home soil in the GT Academy contest.

On the Sunday, the 12 competitors drove from Le Mans to Race Camp at Silverstone, giving them plenty of time to get used to being behind the wheel of the Nissan 370Z. On arrival at Silverstone, they were met by Head Judge Eddie Irvine, Head of Driving Rob Barff and their Race Camp mentors, and were shown into their military-style dormitory in the Stowe Circuit pit building – perhaps not the glamour of motorsport that they may have been expecting. Meanwhile, back in France, Lucas came second in class at the Le Mans 24 Hours – an impressive feat for any driver, let alone one who had only been racing for three years.

Race Camp proved to be a baptism of fire. Early one morning the finalists were woken up to the roar of marines, driven to a remote woodland and dragged from the coach in a mist of smoke grenades. They were then put through their paces with military-style training – it was tough going and three competitors had to drop out of the session. It’s not easy to be a professional racing driver (although they wouldn’t usually have to deal with armed marines!) and so the aim of this training was to take the competitors out of their comfort zone and make them think about the level of commitment required to achieve their goal.

Of course there were also driving challenges, as well as time spent in the classroom studying race technique and taking the ARDS (basic race license) test. Specially designed GT Academy driving challenges included circuit driving, head-to-head sprints and advanced car control sessions. Physical fitness was further tested by a ‘triathlon’ where the competitors pulled the Nissan 370Z a set distance using a special harness, then drove several laps before switching to bicycles and finally a run. This challenge proved too much for Federico Pinna. The Italian competitor withdrew from the competition feeling the exhaustion of five intensive days in Race Camp.

After much deliberation with the experienced instructors and driver mentors, Eddie Irvine and Rob Barff chose the six finalists to take part in the final day of GT Academy: Danilo Bordino (ITA), Thomas Arends (NED), Thibault Lacombe (FRA), Sascha Meyenborg (DEU), Jann Mardenborough (UK) and Carlos Murillo (ESP). This six was trimmed to four when Sascha and Thomas were eliminated after their first taste of driving a real GT4 race car.

The final four – Jann, Danilo, Carlos and Thibault - lined up on the grid of Silverstone’s National Circuit for a 20 minute race in the red and white GT Academy Nissan 370Zs. Jann got a good start from pole position, but had Thibault chasing him closely. A missed gear allowed the Frenchman through with a brave move round the outside of the last corner. But Jann clawed his way back and re-took the lead. He then put together a string of fast, consistent laps to take the checkered flag by eight seconds.

His pole and victory left the judges in no doubt that 19-year-old Jann Mardenborough from Cardiff was the 2011 GT Academy Champion. Thibault, Carlos and Danilo finished in that order behind Jann in both the race and the overall competition.

“I am really buzzing, ecstatic,” said a jubilant Jann. “This competition is going to change my life massively. I’m not sure about the next Lewis Hamilton, but being the next Lucas Ordoñez would be a pretty good start.”

Next, Jann embarked on GT Academy’s comprehensive Driver Development Program before taking on the grueling Dubai 24 Hour race in a ground-breaking ‘all-gamer’ team in January 2012, driving a Nissan 370Z GT4 car and finishing on the podium.

And for Jann’s new racing career, this was only the beginning. In his first year as a professional racing driver, he came agonizingly close to winning the British GT Championship. Jann then hit the steepest part of his learning curve as he switched to single-seaters in the highly-competitive 2013 FIA European Formula 3 Championship. Racing in F3 allowed him to fast track his race craft in preparation to compete in a Nissan-powered LMP2 car at Le Mans. From winning GT Academy in June 2011 to racing at Le Mans in 2013, this is the shortest path yet from Gran Turismo® gamer to Le Mans for a GT Academy driver.