The Journey –
Jann Mardenborough: A Virtual Reality
Jann Mardenborough’s story is extraordinary. To celebrate our association with MB Partners, we speak exclusively to a driver who went from gaming in his bedroom to professional racing.
At a typically rainy Oulton Park circuit in Cheshire, a fresh-faced 20-year-old Jann Mardenborough was about to begin his professional racing career. It was 2012 and the Brit had just won the inaugural GT Academy competition, changing his life forever.
Fast forward almost ten years and Jann, now a well-established and respected racing driver – with appearances at Le Mans and victories on the F1 support bill to his name – stands out in the motorsport world as a ferociously talented racer cut from an entirely different cloth.
Jann’s beginnings in motorsport are as humble as they can come. He doesn’t have a famous racing relative or a million-pound sponsorship deal. Jann’s career started from his bedroom, sparked by a love for his PlayStation.
“Growing up, I loved racing games as a kid,” Jann recalls. “I would spend hours on Gran Turismo on the very first PlayStation, just lapping as quick as I could and buying as many cars as I could.
“It grew from there and as the technology improved, the experience got even better. I remember getting my first wheel and pedals and it completely changed the game.”
Jann knew he was talented and, like many teenagers, dreamed of a life in motorsport but didn’t have the finances to make it work so he had to make do with keeping his skills sharp playing in the virtual world.
During his gap year in 2011, he came across the Nissan GT Academy – a programme designed to unearth the racing drivers of the future.
Run in conjunction with the popular game, Gran Turismo, the competition pitted more than 90,000 competitors against each other. Jann entered the competition with no real vision of winning but, with raw talent evident to see, reached the grand final.
Suddenly Jann’s world had changed around him. He’d swapped the virtual world of racing for the real one and found himself in the very best seat in the house.
Twelve finalists became six and six soon became four. As others fell by the wayside, Jann remained absolute in his abilities – undeterred by the occasion and unwavered by the stakes.
An SAS-style boot camp followed by advanced car control sessions meant that Jann had covered every base in his quest to win, and his results were impressive as he made that final quartet. Mentored on his way by former F1 racer Johnny Herbert, Jann had just one final test to master: a twenty minute race around Silverstone, which Jann won from pole position.
“That race really felt like the transition was complete. I stepped into that car a nervous, wannabe racing driver but stepped back out again as something completely different.”
The decision was an easy one to make. Jann was declared the winner with all the spoils; namely a drive with Nissan in that year’s Dubai 24 Hour endurance race.
“Opportunities like those rarely come around and I’m incredibly grateful for the life and career it has afforded me since. I was just a young guy from Cardiff with no background to speak of. Never in a million years did I expect to win something like that and line up on the grid as a real racing driver.”
Not only did Jann compete in the race, he claimed a podium finish on his very first attempt. With third in class, the motorsport world quickly took notice of Jann’s transformation.. People had long questioned whether a gamer, hunched in front of the television, could make it as a fully-fledged racing driver. Suddenly, they had their answer.
“The whole experience of the Dubai 24 is something I’ll never forget,” Jann explains. “I was there, as a racing driver, to do my job. The result was incredible and it certainly boosted my confidence.
“It forced people to look at me differently too. Some drivers would almost write you off immediately and not take you seriously. As soon as you start posting some fast times and getting the results to back that up, that dynamic shifts.”
The next year, Jann was set to race in the Pro-Am championship of British GT. It was here at that rainy Oulton Park that his first full season as a professional racing driver was about to begin.
Jann displayed such a strong turn of speed that he was banned from competing in the same class in the future – as he was deemed too fast.
That turn of speed also opened the door to the biggest race in the world: the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Racing in the notoriously fast LMP2 category, Jann and his teammates took their Nissan to third place on the podium.
“Standing on the podium at Le Mans is like nothing I can describe. In the space of two years, I had gone from racing it on my Playstation to standing there, in the moment, with a trophy in my hand. As I stood on the podium, completely exhausted from 24 hours of non-stop racing, I looked out to the crowd and thought ‘wow, this is my life now’.”
Jann was one of the very first to prove that the path into motorsport is not a single track and a small bit of faith in your own ability can go a long way.
“I find it mad to think that I’m ten years into this journey,” Jann says. “I look back at the nervous 19-year-old who first signed up for GT Academy and I think about who he would be now if I never followed this path.
“It’s been the most remarkable and rewarding experience and I wouldn’t change any of it for the world. It’s humbling to know I played a part in the start of something groundbreaking. When you look at the world of Esports and sim racing, the lines between virtual and reality are so heavily blurred now and it’s a real privilege to have been one of the first to cross those lines.
“To now be on the judging panels of some of those competitions is very rewarding. It gives me a chance to give something back to the industry that has made me who I am. When I meet the entrants, I know exactly what they’re going through, it’s scary and nerve-wracking and I can fully understand that. I can also see early on who stands out and why - it’s not necessarily about being the fastest straight away - I certainly wasn’t. It’s about how you learn, grow and progress. Whatever it is you do, those are the qualities that make you a success.”
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