Gaming dreams came wildly true for Lucas Ordóñez. From winning the Nissan GT Academy competition in 2008, to standing atop European podiums in 2009 and even co-driving with the founder of Gran Turismo in 2012. CNET Australia spoke with Ordóñez himself as well as Nissan Global Motorsport Director Darren Cox about what it really means to go from the virtual to the track.
One great idea
"No, that'll never work. That's a stupid idea."
Darren Cox, Nissan/Nismo global motorsport director, cracks a wry smile and a joke when asked about devising the original GT Academy concept. Back in 2008, Cox was instrumental in working with PlayStation and Polyphony Digital to give European gamers a shot at turning their love of Gran Turismo into a career as a race-car driver.
"This was one of those light bulb moments," said Cox. "We did an event with PlayStation in 2004. There was no qualification. You just had to write in and come along to a race track. At the end of the day, we'd given out some awards and someone won a car."
"But then we thought, you know, some of these kids were actually bloody good drivers. It took me another four years to make it happen because it had never been done before."
"Five years or six years ago when we were trying to make it happen, you can imagine the barriers we were trying to get over," said Cox, rolling his eyes. "Insurance. Health and safety. Contracts. Fitness. Myriad issues. And people have come up to me and said 'you nicked my idea'. Probably a million people have had that idea, but it was making it happen that was the real task."
The partnership between Nissan and PlayStation around GT Academy was simple. No money involved — just a straight-up partnership to bring a big idea to life. The competition has continued to run in Europe, and in the past year, 850,000 European gamers downloaded the special GT Academy version of the game (which features Nissan-only cars) and drove over 500 million virtual miles to try to be the best.
"We've expanded it around the world and we'd love to do it in Australia one day," says Cox. "We keep refining the process, it's quite different now to what it was back then."
"This year we've got a kid in European Formula 3 just 18 months after he sat in a race car for the first time. Two years ago we had a guy on the podium at Le Mans," says Cox. "So it works."
The guy on the podium at Le Mans
Lucas Ordóñez was studying for an MBA when GT Academy first appeared. His brother and his father were both racing drivers and he had hoped to be just like them. But after trying some karting it was getting expensive for little reward so he stopped and focused on "just trying to be skilled to work in an office like a normal person."
But GT Academy changed everything.
Ordóñez devised a schedule to keep studying for his MBA while treating GT Academy like a second job.
"I was finishing studying at 10pm, coming home, having some dinner and then trying to have at least one or one and a half hours in the game," says Ordóñez. "After that your eyes and everything gets really tired. I was planning to do that every day."
"Before GT Academy started I was training at home and learning all the Nissan cars because no one knew which car and on which track it was going to be in the competition. During the final, which was one month, it was so hard."
0.1 seconds, 50 places
"At the beginning I was ten seconds off the pace," says Ordóñez. "I thought, well, there's so many people playing Gran Turismo it's going to be really, really difficult I don't think I'm going to get in. I was struggling a bit so I found on the Playstation blog that the real trick was to buy the steering wheel, use the clutch and make faster shifting in the gearbox and better handling with the car and that was the way."
GT Academy allowed racers to see the ghost cars of the top ten qualifiers, which meant everyone could keep improving by watching and following the laps of the competition leaders. There was no time to rest or grow complacent.
"I was P20, for example, and that was the limit to qualify," says Ordóñez. "But if I couldn't make the training the day after I would find I was in P300 or P400 the next day. Every day 1/10th of improvement was like 50 positions. That was crazy. Every day you had to keep training and stay focused."
In the end just 3/10ths of a second separated the top 400 drivers. Ordóñez finished P3 in Spain and then P2 in another final before travelling to Silverstone to take part in a European final event.
"I didn't see many people who love to drive virtually but had no interest in driving for real," says Ordóñez. "One of the three Spanish finalists was really a big gamer, a big fan of racing, but really unconfident in himself in real life. For him the trip to Silverstone was a wonderful life experience but that was it. For me that trip in my mind was 'No, I want to be a real racing driver. I want to win this thing.' It was a completely different way of thinking."
Win he did. Ordóñez raced for Nissan in the 2009 GT4 European Cup season and reached the podium in his first event. By the end of his first season he had two race wins and placed second overall. Since then he has had further podium success at Le Mans, in Dubai and last year he won his class in a Nissan GT-R in a Nurburgring 24 Hour event with a very special co-driver.
He was driving with Kazunori Yamauchi, the creator of Gran Turismo and CEO of Polyphony Digital.
Full circle: driving with Gran Turismo's creator
It takes the 'dreams come true' story to a whole different level for Ordóñez to find himself eventually building a partnership with the man behind the game that gave him the opportunity to race cars for a living.
"Yamauchi-san is such a perfectionist," says Ordóñez. "You can see it in Gran Turismo. He's so into the detail of everything. In real racing with him I learned a lot. He was not faster than me but he was really, really professional and wanted to understand the car and how it works and the engineering. It was a really amazing experience and hopefully in the future we can do more races together."
"It was not only racing with Kazunori, either. Each day he brought a team of engineers from Polyphony from Japan and it was incredible. They had an office on top of our box with Gran Turismo and they were developing cars and all this stuff. Every time we got on the box we'd take the data from our real car and Kazunori himself would take the data up on a USB and he'd start to program and to transfer that data to the simulator. I was just amazed, like, this is not possible! Unbelievable!"
Another aspect of that Nurburgring race was understanding just how much help Gran Turismo could offer a driver before spending time out on the real track.
"I was training on Gran Turismo to learn the track. It's a really long track, 25km, very difficult to learn, all the bumps and the places to overtake," says Ordóñez. "Kazunori told me, look, let's take this GT-R in real life and let's go around to learn the track. I did two laps and the first thing I did when I jumped out was say 'Thank you, thank you, Kazunori. Thanks to you, since the first corner I knew where I was and where to go and the bumps and everything which was in the real track was in Gran Turismo.' That really helped me and that's where I found it was an important tool for a racing driver."
Ordóñez has maintained his personal relationship with Polyphony, visiting the studio in Tokyo and offering any advice he could in the development of the latest game.
"It's one of my targets now to keep developing this amazing game and why not to have a career after racing in this area," says Ordóñez. "It's what changed my life."
"I had dinner with Yamauchi-san recently and that was one of the things we were talking about. To see what we can do in the future together. That would be a dream. That would be amazing."
What makes a great driver?
Back with Darren Cox, we wondered what he makes of seeing a virtual driver make a success of his chance at the real thing. What does it say about what makes a great driver?
I'd absolutely say it is two things," Cox offers. "One is skills and reactions, of course. But the second thing, which is actually more important, is dedication. It's about focus. And to get to the top of the leagues in the online game you have to just sit on that thing for days and days and days and just get it right."
"The first year we did it we thought we were going to get some big, fat gamers," says Cox. "But no, these were guys who were dedicated in other areas as well. They're runners, they're fitness guys. One guy we got this year was on the verge of becoming a pro footballer. It's dedication and sticking to the task and doing the same thing over and over. These guys go fast because they're within 2/10ths each and every lap and of the last lap and they can keep doing that all the way through the race. That is all the game is. Repeating the same thing over and over again as best as you possibly can."
"We knew we'd find a good guy but we didn't know we'd find a great guy," says Cox. "Who knows where these guys could go next?"