Walking in to the BRDC Clubhouse at Silverstone is always a strange experience. It's the home of British Motorsport, the place where your name on the wall means you've truly made it; you are a motor-racing god. However, it gets stranger when you walk in and see 18 young guys wearing GT Academy T-shirts sat around looking as though they're about to receive a colonoscopy.
For those who don't know, the GT Academy is a yearly competition laid on by both Nissan and Sony with the aim of finding the next big thing in motor racing. Competitors enter by downloading a small chunk of Gran Turismo 5 and race online against...the world. The fastest racers from various territories are then called up for a more real test of their skills. I was to witness that test.
The day started with the remaining 18, whittled down from 30+ the night before, receiving a briefing for the day's events. They were to race on GT5, undergo a media test, fitness test, and do a real-life Autotest (which was more like Autosolo, if I'm honest).
Full in the knowledge that no one really wants to spend an entire day watching other people play Gran Turismo 5, Sony/Nissan thought they'd show me the Autotest the competitors would go through. A simple cone course was laid out and I was ushered into a race-prepared Nissan 370Z, in the rain, to have a go. I didn't spin it despite having feet made of lead.
However, I also didn't post a competitive time. Other journalists decided to attack it as though their lives depended on it -- cars drifted, spun, and screeched while Nissan reps wondered whether their cars would be in good enough nick for the competitors to use later.
Post spinning, we headed back to see the end of the racing. Watching people concentrate so hard on a video game is one thing, it's another to see genuine frustration in their eyes with every mistake they make. These guys are resting their dreams on making it through to the "Boot camp" later in the year. There they'll be tested like never before: fitness, driving, demeanour, you name it. The prize is life-changing but the competition is hungry.
Once the racing was over (it was actually tense, if imaginary), the drivers faced a media briefing. We were given a set list of questions and were told to ask two. One by one they wheeled in like mildly geeky cattle, looking nervous, confused, and in one case a bit upset. We were marking them and they knew it. Some were genuinely brilliant, one loved Kimi Raikkonen, and one was monosyllabic. Oh, and one looked quite a bit like Ed Sheeran.
Lunch followed and I got a chance to chat with the Ed-alike. He revealed that if he didn't get through he'd chuck the whole virtual-racing thing in and get back to university. He kept referring to "the pod" (the wheel, chair, console, and telly set up they race in) as though it was a holy shrine. "Once you're in the pod you have to buckle down"; "the pod makes you focus." I, rudely, found myself thinking: "It's a metal hoop with a telly and some pedals attached to a video game -- man up, son." I can't shake the idea that such slavish devotion to a video game, such a desire and need to be so good at it seems a little misguided. The old adage, though, goes "you've got to be in it to win it" and these boys (no girls, oddly) are all very much in it.
The competitors' day wasn't anywhere near over post-feed. They were sent to have a go at the Autotest I'd attempted earlier. I was told that the night before they'd all been worried that they'd had no experience behind the wheel for a while -- so decided to practise in their hotel car park. In one another's cars. They all seemed to avoid a seemingly tricky insurance issue and were tonking around the course rather briskly. Faster than me, anyway.
To stave off boredom, Nissan whisked me away to have some hot laps in a GT-R with Jann Mardeborogh, last year's GT Academy winner. He rocked up to Silverstone's old pit complex, shook my hand, and off we went. It was nice to talk to him -- he's done what today's competitors were doing and his thoughts are invaluable. It turns out that he's 20 (well...he was when this piece was written). Part of me wants to hate him, but he's too nice to overtly dislike. He spoke of how he'd gone from being anonymous to chased by the press, adored by fans who've followed his career and, ya know, become a world-class racing driver in less than a year.
His skill is obvious -- he's capable of hustling Nissan GT-R at speed around a very, very greasy track. We slithered everywhere, but he made it hold on. The driving, to Mardeborogh, is the secondary concern. He's so sodding good he took his hands of the wheel to gesture at 120 mph. As a corner loomed.
Before you ask: yes, his parents did used to moan at him for playing too many video games. Yes, he has thrown it back in their face. Probably while wearing his infectious smile. You can't dislike a guy like Mardeborogh.
After my hot laps I went to have a go at GT5 in the pods against the press. It's time to let y'all in on a little secret: I love gaming, I pump thousands into the gaming industry every year. Consoles litter my flat, games sit in their boxes having been played for an hour or so before I've had to move on to work to earn the money to buy them. Sadly I'm absolute toilet at them. So not only was I smashed on the actual track, I was to be reamed on a virtual section of the Laguna Seca. Still, I used my three timed laps to be as balletic as possible, then continued playing and finally nailed The Corkscrew, one of the most complicated, nastiest corners known to man. So it wasn't a total loss. While I was in the pod I'll admit that I didn't really get how scary they can be -- partly because my success here wouldn't determine the rest of my life and also because I can't take competition seriously when the chap next to me is a portly Geordie.
While all this was going on, the competitors were doing a fitness test. Which was nice for them. Exercise is less interesting than sitting in the hallowed pods playing games. I went to go and have a look when the heavens opened and showed us that rain can utterly soak you within 30 seconds. So as I jogged for cover I saw some young-looking people running in the distance and was satisfied they knew what they were doing.
Damp, knackered, and dejected, the 18 hopefuls returned to the BRDC clubhouse. Each looking hopefully at the names on the walls, wanting to follow in Mardeborogh's footsteps: to become a "proper" racer.
Of the 18 who started the day, 6 got through. I felt sorry for the 12 sent packing -- one of them was Ed Sheeran; they'd worked hard and hoped to be the best. They weren't up to snuff. That said, the chap who came first was sent home at this stage last year. He spent his year training to be the best this time around. Time well spent, I think. He's only got a week-long intensive boot camp and competition against other GT Academy winners from all over the world. Rather him than me, but if he's got the stones to pull it off I'll be writing about him at some point. Maybe, Ed, the year after. Maybe.