How effective is the GT Academy, where Nissan picks the best gamers from Gran Turismo to train and turn into real-life racing drivers? We'll see this year at Le Mans. By putting GT Academy grads in their LMP1-class race car, we'll finally see them go head-to-head with some of the best driving talent in the world.
The 24 Hours of Le Mans wasn't rumored to be a possibility for Formula One racers in limbo like Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button as a last-ditch, meh effort at finding a seat in whatever was available. It's a race that attracts top talent from around the world, from all disciplines of motorsport—especially other road-course racers.
The World Endurance Championship that includes the 24 Hours of Le Mans has attracted a lot of talent from Formula One over the years. F1 has long been called "the pinnacle of motorsport," and it's often the lifelong dream of drivers who come up through the traditional means of getting a professional racing gig.
Nowadays, scoring an F1 drive involves getting into a kart as young as possible and moving up through the different ranks of formula cars. The FIA recently made that process even more restrictive, with only certain series that count towards a Formula One Superlicense.
Since this means that Nissan can't put a couple GT Academy drivers into a F1 car right away to see how it goes, putting them head-to-head with current and former Formula One talent racing in the top LMP1 class in WEC is the next best thing. Force India driver Nico Hulkenberg is racing Porsche's third car for Le Mans. Ex-Formula One pros Mark Webber, Anthony Davison and Sébastien Buemi also race in the class.
Some would argue that WEC is taking over that "pinnacle of motorsport" title from F1, and I see their point. The engineering is wilder in WEC, that's for sure. There are fewer set-in-stone restrictions which allows crazy things like a purpose-built front-wheel-drive hybrid race car to happen.
Additionally, LMP1 cars are almost as fast as F1 cars. F1 has a slightly better power-to-weight ratio, but LMP1s have more downforce, allowing them to carry more speed through the corners. Here's one comparison from Porsche 919 driver Mark Webber's site:
To compare the speed of LMP1 with F1, Mark's fastest lap at last year's British Grand Prix (average speed: 227.059kph) was just over 10.5 seconds quicker than the fastest WEC lap there (average speed: 203.600kph). At Silverstone, the race distance is over three and a half times that of an F1 race, which is in the region of just under 200 laps.
LMP1 presents a slightly different set of challenges, however, complete with hybrid systems making up to 1,250 hp available at certain times during a lap. F1's engines last year were estimated to be in the 780 hp range.
Point being: both types of cars are silly quick, and a real challenge to drive well.
As for the driver pool, though, F1 still probably has the edge based on name recognition alone, which is why putting GT Academy grads in the same WEC class as past and present Formula One stars is the ultimate test of the program's worthiness.
Nissan is beyond proud of the success of the GT Academy program. Its grads were so successful in racing that they were promptly booted from the British GT Championship for being too fast to be considered amateurs in the series. They've been to Le Mans before, albeit not yet in an LMP1. They've been on the podium of the Spa 24 Hours. Most recently, GT Academy grads Florian Strauss and Wolfgang Reip helped Katsumasa Chiyo to victory at the Bathurst 12 Hour.
In addition to veteran Nissan driver Michael Krumm, Nissan recently named GT Academy grads Jann Mardenborough and Lucas Ordoñez to drive its GT-R LM NISMO race car. Of course, neither driver has gone straight from the couch into a race car. After winning a sponsored drive with Nissan in the GT Academy program, they've continued to drive professionally.
Jann Mardenborough will be around for the full WEC season, which isn't a surprise given how he was involved with the testing of the GT-R LM NISMO. Mardenborough currently races in GP3 with many other up-and-coming racers as well as the Toyota Racing Series, so WEC marks his return to sportscar racing. He's been to Le Mans twice before. Last year at Le Mans, he shared a Ligier JS P2 Nissan with Alex Brundle and Mark Shulzhitzkiy in LMP2, the class just below the top LMP1 class.
Mardenborough had this to say on his involvement in the LMP1 program, as quoted by Sportscar365:
I want to show that there is a different route to the top of motorsport, than just years and years of expensive go karting, by winning at Le Mans. It's an honor for me to be chosen to compete in LMP1 for Nissan.
I have raced at Le Mans twice in LMP2 so I have seen the current LMP1 cars at very close quarters out on the track. To think I will be racing one this year is very exciting. The Nissan GT-R LM NISMO looks set to be an historic race car and I get to drive it!
Upset the status quo: that's not only the goal of the car, but the drivers themselves. On behalf of folks who couldn't even talk their parents into a Power Wheels Barbie Jeep everywhere, I hope he and his GT Academy teammates everywhere prove that there can be a less expensive route into a professional racing drive, all while gleefully farting in the general direction of everyone who writes off video games as a silly waste of time.
Teammate Lucas Ordoñez is only going to be on Nissan's third car for Le Mans, but that's still exciting given that another third car driver for the race is Nico Freakin' Hulkenberg in the Porsche 919. He was the very first winner of Nissan's GT Academy, and lo and behold, he's not only still racing, but jumping into the highest level of endurance racing.
Ordoñez is mainly racing Japanese Super GT this year, but his run in the GT-R LM NISMO will be his fifth Le Mans start. Like Mardenborough, he has prior experience in a Nissan-powered LMP2, with the Team Signatech Nissan Oreca O3. He has prior experience in American endurance racing as well, with Team Signatech being Nissan's first American racing effort since 1994 back in 2011.
This program is Nissan's baby from start to finish, but how do its grads compare to the best of the world's drivers who've been in karts for longer than Mardenborough and Ordoñez have probably been playing video games?
We'll finally find out with the start of the World Endurance Championship season, on April 12, with the 6 Hours of Silverstone.
Photo credit: Nissan