Gran Turismo Academy: Lucas Ordonez

Take a good look at the man pictured above. His name is Lucas Ordoñez and he’s a race car driver -- who has competed in 24-hour endurance races at Spa, Dubai and Silverstone among others. But why should Lucas be of any significance to you? Because his career as a globetrotting race car driver could’ve been yours.

No, seriously.

Three years ago, Lucas was just an ordinary guy from Spain trying to figure out what to do with his life. Enrolled in an MBA program, Lucas happened to be into video games -- sports titles, first-person shooters, platforms and car games. Little did he know a game in the latter category would change his entire life.

As someone who was into cars, Lucas had a natural propensity for Gran Turismo. The array of cars and exotic track locations, albeit digital, were the perfect diversion after a stressful day of class. Lucas spent so much time in front of a monitor gripping a plastic steering wheel that he decided to try his skills by entering Sony's competition, the GT Academy.

The GT Academy

A European gamer search, the inaugural GT Academy drew 25,000 players online to compete to see who was the fastest. Only 22 finalists were selected and invited to train in the real world, behind the wheel of real cars. The best would advance and go on to train for three months and earn their competition license. If their gaming skills translated into success inside the cockpit, the GT Academy graduate would be offered the opportunity to race for Nissan in search for glory.
For Lucas, the rest, as they say, is history.

Did you ever in your wildest dreams think you'd get to where you're at now?

Definitely not. Three years ago I was studying for my MBA at my home in Madrid, Spain, and now I am a professional race car driver in one of the most prestigious championships in the world of racing. So as you can imagine, it’s unbelievable for me. I never expected to be at this level after winning a PlayStation competition. It’s really amazing and my life has completely changed since I won the GT Academy.

It’s really amazing and my life has completely changed since I won the GT Academy.

How long have you been playing GT?

I started to really play Gran Turismo three years or so before the GT Academy. I tried Gran Turismo 3 when I was really young, but the first game I played from the franchise seriously was Gran Turismo 4.

What attracted you initially to playing GT?

I love motorsports, I love racing and Gran Turismo was the best simulator I could have at home. It’s a great game and it’s good fun to play with friends.

After winning GT Academy, you underwent three months of serious training, what was it like?

After the academy at the Silverstone circuit, we spent three months in the U.K. racing every weekend in Group N Nissan 350Zs. We ran fifteen races in two months, which is double a full season in motorsports. So, it was incredible to spend lots of time in the cars and workshop with the team and learn everything about motorsports. It really got me ready for my debut at the 24 hour endurance race in Dubai.

How was the transition from video games to real racing?

The transition was quite tough, but thanks to Gran Turismo I learned how to drive on a race track, how to brake, and how to drive the correct line through a corner.

What was the most challenging part of your transition?

The G-force in real life. The physical demands of racing are very intense, and I had to be in really good physical condition.

How intense was your physical training?

I had a personal fitness trainer and I was training for nearly two hours every day from when I won the GT Academy up until the 24H Dubai. I was doing a lot of cardio, including cycling and running. I was also training to prepare myself for hot conditions, since the temperatures in Dubai are extremely high. It was tough, but it’s what a driver needs to do to be really fit and physically prepared.

I’ve driven Nurburgring. I drove it in GRAN TURISMO first, then during European GT4 Cup in a real car. The track was exactly the same in real life as in the game.

What events have you competed in and what were your results?

The 24H Dubai was my first big race and we finished eighth in our class, thanks to my teammate Johnny Herbert, former Formula 1 and Le Mans winner. After that, I got the opportunity to sign with Nissan and PlayStation to race the European GT4 Cup series. We finished second in the 2009 championship with two wins. We won at Zolder in Belgium and the first race in Portugal at Algarve, which was an incredible result for GT Academy. The year after, in 2010, I finished fourth in a Nissan 370Z. It was brand new, so we had some trouble developing the car. We ended up in fourth, which is really good for a new ride. I also competed in the Spa 24 Hours, where we had mechanical difficulties and didn’t finish, and we finished third at the 24 Hours at Silverstone.

Did you race on a GT track in real life? If so, how did the track compare to its digital counterpart?

I’ve driven Nurburgring. I drove it in GRAN TURISMO first, then during European GT4 Cup in a real car. The track was exactly the same in real life as in the game. All the ups and downs, the curves, the atmosphere, even the bumps in the hairpin, it’s all completely the same. The game turned out to be great training. It’s incredible how Kazunori (CEO and designer of Polyphony Digital, creator of the GT series) incorporated all of that.

Which detail at Nurburgring were you the most amazed by when you drove it in real life?

The first corner. The first corner is so unique, yet it is exactly the same in real life as it was in the game. I was so surprised when I saw that on the track for the first time. I remember thinking, “Wow, this is just like Gran Turismo.”

Did it increase your confidence?

Definitely. It was the fastest I’ve ever gone on my first lap out on a track. My team even told me, “Look, be careful and calm down, we have more practice to do!”

Coming from a background in gaming, how were you received by the other race car drivers?

At the 24H Dubai, my first race, it was tough. Some drivers were saying, “What is a PlayStation gamer doing here?” But after the race, they were really quite surprised by my performance and my lap times. I just competed in the 12 Hours of Sebring, and we ended in second position, and Simon Pagenaud, American Le Mans Series champion and one of the top drivers here in the United States, came up to me and said, “Lucas, I am really surprised by your story. Your lap times are really fast, so congratulations. Keep going in this good way.” 

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Is there a racer who you most admire?

Ayrton Senna, the former F1 driver is my hero. He was special. I’m sure that he knew that he would die someday, so he was really fast, really focused on racing, and he really loved motorsports and driving. I remember the day that he died. Unfortunately, it was on my birthday.

If you could pick a ride in any series for the next season, what would it be? Why?

I love the championship I am doing this year, the ILMC, Intercontinental Le Mans Cup but I also love the Super GT series in Japan. It is a really interesting championship. I would love to race there.

Besides GT, what other games do you play?

I played some [soccer] games before, like FIFA. I also like basketball and tennis games, and Grand Theft Auto I had a lot of fun with it. I also played Medal of Honor. I like it, it’s good fun, but I really prefer motorsports games.

Do you think if you played FIFA as well as you did in Gran Turismo, you could play soccer professionally?

[Laughs] That’s a good question. Well, if you were in really good physical condition, maybe…

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