Computer games have changed dramatically over the years and they are now even helping to launch the careers of drivers. The level of accuracy now available in computer modelling means that Formula One drivers, as a matter of course, do laps on simulators in preparation for races, while Lewis Hamilton has admitted to learning tracks during his rookie F1 year playing on a PlayStation with his brother.
Gran Turismo is the game credited with introducing a physical rather than fantastical reality to racing and its success owes everything to how well it measures up to the real thing. Although its cars may be virtual creations, everything about them is designed to behave as closely as possible to the genuine article.
However, the game’s designers still needed to overcome the lack of movement and the lack of sensation of the car reacting to the road. Sensing a marketing opportunity, Sony teamed up with Nissan to form the GT Academy in 2008. It was a one-off project created to answer a simple question: could you take a gamer and successfully put them into a real racing car? A 23-year-old Spaniard, Lucas Ordoñez, who was just beginning a business degree, won the first online and then real-world challenge and after intensive training, he raced as one of a team of drivers in the 2009 Dubai 24.
The programme was subsequently further developed and in 2011 Jann Mardenborough emerged victorious from the Academy competition, beating 90,000 online entrants in the process.
The transition from computer-generated racing to hard, cold, dangerous steel ought to be both difficult and potentially terrifying, yet for Mardenborough it was instinctive, “It felt completely normal,” he says. How to read racing lines, correct entrances and exits to corners; hand-eye co-ordination and a visual sense, plus the ability to look ahead of the car into breaking zones, had all been learned in the bedroom. “I'd never power-steered a car before,” says Mardenborough. "I had only ever done it in a game. I was controlling it just with the throttle and it was completely natural to me.”
Computer technology is now omnipresent within the motorsport industry, helping to further develop the latest products, cars and drivers. With the continued evolution of computer and simulator technology, along with success stories such as Mardenborough and Ordoñez, it will be interesting to see if the next generation of young drivers opt to pick up a remote control rather than head to the go-kart track in order to develop the skills required to become a racing driver.