From virtual racer to F1 hopeful in just three years

From virtual racer to F1 hopeful in just three years

Jann Mardenborough’s gaming skills have helped him to get within touching distance of motorsport’s pinnacle

The GP3 Series is one of the final steps on the path to Formula One. Running on grand prix weekends alongside the faster GP2, the series for 400bhp single-seaters is one of the top places for young drivers to refine their skills. This year, one of those drivers will be Jann Mardenborough.

The Cardiff driver has also been placed on an intensive driver development programme by reigning F1 champions Infiniti Red Bull Racing. That’s amazing support for someone in a category two rungs below F1 on the single-seater ladder. And here’s the remarkable thing: less than three years ago Mardenborough had never driven a racing car.

Mardenborough’s rapid rise through the ranks is a very modern motorsport story. Instead of learning his trade via karting and junior racing, the 22-year-old did it on his PlayStation. He entered Nissan’s worldwide GT Academy contest in 2011. The initial stages of the competition involved gamers setting a lap time on a circuit in the Gran Turismo game. The fastest entrants were given the chance to transfer their skill to the track in a series of trials, and Mardenborough won through in June 2011.

The best part of the GT Academy scheme is Nissan’s amazing commitment to the winners. There have been similar prize schemes where the winner gets a drive for a year or so, and then is left to their own devices. Nissan has stuck by the Academy winners, rewarding their talent where appropriate.

After winning, Mardenborough was placed on a driver development programme for the rest of 2011, and handed a drive in the British GT Championship in a Nissan GT-R Nismo GT3 in 2012. Along with co-driver Alex Buncombe, Mardenborough took a win at Brands Hatch and was in contention for the title until the season finale.

That success pointed to a promising sportscar future, which makes sense give where Nissan’s current motorsport projects are focused. But then the manufacturer placed him in Formula Three for 2013.

Initially, the idea was that Mardenborough needed experience of high-downforce racing cars, and it was more cost-effective to do that in F3 than a Le Mans-style sportscar. Mardenborough held his own: he was sixth in the British F3 standings with one podium finish.

That’s a pretty solid return given against drivers with years of single-seater experience, and it has prompted Nissan to continue the experiment by moving Mardenborough up to the GP3 Series this year.

Mardenborough will drive for the Arden team, which is owned by Red Bull F1 team chief Christian Horner. Interestingly, much of his driver development programme with Red Bull Racing (which is sponsored by Infiniti) will focus on time in Red Bull’s simulator, further blurring the links between virtual and real racing.

The question is whether intensive training and Nissan’s support can make up for Mardenborough’s lack of experience compared to his rivals. For example, fellow Briton Alex Lynn, who will also race in GP3 this year, started karting when he was 11. He’s now 20, and has nine years of racing experience to call upon. Mardenborough has two.

Mardenborough’s success so far is good news for the armchair racers of this world. It’s proof that it is possible to go from armchair racer to racing on a grand prix weekend in just three years. Time to fire up the console and get practicing…

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