We have all played video games with dreams of racing in real life. For Lucas Ordonez, that dream came true. He beat 25,000 other gamers to become the first graduate of the Nissan PlayStation GT Academy, and has now ascended to the podium at the Le Mans 24H.
The best ideas in marketing are often the most obvious. Between Nissan and PlayStation, the idea to create a competition around the popular automotive video game that would translate into a chance for gamers to race for real is simple, but might have been missed by most marketing mavens or dismissed as impractical. However, back in 2008 these two corporations backed their collective hunch and created the GT Academy, resulting in a roaring success in almost every aspect.
So what was, or rather is, the GT Academy?
Running over nine months, GT Academy is an international driving competition that captures the spirit and ethos of both Nissan and PlayStation® brands. Its aim is to unite the worlds of video games and motorsport through ultra-realistic competition.
Initially launched in 2008, the GT Academy was an instant success, attracting over 25,000 entrants across 12 European countries. The top competitors were eventually brought to the International Final, held at England's Silverstone Raceway. The entrants were put through a series of tests to gauge their physical, mental and driving abilities, which would produce an overall winner. This was Lucas Ordonez of Spain, and his initial prize was a seat in the Z33 Nissan 350z that was to run in the 2009 Dubai 24 Hours.
Driving with ex-Formula One star, Johnny Herbert, Lucas and his team mates were very competitive but were forced to retire their Nissan just after dawn. However it was great start to the young Spaniard's racing career.
A season followed in the European GT4 Championship with Lucas progressing well and meeting all his targets. His reward was a drive at Silverstone in an LM P2 prototype.
The next step was a full time switch to endurance racing in 2011, driving another LM P2 prototype, a Nissan powered Oreca 03 for the Signatech team. The plan was to compete in the InterContinental Le Mans Cup and more importantly in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
After a long battle, the drivers of the Signatech car finished Le Mans second in their class. The dream was coming true, and Lucas Ordonez was on the podium at Le Mans at his very first attempt!
This success was a clear signal that Lucas had what it takes to become a full time professional racing driver. For the 2012 season he has signed up to race once again at Le Mans and also in the European Le Mans Series. His new team is Greaves Motorsport, the outfit that defeated him at Le Mans last year and the 2011 LMS Champions. He is seen here discussing the prospects for 2012 with team principal, Tim Greaves.
I caught up with Lucas earlier this month, and here is what he had to say about his career and the future.
Lucas, you were the inaugural winner of the Nissan PlayStation Academy, which was quite an achievement given the huge number of entrants. When you were younger, did you have an ambition to become a racing driver?
Yes, when I was really young, my Dad was a racing driver, in Spain, doing some rallies and circuit racing when he could afford to do it. I grew up as a young kid going to the race tracks with my Dad, so I was always dreaming to become a racing driver, just like him. I started out with some karting but I could not progress because it was so expensive to compete, so I had to leave it behind. But I kept my dream, even though I found it impossible to find a sponsor. My brother, he did find a sponsor and won a Spanish Championship and was pretty successful. Me, I kept on with my studies, then the GT Academy came at the end of 2008.
What were you studying in school?
I studied for a Degree in Marketing and Business, then an MBA in Business.
Interesting set of talents to have as a racing driver - you should be good with contract negotiations! Before you started racing full time did you have any heroes or guys you looked uo to in motorsport
My father, of course. But I always followed Ayrton Senna. I was really young but I clearly remember the Imola Grand Prix in '94, it was a disaster and it was my birthday. I was 9 years old that day, a big fan of Ayrton, and I still am. Since then, I have followed Fernando Alonzo. Well in Spain, we are all big fans. A Spanish Formula One driver and a Ferrari driver; we never thought there would be a Spanish Ferrari driver in Formula One, so we are all really proud of that.
Alonzo is a great Champion, without doubt. Everyone says he is the toughest, fastest guy out there in Formula One.
I agree completely, but not just because he is Spanish. He has proved that he is fast, that he is committed, he makes no mistakes on the track he is the best.
How did you get into using PlayStation, something to help you relax after your studies?
No, I had PlayStation at home, I used to race against my friends as everyone does. Then I heard about the GT Academy and I took it very seriously. I bought the steering wheel and pedals, all the stuff. I entered the competition on line and just tried very hard. I was not sure that I could win the prize but I kept trying. At the beginning of the week I was 10 seconds off the leading lap times but after spending a week pushing myself I was eventually able to match the times of the top guys. I was pushing very hard, gradually improving my lap times tenth by tenth. The competition was crazy, 25,000 people on the same track, with the same car, and the same set up, it was really tough. But by the end of the month I qualified by being one of the 20 fastest in Spain. Then I got past the national final to the European final. This was held at Silverstone, it was really a racing camp, with fitness tests, driving tests and media tests for all the competitors.
Talking about the GT Academy European Final at Silverstone, which aspect of this event did you find hardest, the most challenging?
The fitness side was really tough but the mental aspect was even tougher, we were being pushed really hard physically but it was even more important to demonstrate our mental toughness. For example we would be woken up at 5.00 am and sent to run around the Silverstone Circuit, then we would have four hours of racing in karts, followed by a cross country run in the hills, it all seemed impossible at the time but looking back I have some great memories of that week.
What was the most unexpected challenge, it might be fitness or driving but if you were advising someone entering the GT Academy now what would you warn them about?
I think the media training. We had to be in a press conference in front of 50 journalists, we stood on a podium in the Formula One Media Centre, taking questions from these guys, trying to answer them in a positive way, I could not imagine that it could be so intense. Of course, any professional driver should expect to have to do this, so we had to get experience in this situation and for me it was one of the most important parts of the whole programme, it has proved very useful for me.
Since you graduated from the GT Academy you have progressed through GT4 to LM P2, so what would you say was your highlight moment, the one thing that made all the efforts worthwhile?
During the past few years there have been many high points but for me the one that stands out is racing and finish in a podium position at Le Mans. Getting second place and racing against the team that I am joining in 2012 was really fantastic for for me. It was a great result for the GT Academy and absolutely justifies the initiative taken by Nissan and PlayStation.
Do you have any advice for someone sitting down looking at the entry form for the 2012 GT Academy?
Yes, I have been asked this many times and the answer is simple. Train hard on the PlayStation because the competition is very tough, start the fitness training as soon as possible, that is very important. Be totally committed, fully focused, be totally professional in every aspect and demonstrate to everyone in the GT Academy that this is your dream and that you will work very hard to achieve your goal. You have to show that as a racing driver that you will be very focused on that target.
What is your next ambition?
My next ambition is to win Le Mans with Greaves Motorsport and Nissan. Of course, the European Le Mans Series is also very important, but my main priority is to win at Le Mans this year.
- John Brooks
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