The circuit at Le Mans is a holy temple of motorsports, thanks to the famous 24-hour endurance race it plays host to annually. The format is deceptively simple: Teams have three drivers who rotate stints behind the wheel for a day and a night. At this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans, four young men arrived here by a most unorthodox route—by being good at video games.
Englishman Jann Mardenborough started out as the winner of the 2011 GT Academy Europe, a contest for the racing video game Gran Turismo; he made his debut at Le Mans last year at age 22. Mark Shulzhitskiy, 25, won the GT Academy Russia in 2012. For this race, the two drove alongside British pro Alex Brundle for Oak Racing in a Ligier JS P2 with a Nissan engine, as part of the Le Mans Prototype 2 category. Two other recent GT tournament winners—Lucas Ordoñez, 29, of Spain and 27-year-old Wolfgang Reip of Belgium—teamed with Japan’s Satoshi Motoyama for Nissan Motorsports in the Nissan ZEOD RC, a hybrid electric in the Garage 56 category for experimental vehicles.
For these four, their Le Mans debut begins with one massive question: Can playing video games prepare you for real-life racing?
No Longer a Game
The idea was hatched in 2008, when Nissan and Sony first posed the question. An online selection system produced national champions across Europe, who then went to England for an intense race camp combining physical training and driving sessions in the simulator and on the track at the Silverstone circuit, northwest of London. After the weeklong program, a promising gamer would then follow an intensive training schedule under the watchful eye of Nismo, Nissan’s performance motorsports division.
Next came an immersive introduction into competitive motorsports. Mardenborough, for example, is currently competing in the GP3 classification; Shulzhitskiy, Ordoñez and Reip also race professionally. It’s 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 race, he recalls his former life. “I got into GT Academy in February 2011,” Mardenborough says. “I was an average student at the time. My mates were traveling 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.”
Spaceship in Action
For others, the transition to real-world racing isn’t as smooth. At 3 p.m., Ordoñez’s gaming teammate, Wolfie Reip, is starting his first Le Mans at the wheel of the ZEOD RC. The futuristic vehicle 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 186 mph in qualifying. During the warm-up, Reip drove one complete lap with the car in silent, full electric mode.
Ordoñez 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,” and then he stops, his eyes still on one of the TV screens set up in the room. “Ooh! Did you see that?! That guy almost killed himself!” As heavy rain falls, one car almost leaves the track on an overtaking manueuver.
In the Oak Racing garage where Shulzhitskiy is based, there is no such disappointment. As the hours pass and 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. 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 one turn, what looks like a customized truck is open at the sides, allowing its occupants to watch the race from bunk beds 100 feet from the track wall. At night, cars tend to scrape against the wall more than they do in the daylight.
One peculiarity of the race—and perhaps a comfort for the gamers new to the track—is that Le Mans welcomes “gentlemen drivers,” or amateurs, a class that often includes celebrities such as Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason or Grey’s Anatomy star Patrick Dempsey. Shulzhitskiy believes he’s experienced enough that he has to keep 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.” 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.
But as the race enters its 23rd hour, the black-and- orange Oak car is now further down the field. There’s a war-room atmosphere 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 Brundle have given it their all but finish fifth in their category and ninth overall.
An eye on F1
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 favorite memory of the race is “when you can do 186 mph 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 there? “I have to keep on working hard in GP3 and remain focused on that,” says the 23-year-old. His dream is of a career in Formula One. It’s a far cry from pressing “start” on a video game.