We've written quite a bit about the first virtual-to-real racer, Lucas Ordonez, and his continuing exploits as a successful professional racing driver. The winner of the first Playstation Nissan GT Academy in 2008, Lucas is now racking up first class results in the incredibly competitive ILMC series, finishing second in class in the Le Mans 24 hour last month.
Now the legitimacy of the entire experiment has gained further credibility with the immediate success of the second Academy (2010) winner Jordan Tresson. Competing in the Blancpain Endurance Series, 22-year-old Jordan finished fourth at Monza in his first outing in the series and last Sunday, the RJN Motorsport GT4-class Nismo Nissan 370Z he shared with Alex Buncombe and Chris Ward won its class at the 24 hour race at Spa Francorchamps in Belgium's Ardennes region.
The race was a triumph for the Playstation Nissan GT Academy as it was the first major international victory for a GT Academy winner and likewise for the production class Nissan 370Z. The weekend got off to a perfect start when RJN regular and Tresson's teammate Alex Buncombe put the Nissan on pole position in the GT4 class, ahead of some very fast and experienced teams, such as the DVB Racing BMW M3, Lotus Sport Italia Lotus Evora and Speed Lover Aston Martin Vantage.
The Nissan team jumped into the lead, which it held for the first three hours, but a damper problem and a subsequent rear wheel puncture dropped the team down the field as it headed into the night session on the damp, slippery and very fast Ardennes circuit. During the long night of heavy rain and ever changing conditions, the drivers often found themselves on slicks on the suddenly wet track. As the night wore on, the team led by Buncombe clawed its way back through the field, greeting the dawn in second place.
Second would have been a major achievement, but when the leading Lotus Evora retired just after the half way mark, the Nissan inherited the lead and through keeping focused and calm, it merely had to stay at race pace without incident for the remaining seven hours to take the checkered flag in first place. It sounds easy, but in an international field with bad weather and lots of traffic both slower and faster, the newcomer more than held his own. After 24 hours of hard racing, the GT4 class win belonged to Jordan and the RJN team. The Nissan 370Z was 22nd overall from a field of over 60 cars. "Jordan has been very mature and calm throughout the race", said Nissan Europe's Chief Marketing Manager Darren Cox. "He is a good team player and he is learning his lessons well. This is a great moment for GT Academy: second place at Le Mans and now a win at Spa shows we are getting it right."
Bob Neville, the RJN Motorsport team boss and the man who has guided the GT Academy graduates since 2008 was naturally delighted with the result. Jordan, who won the French round of the academy, has been on a very steep learning curve since winning the GT Academy in 2010 and this result even more so than the first GT Academy winner's success, proves without doubt that virtual-to-real is not just possible, but that virtual racers have what it takes to compete successfully in motorsport.
Tresson's win is the culmination of a remarkable year and a half for the Frenchman.
In December 2009, the GT Academy time trial went live across 17 countries. Over 1.2 million people downloaded the special version of the Gran Turismo game on PlayStation 3 to enter the completion and the fastest twenty from each country then competed for their chance to attend the five-day international final at Silverstone. Jordan eventually got the nod from judges Johnny Herbert, Eddie Jordan, Sabine Schmitz and Rob Barff, after which followed an intensive six-week period that saw him racing at various U.K. club races each weekend to qualify for an International C Race License.
One of the judges at the academy which Tresson attended was former F1 race winner and team owner, Irishman Eddie Jordan. Jordan has seen many up-and-comers and arguably the best driver of all time, Michael Schumacher, was one of his former protegees.
After the academy, Jordan emphasized how impressed he was with the competitors. "I'm staggered by the standard," explained Jordan. "I didn't believe that it was possible for people from the virtual world to have that relationship with the car. They are undoubtedly the quickest and best on PlayStation 3, but to come here and display such immediate talent, speed, commitment and understanding is impressive. I underestimated them. They are racing drivers in disguise!"
Adding further proof of the similarities between the skill-sets of a virtual and real driver, the 2011 GT Academy was recently won by 19-year-old Jann Mardenborough from Cardiff (U.K.) and Jann and his American GT academy winning counterpart Bryan Heitkotter are currently going through the same intensive driver development program previously faced by Ordonez and Tresson.
On the Sunday before Tresson's breakthrough win, the pair campaigned their PlayStation Nissan 370Z to a second-in-class finish (17th place overall) in the competitive Britcar Dunlop Production GTN Championship at the challenging Castle Combe circuit. The excellent result in the two-hour endurance race secured each driver two more vital 'signatures' required for them to attain the international race license that will allow them to compete in the Dubai International 24 Hour Race in January 2012.
The final conclusion at this stage of the proceedings is that if you are good at Gran Turismo 5 on your PlayStation, you could well have what it takes to go and do it for real. There aren't many games that can give you that sort of confidence.