From gamer to racer: When Jann Mardenborough did the Rookie Test

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From gamer to racer: When Jann Mardenborough did the Rookie Test

Jann Mardenborough is subject of the new blockbuster Hollywood film, Gran Turismo, charting his unconventional motorsport shift from virtual to reality. Here's a look back at the Brit's experience in Formula E, from Rookie Tests to sim work.


How easy is the transition and what does it take to make the jump from the virtual world into the physical one? Jann Mardenborough, is among those best-placed to answer that question.

He was one of the first to be given a chance behind the wheel of a full-fat racing car thanks to Nissan Europe, Sony Computer Entertainment Europe and the pioneering GT Academy project.

Created in 2008, GT Academy sought to provide a route for keen sim racers into professional motor racing via PlayStation’s Gran Turismo and Nissan’s Driver Development Programme.

“Looking back, it was a great opportunity to be a pioneer with Nissan and cross over from virtual to reality with GT Academy,” said Mardenborough, who fought off competition from tens of thousands of competitors across Europe to win its 2011 iteration.

“I think the program helped shine a light on e-racing and provided more people with the opportunity to enter motorsport.

“I found the transition was actually pretty simple. The most difficult process is retraining your brain to learn where to look when racing a real racing car.

“This was something which took a few months, working with my Silverstone and GT Academy mentors to really get on top of. It’s still something I'm perfecting to this day. Other things happened naturally with determination.”

So successful was his transition to the race-track that Mardenborough has since enjoyed a career that is approaching a decade in length, which has seen him take to sportscars, the famous 24 Hours of Le Mans, Super GT and GP2 and GP3 Series – the junior championships that traditionally feed Formula 1.

Living the dream

Making a career of a passion has been a real dream ticket for the Brit, who had most recently been supporting Nissan e.dams in Formula E as its simulator driver up to the end of Season 8, following a successful stint for the outfit in the 2019 and 2020 Marrakesh Rookie Tests.

“I can only speak for myself, but real racing was always the childhood dream, so any opportunity that could present itself to me, I dived in,” he added.

“However, in Twitter debates, I have experienced other sim drivers not wanting to pursue a career in real motorsport but instead stick to sim racing. It's a case of different strokes for different folks!

“I’m enjoying the feeling of responsibility in providing feedback to the team both in the simulator and at the test in Marrakesh earlier in the year.

“In Formula E, it’s the race runs that get the priority of finding the fastest, most efficient way in the races, making the battery last combined with the regenerative settings.

“My role was to test new ideas, software and fine-tune the settings, so arriving at the track the team has a good baseline of what works before headed out on track.”

A virtual reality

Mardenborough is case in point that making it in sim racing can lead to real-world opportunities at the very top. The difference is such that people can make the jump, and it's a viable path for drivers to take - with sim racers like James Baldwin also following the trail Mardenborough blazed.

“Sim racing has gone from a being a topic that you'd only share with close friends to avoid ridicule, to a respected household term that everybody in motorsport recognises," he says.

“You can now make a career out of it. During GT Academy times, this wasn't possible. I’m hoping more will follow, for the pure sim driver-only to racing driver like me, however, nearly every young kid in karting is on a simulator now to aid in their development.

“There’s always room for improvement with the software - what has improved is the quality of the equipment to mimic the real-life counterparts.”