Simulating Reality: Nissan GT Academy in the Philippines

“The Real Driving Simulator”

It’s the line that’s found on every Gran Turismo CD case since the debut of the franchise in 1997. Today, in 2015, the franchise has built its reputation around simulating reality, differentiating itself with almost-maniacal attention to detail and an incredibly vast selection of vehicles. But just how much meat is behind that line anyway? Because however you cut it, a “real driving simulator” is still just a simulator. Sure, it may be the most realistic simulator there is, but at the end of the day, “realistic” is still not equivalent to “real”.

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Never has the “PS” logo been attached to something so serious.

In 2008, Sony partnered up with Nissan to find out, and established the Nissan GT Academy. The premise was simple: take the best Gran Turismo drivers and plop them into racing buckets behind the wheel of real-world race cars.

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After seven years, the program has been to 35 countries in total, and this season will see 22 countries vie for the chance to produce the next GT Academy champion. The program has produced truly capable drivers, with one racer in particular, Jann Mardenborough, being so fast in the 2012 British GT Championship that 2013 GT Academy graduates were effectively banned from racing in the series. Quite a result, then, and possibly the best argument for the program there is.

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Here’s the best part: this year, the Philippines is one of the 22 countries participating in the Nissan GT Academy. For the first time ever, six Filipino gamers have a real chance at turning the hours they’ve spent at the controller into the racing career of a lifetime. Beats your usual talent competition, I’d say.

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But of course, before any – virtually – real racing begins, the program has to be introduced first. This Nissan Philippines did with a media event at the Glorietta 2 Palm Drive activity centre.

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Inspiring aspiring takers, the standees gave you a pretty clear picture of what you would look like in a Nismo racing suit, which means just like the standee, only less flat. Curiously, I found the standees also suggested a “you must be this tall” limit to the entrants. Practical, since you do have to reach the controls to drive a car in the real world.

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Off to one side was a wall of information, giving you a quick rundown of the three arguably most well-known GT Academy graduates: Lucas Ordoñez, 2008 winner, Jann Mardenborough, 2011 winner, and Ricardo Sanchez, the latest product of the GT Academy program.

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While waiting for the event to begin, the LED screen up on stage flashed a promotional video, taking some attention away from the hulking objects on the stage. Seeing the Gran Turismo logo up there along with the cloth-covered object brought me all the way back, triggering memories of how Sony teased the debut of the original Gran Turismo by running ads featuring a car covered in shiny, velvety cloth against a stark black background.

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On the other hand, the edgy, technical “PS3” logo pulled me right back to the present, where a racing simulator on a gaming console was being used to produce drivers that could set lap times just as fast as other drivers who’ve been training for years behind real wheels and in real cars. When you stop to think about it, such a feat in just sixteen years – from blocky PS1-era graphics to budget racing simulator – is nothing short of amazing. Still, I wondered why Sony hadn’t chosen to move the program to the PS4 platform. It’s quite possible they didn’t yet have time to try the program out on the new platform, or simply didn’t see the need to prioritise it, considering the results they’ve already achieved.

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This being a media event, there was of course plenty of time to mull around and catch up before the start of the event…

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Left to right: SJ Huh, GM Marketing for Nissan Philippines Inc, Ricardo Sanchez, 2014 GT Academy International Champion, Lawrence Wiltshire, Managing Director of GTA Global Ltd., and Antonio Zara, President and Managing Director of Nissan Philippines, Inc.

But then a little while later the stars of the occasion came out and were led to their designated seats.

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2014 GT Academy International Champion Ricardo Sanchez and GT Academy Managing Director Lawrence Wiltshire both flew in from the UK specifically for this event. Understandable, given what this event means for the country.

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There was some time left for the rest to find their spots, while the four men in front were left to gather thoughts.

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Of course, it didn’t last very long, as a quite-tall man in a white Nomex racing suit in the middle of a mall tends to attract a considerable amount of attention. Soon there was a small queue of people waiting to take photos with Ricardo Sanchez.

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This being a media event, the line wasn’t horrendously long, and burly men in black suits were not required.

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He’s having to stoop down now, but with the way GT Academy has been conceptualised, Ricardo Sanchez could be sharing a podium with this kid in the near future. Isn’t that an exciting thought?

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A few moments before the event program began, Ricardo posed for some solo pictures.

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In short order the LED screen turned red, the lights came on, and a booming voice came over the speakers, announcing the start of the event…

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…and the emergence of Monster DJ Cara. DJ Cara hosts Monster Radio RX93.1’s “Drive Thru” program, so she seemed an obvious choice of host.

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After some opening remarks about the GT Academy program and what it meant for Filipino gamers, DJ Cara introduced Ricardo to the crowd…

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…before calling on Nissan Philippines’ head honcho, Antonio “Toti” Zara.

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Mr. Zara took the stage, explaining that he had just come from a separate event where he had inaugurated six new Nissan dealers. He spoke about how this year was going to be Nissan’s year, about how Nissan Philippines wanted to shake up the local car industry, and about how bringing the Nissan GT Academy to the Philippines was a reflection of how seriously Nissan took the Philippine market. He introduced the GT Academy as “a truly innovative program that aims to excite everyone”. You might think that it’s just marketing talking, but it truly is: where else can you find a program that provides regular couch-racers and avid gamers a real shot at becoming a professional race car driver.

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He punctuated the point by gesturing to the audience, calling on the office professionals, the students, taxi drivers, gamers and non-gamers alike, and anyone who’s ever dreamed of becoming a professional racer to join the program. All that was needed, really, was to prove that you could put up the best times on the virtual tracks. Perhaps the most striking part of his short speech was the point where he proudly said

So while other brands are giving out VIP tickets to watch the race, we at Nissan are giving you the best seat in the house: right behind the steering wheel of a race car.

This, of course, was greeted by cheers and applause from the audience. He continued, baring Nissan’s altruistic goal:

In our own little humble way, we hope that we at Nissan contribute to bringing up the Philippines in the world of international motorsports.”

Mr. Zara departed the stage with fanfare, perhaps inevitably, since there really isn’t any way you can listen to ideads that big and not be impressed.

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Up next to take the stage was Lawrence Wiltshire, Managing Director of GTA Global Ltd. He spoke, of course, about the inception of the Nissan GT Academy, being involved with it right from the beginning. According to him:

…in 2008, a crazy guy from Nissan, and an equally crazy guy from Sony got together and they wondered, “Is Gran Turismo so real now, is this game so close to reality, could you select someone from the gaming world and turn them into a real racer?” So, the idea for GT Academy was born, and what they were most excited about was giving normal people a chance to become a real racer…

At that point he went on about how expensive it is to become a race car driver the traditional way, where aspiring drivers and their families need to shell out to go karting regularly from a young age, and then subsequently finance entry into feeder and junior series, since sponsors won’t pay an unknown’s way. You can see here just how innovative and disruptive the program really is: by pulling racers from avid players of Gran Turismo, Nissan were giving all the world a shot at becoming professional drivers, as opposed to just “a few percent of the world”.

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Such new ideas, of course, inevitably generate a certain amount of resistance and negativity; change is naturally difficult, especially when regarding a promotion and development structure that has long been in place. Mr. Wiltshire shared the doubters’ statements, when people said that Nissan were being incredibly reckless and even that it flat out just could not be done. To that, Mr. Wiltshire presented the above slide, detailing the program’s achievements to date. It isn’t a modest list, mind you: to date they’ve signed 11 pro racing contracts, had two 24 Hours of Le Mans podiums, and a total of eighty-six (86) podium finishes over the past seven years.

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He then went on to tell the tale of Jann Mardenborough, a young man who had neither the connections nor the finances to get into racing the old way, and reportedly lacked self-confidence to such a degree that he wouldn’t be the one to open the front door for visitors. What mattered though, was that Jann loved to play Gran Turismo, and took the step of signing up for GT Academy. That was in 2011. One year later, Jann was turning lap times at par with seasoned professionals. Today, Jann stands on the verge of making it to Formula 1, signed by the Red Bull F1 team to potentially become one of the drivers. As per Mr. Wiltshire:

This isn’t just a marketing stunt, this is real. This really does change people’s lives; real life fairy tale stories.

He went on to discuss the program and how it worked. Part one is the recruitment phase, where anyone over the age of 18 (practical requirement, since a valid driver’s license is required to be eligible) can have a go on the game at a Live Event. Once you qualify, you go one to the national finals, where the top 20 gamers will duke it out through a series of challenges. From there, the top 6 will go on to Silverstone for Race Camp Week: more testing, more training and a starring role in the GT Academy reality TV show. If you think this is strange, consider the fact that these are basically unknowns in the racing world; sponsors aren’t likely to back them from the off, so Nissan need to present these candidates and build them up, so that when they do go on to race professionally, sponsors will take more easily to them. The eventual winner of  the Race Camp will go on to the Nismo Driver Development Program. There the winner will face the other regional champions (the competition has gotten so huge they’ve divided it into regions), getting three years’ worth of training in three months, and facing off to become the GT Academy International Champion.

For fans of reality TV, the GT Academy TV show is reportedly set to air sometime in November or December. It hasn’t been decided yet which network will air it, but according to Mr. Wiltshire they are currently in talks with two networks. Mr. Wiltshire ended with a short video of clips featuring the different challenges the candidates must go through. Watching the video, it’s clear that it isn’t a cake walk, and that there will be tears involved for the six Filipino candidates.

As a final point, the cloth wrappers were dramatically ripped off the objects on stage, revealing the pods which will be used to pick the 20 Filipino or Filipina candidates that will go on to the national finals. More on these later.

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Up next was SJ Huh, GM for Marketing, Nissan Philippines Inc. He elaborated on the process of choosing the next GT Academy champion. Unlike in other countries, the initial screening will not be done online. Instead, what we get is a series of “Live Events”, to be held in various malls and Nissan dealers. A series of pods will be lined up, and times will be tallied and ranked until the top 20 have been chosen. In the national finals, they will complete further fitness and mental tests and challenges to make sure that they have the mettle to withstand the physical demands of driving a race car. One of the challenges also involves a mock TV interview. Again, this loops back to the problem of disrupting the old way of entering motorsports: the candidates must have the charm and confidence to attract sponsors, as they lack the years of prior wins and track time of traditional racers. More challenges await our six Filipino finalists when they arrive at Silverstone, with the same goal of testing and developing their fortitude. While most of Mr. Huh’s speech was all about the details of the program, he left us with the following line:

So now I call on everyone to come on over to our Live Events and get the chance to become the first Filipino racing legend.”

Quite a call to action, that is.

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The next part of the program was the Q&A portion, where we got to know a little bit more about Mr. Sanchez. Hailing from Mexico, it’s a little funny how he compares traffic here and back home: according to him, the traffic is the same, and they drive just like we do, where everyone is going everywhere.

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That aside, he went on to tell his story. He’s been a gamer from the age of 11, and has always been dreaming of becoming a professional race car driver. He had experience in karting, but eventually had to give it up when it got too expensive. Still, he decided to pause studying to try and build his racing career, going out to look for sponsors at the age of 18. Unfortunately, this was back in 2008, right in the middle of the worldwide economic downturn, so he came back with none. Eventually, he took up engineering, putting his gaming aside for five years to focus on his studies.

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And then one day in 2014, his father rang him up, telling him to head to the local mall, as a GT Academy Live Event was being held. Ricardo came, put up a time and was promptly told by one of the GT Academy officials to join the program. This led to Ricardo putting a stop to his job hunt and heading to the gym twice a week to bulk up. Obviously the efforts paid off, and it’s easy to see the joy he feels at being able to make his dream come true. To that end, he paints an inspiring picture to those thinking of joining: that of being able to put up your country’s flag on the podium.

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Ricardo never gave up on his dreams, and he advises us to do the same. To him, GT Academy was proof positive that anyone – given, of course, the determination, talent and opportunity – can become a racer. He, along with other GT Academy champions, are living proof that the old way of entering the world of motorsports just might need to be reevaluated.

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When it comes to the pods, it’s best not to come in with an open mind. You may have years of virtual racing experience behind you, but unless all of those years have been on high-quality force-feedback wheel setups, you’re coming in for a bit of a surprise. Firstly, don’t mind that the whole affair is still anchored to a PS3; it’s still got enough power, plus it’s the same platform that produced the previous GT Academy racers, so it’s still a solid platform. Secondly, as in a real race car, the seats, wheel and pedals are adjustable, because you seriously have to be in a good driving position.

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Finally, that Logitech-branded steering wheel will get you. It’s weighted heavily, and the force-feedback mechanism is powerful enough to kick the wheel out of your hands if you aren’t paying attention. As if that wasn’t enough, squeeze the throttle too hard in the middle of a corner and the wheel loses all weight, so if you can’t counter quick enough, you’re going for a spin. If you’re coming into this pod having never experienced force-feedback virtual driving before, you are going in for a shock. Setting good times will require a significant amount of recalibration, even for the experienced gamer.

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I’ve played Gran Turismo for a considerable amount of time, starting from the original PS1 version. I did, however, leave the series after the fourth installment while life got in the way, and I will have to admit that the physics model wasn’t what I was used to. It’s a lot more sensitive now, and where GT4 would let you get away with booting it in the middle of an unsettling corner, in the GT Academy version you’ll have to be really considerate with your inputs. No doubt the program won’t let any hamfisted drivers through.

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Why the Philippines though? Lawrence tells us that aside from SJ being keen on the idea, he recognises that motor racing isn’t accessible in this part of the world, and so thought that the accessibility of the GT Academy program would be a good fit for the country.

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It’s true: compared to Lawrence’s home country, the Philippines can’t match up when it comes to motor racing. Sure, grassroots events are becoming more common, but with two race tracks and no real nationally-backed championship, finding and developing Filipino racing talent is a task left to a very small minority.

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With the coming of the Nissan GT Academy to the Philippines, a vast majority of the population now have the chance to see if they have the unsung, undiscovered talent that can bring a Philippine flag to the finishing podiums of the international motorsports world.

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Never has there been a more exciting time to be a gamer. In the words of Mr. Toti Zara, let the virtual racing begin.

– Words by Kristoff Franco, pictures by Eugene Calimag

 

Follow Nissan Philippines Inc.’s Facebook page to keep up with news and announcements regarding the Nissan GT Academy’s Live Events schedule.

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