Jann Mardenborough: The Prodigy 

Words: Pierre-Henri Camy
Photography : Greg Funnell

There was elation and heartbreak for the 22-year-old Welsh at Le Mans 2014. Yet it was only three years ago that he entered the Gran Turismo competition that would change his life. But how exactly do you swap a gamepad for the racetrack?

THE RED BULLETIN : How did you start on the road from driving games to real-life racing?

Jann Mardenborough

Circuit time
Racing simulation game Gran Turismo has transformed student Jann Mardenborough’s life. 

Jann Mardenborough : I was a normal student, on a gap year from university. All of my friends were travelling to Australia or America and I was at home playing PlayStation, and I was fairly happy doing it. I like to play racing games, and lots of different games as well for fun. I entered the GT Academy in February 2011 because I had nothing else to do. The online time trials lasted six weeks; I was in the top 50 in the UK within the first week. So I said to myself, “OK, maybe I should concentrate on this and work hard at it.” I never thought I would win the tournament.

You then joined other winners at Silverstone for a training camp. How was that?
It was pure driving; there was no gaming there at all. The Silverstone instructors showed us around the cars and how to handle them, and they made us do various challenges like time trials and fitness assessments.

Was it your first time on a racetrack?
It was amazing. To experience all of this at the age of 19 was breathtaking. To be in a Nissan GTR for the first time, at Silverstone, going 140mph down the Wellington straight was… unbelievable. 

Were you nervous?
I jumped into the car, and it felt normal. The feel of the car is of course completely different and experiencing g-force for the first time was pretty intense. Gran Turismo represents every other aspect of controlling the car, like acceleration, grip and steering, really well, though, so I felt comfortable straight away. When I had to oversteer the car for the first time, I knew what I had to do and said to myself “OK, I will just do this and it should go back to normal again.”

“going 140 miles an hour down the Wellington straight was like… unbelievable.”
Jann Mardenborough

Honestly? Everything was really “normal” for you?
Pretty normal! The only thing that is different compared to the game is the vision. I have a small 14-inch TV screen at home, so my eyes never move. So it was initially really difficult to adjust to the field of vision in a car. Stepping into a racing car for the first time and entering a corner like Brooklands, when you’re breaking and looking in a different direction, even though you’re going straight, was difficult. A lot of other gamers had this problem as well. We worked hard on this with the instructors, though, and now it’s fine.

What else happened during the six days at Silverstone?
We stayed in a place called the Stowe building, in a long room full of camp beds. You never knew what the plan for the day was going to be, or what you would be doing next. We would get picked up at 7.30am and had breakfast at 8. We had to be ready to race by 9 and then maybe head out onto the Silverstone national circuit to race GTRs [grand tourers]. At 10.30 we might learn how to drift and practice car control. The instructors never said how we were performing either, so we had no idea how well we were doing in comparison to others. It was quite challenging mentally, as you never knew if you were making the grade or not. People would be eliminated for some days, and you never knew if it was you who was going to be sent home or stay. This was really difficult.  

Oak Racing’s car hits the circuit. The driver is only the final piece of the jigsaw: no car can race without a team of top engineer

How did it feel to be declared champion at the end of the week? 
We were down to just four drivers. We were getting ready for a 20-minute race around the Silverstone national circuit. There was qualifying, and I took pole position. I led for the first three laps, but dropped to second. I managed to chase down the car in front and overtook him going into Copse Corner and won the race. They hadn’t told us beforehand that the winner of this race would be declared the winner of the GT Academy, so at first I was just really happy to have won another race. I was on the podium afterwards and then all of a sudden they brought out the champagne and sprayed it in my face. It was the best moment of my life! 

“you never knew if it was you who was going to be sent home or stay”
Jann Mardenborough

Then what happened?
I had two weeks at home, and then I moved to Northampton where I lived for three-and-a-half months, to be near Silverstone and do the Driver Development Program. We had lots of training using lots of different equipment, including simulators, which helped to train you physically and prepare you for the real thing. Part of my prize for winning was to take part in the 2012 Dubai 24H in the GT4 category. I needed to get my International C licence before I could do that though, and only had six weeks to do it!  

What was the low point of all this?
There wasn’t one: everything was perfect. Even being away from home for the first time wasn’t a problem. I didn’t feel phased by any of it because it didn’t feel like work for me. I was just so grateful and amazed to be doing something so that I love and it was more like, “This is amazing, I’m doing this, this is so cool”. It was tough to progress, but it wasn’t difficult adjusting to the racing life.

What’s it like racing at Le Mans?
It’s crazy. It’s a cool feeling to see 56 cars start the race, all close together. The best thing about 24-hour races is racing in the dark. If you get a chance, entering the Mulsanne straight with no car in front or behind is the most amazing feeling. It is just you in the dark, going insanely fast on a long straight with the white road markings guiding your path, and nothing else. This is really cool. You have no time to look around and all you can think is “Wow, this is really good fun”.

What’s next for Jann Mardenborough? Formula 1?
I will be working with Red Bull Racing, training on the simulator. So yes, F1 is the ultimate goal.

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10 2014 The Red Bulletin France

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