In 2011 Jann Mardenborough was on his gap year, filling his days preparing for university and playing video games in his parents’ house in Cardiff. Four years later, the 23-year-old Briton is preparing to take his place on the grid in Le Mans 24 Hours endurance race, and is targeting a career at the very pinnacle of motor- sport: Formula One.
The catalyst for this career change was, oddly, those hours spent playing video games.
In 2011 Mardenborough entered a competition open to players of the racing game Gran Turismo. Ninety thousand entrants across Europe were whittled down to 20, who were then challenged to step out of the virtual world and race real sports cars at Silverstone. Mardenborough won – and was offered a professional race contract there and then.
“That was the first time I’d ever driven a real-life sports car, the first time I’d ever been sideways in any car. I loved it,” he remembers.
“I didn’t feel like it was a massive difference between the virtual and the reality. Going round Silverstone for the first time, I knew where I was going. Having driven a Nissan GTR sports car on the PlayStation, I knew what to expect. You can do crazy skids in it and still be in relatively good control. I was doing almost exactly what I was used to doing on the game, with a few minor tweaks.”
As simulators become ever more sophisticated, and the line between virtual and reality more and more blurred, “gamer racers” like Jann Mardenborough offer a very different route into professional racing: “Older racing drivers think it’s incredible what I’ve done,” says Mardenborough, “because some of them can’t go in a simulator and drive well. It’s too different for them, so they applaud it.”
The simulator is an important tool in the modern F1 armoury. Drivers will spend the equivalent of two grands prix in a meticulously re-created computer version of their car, preparing for a race weekend. It’s not surprising, therefore, that younger drivers, who have grown up used to that virtual world, have an advantage.
But BBC commentator James Allen explains that there is another benefit: “Modern drivers have a lot to control from inside the car,” he points out.
“I have spoken to engineers about it, asking whether the younger guys who have grown up playing PlayStation, intuitively pushing buttons and managing complicated controls, have a better understanding of the division of brain needed to be effective. They all say yes, absolutely. With the young guys, you only have to explain it to them once, because they have this intuitive understanding of buttons.”
One look at this nigh-on indecipherable infographic of Sauber F1’s 2015 steering wheel, and you quickly realise what Allen means (click the image to view full screen).