The day kicked off at Whittlebury Hall with a press conference for the 18 lucky (okay, skilled) drivers – the Belgian winner Stijn Wackenier having fallen ill at the last minute and replaced by Benjamin Peron – with media in attendance. The GT Academy judges present at this initial conference were Rob Barff, Johnny Herbert and Sabine Schmitz (yes, really). The concept of GT Academy, for those of us unaware of it – to take a driver from the virtual world and put him in a race car in the real world – was explained by Johnny before a short video from the 4th judge, none other than Eddie Jordan, and another short video from GT Academy winner Lucas Ordoñez.
The format was explained by Johnny – eviction-style boot camp fun, whittling the field down to just 3 drivers over 5 days, who would then receive 2 months of intensive training before the final prize is given – a seat in a Nissan 370Z GT4 class racer!
Rob explained the day’s activities before springing a surprise 10 minute written test on the drivers, after which the throng relocated to Silverstone.
At this point the GT Academy finalists were given a number of warm-up laps in a number of Nissan 370Zs on Silverstone’s Stowe Circuit, with an on-board instructor, before going for an individual “superpole lap” – the results of which are yet to be revealed (though I can probably assume who finished 18th, given that only one driver took a trip across the grass on his timed lap, identity to be protected so long as the money keeps coming in)… Then back to the Experience Centre for the ever-so-vital medical and fitness tests.
A brief break for lunch preceded the “media” being split into two groups and thrown into the same 370Zs the finalists drove – one guided lap, followed by a number of instructed laps – and then onto a head-to-head autocross course in Nissan’s R35 GT-Rs. As is typical, I was last to go and with no-one to go head-to-head with, who should step in but GT Academy champion Lucas Ordoñez! With a time of 37.93s on the final run, GTPlanet’s credentials were established as fastest publication (oh yes, you read that right).
From Silverstone the party relocated to Milton Keynes’ Daytona karting track, where the media and finalists raced head-to-head (Lucas Ordoñez guesting in Media kart 15) for 2 hours of endurance racing. I bravely skipped this, having aggravated a hand injury by misbehaving in the 370Z earlier in the day). The eventual race winners were Team Portgual/France (Filipe Barreto/Hunter_4_6 and Jordan Tresson/GT_driver_BMW) on a sterling 106 laps, 4 laps ahead of the Spanish pairing of Marco Calvo and Roberto Otero (MakaayX and GTro_rootbe), with Team BeNe (Benjamin Peron – I’m unaware of your PSNID at present – and Jeroen Kesselring/Oenta).
As the lovely, cold, February weather bit in, drivers and journalists alike returned to Whittlebury Hall for an hour’s evening meal, followed by a press conference, during which the drivers were subjected to a barrage of questions to determine their presence under fire… Each driver was requested to complete one question in English – to the best of their ability (it being a test of personality rather than language skill) – and one in their own language, some of which were so intriguing in half-translation that they had to be asked again in English. The questions came thick and fast and covered subjects as broad as piercings (Christian), piano-playing (Jeroen), The X-Factor (Oliver), age (Felipe, who remarked that his age was his “lucky number”!), previous GT Academy experience (Steffen and Giacomo) and just how it feels to be an Italian driving a Japanese car (Luca)!
In the end, despite the time and the tolls of the day, all the drivers gave good, sharp answers, with the occasional quip, wry, dry wit and a good word for the sponsors! All was wrapped up at 11pm, ready for their start at 6.30am the following day. I’m glad I’m not good enough to be a race driver…
Thanks, of course, go to Jardine International for asking GTP along and for all the help and support they gave during the day, particularly Rupert, Rebecca and Charlotte, the GT Academy judges who didn’t mind “Famine from the internet” speaking to them, the finalists who were all as overawed as I, Lucas Ordoñez for being a top bloke and Penrose Tackie, Sony’s European brand manager, who could be grilled with good grace and holds GTP in high regard.