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It’s been going on since 2008. They’ve been taking tens of thousands of aspirants each year, have had them compete on virtual races on PlayStation car racing simulators, and had been taking the cream of the crop over to Silverstone in the UK to train them up in actual, real world racing. The winners of the months-long competition, the graduates, come away with racing licenses, slots on a global racing team, and entry in an international endurance race. Again: a real racing license, a real team, real races.

With what started out as a collaboration between Nissan Europe, Polyphony (publisher of the popular racing game) and Sony Computer Entertainment (maker of the Playstation console on which the game runs exclusively), the Gran Turismo Academy is meant to discover talented gamers and develop them into real race car drivers. They’ve elegantly titled it “virtual to reality,” a playful reference to the “virtual reality” created by simulators with real world consequences emphasized and punched home.

Now, a chance for Filipino gamers

For its first two years, the GT Academy was a pan-European affair only. Then a US division was added for the batch finishing in 2012, and then a German one for the one finishing in 2013. Last year, an International division was finally added to include countries in the Middle East and in the Asia-Pacific region. The closest it came to Philippine shores was Hong Kong to the North, Thailand to the West and Malaysia to the South. This year, with the new Nissan Philippines distributorship in place not yet even a year, the GT Academy has come looking for Filipino aspirants.

11073568_1571713773100234_1109275134030469501_nInstead of downloading the online qualifying module and trying out for the GT Academy on any PS3 console (an option in the past in countries with direct PlayStation Network access), any aspiring competitor from the Philippines will be proving their skills on these simulator pods purpose-built by Nissan Philippines, Inc.. Fifteen pods will be fielded by Nissan at live qualifying events with a spare pod kept in reserve in case any of these require overhaul or refit, that’s how committed they are to spreading this deep and wide.

Anyone who has a valid driver’s license but is not a licensed professional racing driver can go to one of the qualifying events and take a wheel-shaped pod out for a virtual spin. Remember, the GT Academy seeks to develop race car drivers from among gamers, not among those who are already actual racers.

There is no maximum age limit, just a minimum one. To qualify, you can be the oldest guy or gal still driving, just as long as you’re at least 18 years old. The reason for the minimum age is that virtual racing on Gran Turismo’s simulations of world famous tracks can lead to actual travel and actual driving, parts of the adventure best taken on with a degree of maturity.

But, once you get past these few conditions, everyone is welcome, every gamer is invited to test their skills in the official simulator pods of GT Academy Philippines. And the Gran Turismo simulator will be a test in some ways even tougher than on real racing cars on real tracks.

Tougher simulations

When the GT Academy started in 2008, Autoblog.com called it either the “stupidest” or the “most brilliant” idea ever in the history of mankind. The risks must’ve been daunting at the start, but the why of it, the likelihood of it making perfect sense, was just too obvious. Indeed, why not gamers?

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Think of it. Using the Gran Turismo game to test talent, it’s like starting pilots at the advanced level of flying on instruments.  With Instrument Flight Rules, or IFR, in effect, aviators need to ignore their strongest senses, their more basic instincts.  They’d have to fly not by feel but by what an artificial horizon indicator tells them is level flight, and what the altimeter says is the distance to the hard-packed earth below. When IFR is lifted, when pilots can go visual again, it must be a genuine relief to get back to seat-of-the-pants flying using eyeballs and ass-cheeks.

On the Gran Turismo 6 game running off a PlayStation 3 console, it’s like you took an actual car, painted all its windows and windshields black, then gave the driver a view of the outside world through a dash-mounted flat-screen feeding off a grill-mounted camera. Throw in some fantastic artificial gravity and you’ll complete the sensory deprivation with the driver feeling only what’s up or down and none of the sideways g-forces that’d tell him if he is too fast in a turn, nor the forward push to let him know how hard the brakes are biting, or the back pull to tell him how strongly he is accelerating.

Physics but not the physicality

The physic of the game is the best they could make it, with algorithms working with and up against detailed three dimensional models of real life racetracks. In fact, that’s how avid gamers know when a track will be added, when they get wind of Polyphony folk with their gear scoping out a new one. But, short of putting the game on the kind of full-motion simulator used by racing teams and builders themselves, Gran Turismo will remain an intense test of gamers’ abilities to continuously, even instinctively, process what they see, hear and feel into a notion of how their virtual vehicles will react to every control input.

nissan-gt-academy-nissan-370z-nismo-doughnutsSure, the force-feedback steering wheel will telegraph notional road bumps, and even the pull of G’s with the wheel fighting against a turn. But it won’t at all be a substitute for how motion in an actual car would give the driver other cues through his inner-ear and even through the press of skin against the harness and padding of a wraparound racing seat. The real race track is where a whole slew of muscle, visual and aural cues will give them this sensation of coiling up into a spring when the car loads up on G’s in a turn, and of unwinding when they hit the straights, this sense of wearing the car and feeling every flex and tension.

On a real track, they’ll suddenly have direct and amazingly wide vision (compared to even the best of flat screens); a feel of the engine’s energy state not only by the sound of its revs but the vibrations coming through the floor and up through the pedals and stick shift; and most importantly, all the kinetics they’ll burn into muscle memory, telling them just how close they are to skidding or spinning out of control. The stakes will be higher with risk to life, limb and vehicle, but their finally getting into the driver’s seats of actual race cars is when they’ll realize how much they’ve been missing out on, and how much sharper their visual, aural and tactile skills have become because of their former handicap. Remember that old saw about a blind person’s other faculties becoming sharper? It’s like that.

From theory to history

So goes theory. But has it actually worked out that way? Has the GT Academy produced a credible next generation of racers from a stable of simulator jockeys? Answer: the GT Academy series can put theory aside and instead offer proof in them having made history.

Jann Mardenborough on a GT Academy simulator pod
Jann Mardenborough on a GT Academy simulator pod

With the seven batches they’ve graduated since starting the GT Academy in 2008, they’ve tested five million gamers from 35 countries, and with those numbers saw 16 individuals make it to the finish, becoming licensed race car drivers. GT Academy graduates have since signed up for 11 racing contracts and have so far brought home two Le Mans podium wins.

Lucas Ordonez of Spain—their very first graduate—raced for Nissan on the 2009 GT3 European Cup series and achieved a podium win with in his very first race. In 2011, his endurance driving team made it to 2nd in class at Le Mans. And, at the 2012 24-Hour Nurburging race, while driving Nissan’s #123 car with Kazunori Yamauchi, (racing driver and producer of the Gran Turismo series), Ordonez finished 1st in the SP 8T class.

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Mardenborough on Nissan racing team

2011 GT Academy graduate Jann Mardenborough joined the Nissan driver teams and placed third in class at the Dubai 24-Hour race. In 2013, he went to Formula 3 car racing, becoming the best placed rookie at the Toyota Racing Series season that year and was eventually signed by the Red Bull Junior Team in 2014, the year he won his first Grand Prix 3 race. For the 2015 Formula 3 season, Mardenbourough will drive for Carlin Motorsport and will remain on a career track that could eventually put him in Formula 1 racing.

Ricardo Sanchez, last year’s winner of the GT Academy International division that Philippine contestants will be joining, achieved a podium win at the Dubai 24-Hour race—his first ever international racing event.

So, among the GT Academy graduates who are making a go at car racing, many seem to be either on or ahead of the conventional curve for their chosen career tracks, pun intended.

—o0o—

For Gran Turismo Academy details,  see the Facebook page of Nissan Philippines, Inc. at http://www.facebook.com/NissanPhilippinesInc.

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