Going full circle: from bedroom gamer to racing driver and back to gaming

By Siân PriceBBC Sport Wales
Jann Mardenborough is more normally found racing in his NISMO Super GT car
Jann Mardenborough is more normally found racing in his NISMO Super GT car

Super GT racing driver Jann Mardenborough started off racing at home in his bedroom on a games console.

In 2011, he beat 90,000 other gamers to win the GT Academy, an international virtual-to-reality contest that allowed the video gamers of the Gran Turismo game the opportunity to become a real-world car racing driver.

The 28-year-old from from Cardiff's professional racing career has seen him compete in the Dubai 24-hour race, the British GP3 series and 24 hours of Le Mans.

Now Mardenborough is living in Tokyo and has been competing in the Japanese Super GT Championship for four years.

The 2020 Super GT Championship and Mardenborough's fifth season with Super GT was due to start this weekend in Okayama, but with the coronavirus outbreak this has now been rescheduled for June.

"It's disappointing but I'm not complaining." Mardenborough told BBC Sport Wales.

"The stuff people are going through - I can't say I'm not annoyed I can't go racing - but I can see my problems are very small compared to the rest of the world."

So unable to race and with the racing simulators used by his team to practise closed down in Tokyo due to the pandemic, Mardenborough has, in common with many racing drivers around the world, turned to the world of virtual simulator racing at home.

"With virtual racing it's just for fun but at the same time it still keeps you sharp," he said.

"You might not be racing or driving the exact car that we drive in real life or in Super GT but a car is a car and, if it's modelled correctly, you can still use that as training.

"It helps keep your reactions where they need to be and just have fun. It's good for your mind and soul, I find it really quite valuable."

Living in sim

Jann Mardenborough with his simulator set up in his Tokyo flat
Jann Mardenborough with his simulator set up in his Tokyo flat

However, simulator racing was a new concept for Mardenborough and he is amazed at not only how popular the sport is, with some of the streams getting 50,000 viewers, but also how advanced the equipment can be.

"What has completely passed me by is the development and progression of the equipment you can get now," he said. "I never did PC simulator racing or PC games, it was just PlayStation with a wheel and pedals."

Setting up a simulator in his flat, Mardenborough has had to rent equipment from a local company in Tokyo.

"Now I've got the bug and I've already ordered things from Europe to get my own simulator and depending on your budget you can get some amazing stuff and next-level equipment," he added.

Mardenborough has been busy racing in global live stream events in the past few weeks, against drivers he has been racing against since 2012 as well as some F1 drivers, while another highlight is being part of the online racing community and keeping in touch with other drivers.

"It's been great as I've raced against Max Verstappen and Lando Norris as well as other top drivers I've never raced against before," he said.

"Everyone is in the same boat, it's cool to race with these guys. On my Twitch account I'm trying to engage with fans as they can ask me questions.

"I should have started it a lot earlier but it passed me by."

'Rabbit hole' of online racing

Mardenborough can spend up to 11 hours a day racing online, but concedes it can be too much at times,

"I spent so much time on the simulator last week, 10, 11 hours go past so quickly! I was on it too often. Usually I spent about five to six hours a day. It passes the time pretty quick," he said.

"I've gone back into the rabbit hole, before I got into it and then got into real life racing, and now I'm kind of forced back into the rabbit hole of virtual racing."

Mardenborough has enjoyed developing his simulator skills alongside his flatmate, fellow Super GT driver and current Super Formula champion Nick Cassidy.

"We are super competitive and it helps because the simulators are parallel to each other. He's taken me out twice already in races since we've had them," he added.

Jann Mardenborough racing in Super GT
Jann Mardenborough racing in Super GT

However, with the majority of races taking place in European and US time zones, getting up at three in the morning to race has taken its toll.

"I've only stopped doing those races in the last week to give my body a chance to resync itself, as those races were affecting me a bit too much mentally. It throws your body clock off completely," he said.

"I'm trying to talk to those guys who are organising these races in Europe for their evening if they could adjust it back a few hours, but there is only myself and Nick in Japan doing these races so there is not much push for them to change it."

With the Super GT championship restart a few months away Mardenborough has no plans to return to Wales to see his family as the UK is on a no-fly list to Japan, meaning if he leaves he will not be allowed back into Japan.

But virtual racing has provided his family with another way of keeping in touch with Mardenborough so he doesn't feel so far away.

"My family are watching me on the live stream, my mum mentioned that it was like having me at home with the noises I make whilst racing," he said.

"She would have it on in the background whilst she's doing something in the house, so that's another reason why I will continue to race online."

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