The circuit at Le Mans, that holy temple of motorsport, is red-hot whenever the famous 24 Hours race is held there. Elite drivers, from all formats of top-class racing, have forged legends here. Teams have three drivers who rotate stints behind the wheel. Four young men, in two teams, at this year’s 24 Hours Of Le Mans got here by the most unorthodox route; a couple had never taken part in a motor race as recently as two years ago. They got here by being good at video games. Jann Mardenborough, English winner of the 2011 GT Academy Europe, a contest on the racing game Gran Turismo, and Mark Shulzhitskiy, home winner of GT Academy Russia in 2012, will drive alongside Alex Brundle in the Le Mans Prototype 2 category, for Oak Racing, in a Ligier JS P2 with a Nissan engine. The Nissan ZEOD RC, a hybrid electric in the Garage 56 category, for cars testing new technologies, will be driven by Japan’s Satoshi Motoyama, the Spaniard Lucas Ordoñez, GT Academy Europe winner in 2008, and Wolfgang Reip of Belgium, who was chosen from 830,000 European gamers in 2012.
NOTHING BETTER TO DO
In 2008, Nissan and Sony decided that they would try and make the gamers who were best at Gran Turismo, a beloved motor-racing simulation video game on PlayStation and PlayStation 2, into real-life racing drivers. An online selection system produced national champions across Europe who then went to England for a week-long final, an intense race
camp of physical training and driving sessions in the simulator and on the track at Silverstone. The chosen one would then follow an intensive driving programme under the watchful eye of Nismo, Nissan’s performance motorsport division. After that it would be competitive motorsport, in GP3 category, for example, where Mardenborough is currently competing; Shulzhitskiy, Ordonez and Reip also race professionally. A dazzling transition from the virtual to the real world.
As the Englishman prepares to take part in the drivers’ parade through the streets of the city of Le Mans on the eve of the 24 Hours, he recalls his former life. “I got into GT Academy in February 2011. “I got into GT Academy in February 2011. I was an average student at the time. My mates were travelling to Australia, to the States. I was at home playing my PlayStation and I was happy. I started competing online because I had nothing better to do.”
At 3pm, Ordoñez’s teammate, Wolfie Reip, is starting his first Le Mans at the wheel of the ZEOD RC. This vehicle, which would be at home in a 1970s book about the future, is taking its time to come back past the stands opposite the pit wall, where some spectators have put up hammocks. Unfortunately, those fans will not have long to watch this spaceship of a car in action before it has to be retired with gearbox failure just 25 minutes into the race. But Le Mans was still an achievement for the ZEOD RC, as it clocked 300kph in qualifying. During the warm-up, Reip drove one complete lap with the car in full, silent electric mode. Ordonez remains positive, despite being deprived of a race, and is proud of his co-driver. “Wolfie made history by driving a complete lap with the car in electric mode. That’s great news for everyone in the team, the mechanics… Ooh! Did you see that?! That guy almost killed himself!” The Spaniard is talking without taking his eyes off the broadcast screens; the circuit is suddenly struck by heavy rainfall and one car almost leaves the track while attempting to overtake another. Crashes and retirements are common when the rain hits Le Mans.
In the Oak Racing garage, there is no such disappointment, but as the lap counter ticks over, the pressure on the mechanics increases. There are only rare moments of downtime during the 1,440 minutes of the race. It’s all about waiting, then bursts of action, then more waiting, and yet more bursts of action. Despite this, or because of it, the men who work in the shadows are doing a fine job. They act with precision every time there is a change of driver or tyre or every time they refuel. The car impresses with its consistency lap after lap.
Eight hours into the race, night falls and everything changes. Drivers have to be twice as cautious, but excitement increases in the campsites around the circuit. Some tents are pitched next to Ferraris and muscle cars. At the Alain Prost turn, what looks like a customised removals truck is open at the sides, allowing its occupants to follow the race from bunk beds, 30m from the track wall. At night, cars tend to scrape against the wall more than they do in the daylight. Another peculiarity of the race is that it welcomes ‘gentlemen drivers’ or amateurs. The actor Patrick Dempsey and singer-songwriter David
Hallyday are some of the better-known gentlemen. Mark Shulzhitskiy has an eye out for them. “You have to avoid trouble at Le Mans,” he says, “because there are drivers here who aren’t as experienced as the professionals, and they can do crazy things. You have to drive a solid race without making any stupid mistakes and you have to stay consistent.” The Russian is as good as his word, helping Oak Racing stay in the top three in the LMP2 category for most of the race.
The race is into its 23rd hour and the black-and-orange Oak car is now further down the field. There’s a council of war back in the pits. The car comes in, for a long stop. Spark plugs and an ignition coil need to be replaced. Mardenborough, Shulzhitskiy and Alex Brundle have given it their all, but are fifth in their category and ninth overall when the chequered flag flaps in the humid air of Le Mans.
Audi’s excited fans invade the track and the pit lane to celebrate the German team securing the two top spots on the podium. Shulzhitskiy, the last man to drive the Oak Racing car, walks to the pits to meet with his mechanics and engineers. They are his first line of support, and together they have collaborated closely, defied the clock, bad weather and technology to survive Le Mans. Mardenborough says his favourite memory of the race is “when you can do 300kph on the Mulsanne Straight at night, when there are no cars ahead of or behind you. That’s really cool.” Nismo announces that their Nissan GT-R LM will be put forward for Le Mans in 2015. Will Mardenborough be behind the wheel? “I have to keep on working hard in GP3 and remain focused on that,” says the talented 23-year-old. His dream, not unrealistic now, is of a career in Formula One. A far cry from pressing Start on a video game.