Darren Cox was born into a motorsport family and has served, as he calls it, a “41-year apprenticeship in the industry”. He worked for the Renault-Nissan group for almost 20 years, spending time in the finance, franchise, van, performance car and marketing departments. He became Nissan’s Global Motorsport Director in 2012, a role that included overseeing the firm’s success in Japanese Super GT and Blancpain Endurance and, as an engine supplier, domination of the LMP2 class in the World Endurance Championship and European Le Mans Series.
Thanks to a crowded marketplace and fans’ ever-shortening attention span, motorsport finds itself constantly striving to find new audiences, or battling to cling on to the ones it’s got.
Ten years ago, I brokered a deal between Nissan and Sony Computer Entertainment UK, which was launching its Gran Turismo 4 game at the time, to bridge the gap between gaming and real driving, if you like. And I had no idea how huge the tie-up would become.
Initially, we ran a promotion to encourage gamers to guess a lap time that a car could achieve around a specific track, with the closest 30 invited to Jonathan Palmer’s PalmerSport operation for a driving day. One of the tests was lapping the Bedford circuit in a Nissan 350Z. During the evaluations one of the instructors pointed out that some of the guys could actual pedal pretty well.
That was my Eureka moment!
And with that, via an effort that comprised two per cent inspiration and 98 per cent perspiration, the GT Academy was born.
Of course, getting two big, global, risk-averse companies to come together and make it work was unbelievably tough; indeed the project failed three times at the point of contract-signing before it finally got off the ground. I was very lucky that then-Nissan board member Carlos Tavares, who’s now at PSA Peugeot Citroen, was fully behind me, as was Mark Bowles, who’d joined Sony from Audi.
I’d done a lot of research on simulation, with help from a racing mate who just happened to be a Concorde pilot. As recently as 2006/2007 motorsport simulation, particularly the driver-in-loop bit of it, was a black art.
That first year was a test. It was all hand-made and we didn’t really know what might happen! The health-and-safety manual was massive and the crisis-management criteria never-ending, but it gathered pace quickly and we unearthed Spaniard Lucas Ordonez as the 2008 GT Academy winner. He’s turned out to be a revelation, racing professionally in sportscars and becoming a part of Nissan’s WEC LMP1 programme in 2015. And he’s a smashing bloke, too. Interestingly, he was the only one who shook my hand and thanked me for the opportunity during the evaluation week. I just knew he was the one…
In 2008, it was a case of garnering opinions on the validity of the candidates, from luminaries such as Johnny Herbert and Eddie Jordan. Now, though, the team have built it into a repeatable process. Eight years later, it’s still going strong. What we’ve done is not stop fine-tuning the selection and driver-training approach and although it was Euro-centric and only supposed to be for one year, it’s become a global phenomenon with countries all over the world now involved.
Goodwood fans will know, of course, that 2011 GT Academy winner Jann Mardenborough won the Festival of Speed Supercar Shootout a few years ago in a Nissan GT-R, so that proves the scheme’s worth. Jann’s another one who’s been a sensational gamer-turned racer, with a GP3 race win and Le Mans 24 Hours podium already on his CV.
The viewing figures for the GT Academy have been staggering. One hundred million people, in the various territories, watched the TV show in 2014. In Europe, it is second only to Formula 1 in terms of TV viewer numbers for four-wheeled motorsport. That’s a very big insight for the industry and I really believe that if we can get the two insular worlds of gaming and automotive to join forces in a bigger and better way and get them to understand mainstream marketing, GT Academy will just be seen as scratching the surface. Gaming really could help save motorsport from “greying out”.
After leaving the Renault-Nissan family with nearly 20 years’ service at the end of 2015, I’m still involved in the huge opportunities that the gaming world presents for motorsport. The virtual world really is getting more and more closely aligned with reality and several big brands, organisations and media owners are looking very closely with us at it. Watch this space…
Images courtesy of Jochen Van Cauwenberge and GT Academy