The news is out that Wolfgang Reip is the latest addition to the Bentley Boys’ elite club but, as the first GT Academy ‘gamer turned racer’ to fly the Nissan nest, could the news mark the beginning of a new era for our sport? Racing.GT raises the questions.
Since the GT Academy project – which takes Playstation gamers and turns them into Nissan racing drivers – launched in 2008, we have seen seven cadets rise through the ranks.
Often criticised for putting inexperienced drivers on track, the project ruffled many feathers. It mirrored the music industry in the early 2000s, when wannabe pop stars began fast-tracking their route to success through Simon Cowell’s reality TV shows rather than earning their stripes in the working men’s clubs of Northern England.
Last summer, the daddy bird in the GT Academy nest, Darren Cox, departed Nissan, leaving his team of fledglings – who were ripped from their DC Comics wall-papered bedrooms in their parents’ homes and thrust onto the global motorsport stage – to fend for themselves.
2012-winner Reip came out fighting first, announcing his new found freedom to the motorsport media. After a test with Bentley at Paul Ricard, the 29-year old has announced, today, that he has landed one of the most sought-after seats in GT racing. More importantly, it is a seat outside of Nissan, catapulting GT Academy’s ‘gamer to racer’ into reality.
But, what does this mean for our sport?
Just like reality TV, which has produced global superstars One Direction, is simulator racing now a viable route to top-level professional motorsport?
Can mums and dads save their money on karting and cars and, instead of standing at a cold and wet Snetterton cheering on their future superstar, turn the spare room into a simulator and enjoy a nice cup of tea watching X-Factor?
Or, has Cox’s well-oiled and well-funded marketing machine churned out a product that packs a final punch at GT Academy’s critics before it follows Nissan’s LMP1 project into the grave?
When asked, Cox was surprised at the question. “People are still doubting the programme? I can only assume its sour grapes,” he said. “GT Academy has bought new drivers, fans and media to our sport; a sport that is populated by rich gentlemen or sons of well-healed young ‘professionals’. Not one of the GT Academy drivers would be on the grid through any other route. They just did not have the money. Wolfie had to find a works drive as he could not buy his way into a team to carry on racing.
“The fact that one of the most-high profile brands, backed by a professional outfit, snapped Wolfie up within weeks of him being available must finally shut up the doubters,” Cox continued. “Or would they prefer the seat to go to a mediocre F1 reject with daddy’s wallet in his fireproofs?”
When asked if he thought his views on GT Academy graduates were reflected by influencers in the industry, Cox continued: “Those who have seen these guys at close quarters know how talented they are. Ask Malcolm Wilson, Trevor Carlin, Bob Neville, Lawrence Tomlinson, Tim Greaves and the Red Bull driver development guys. If the doubters have got their facts from this lot then I’ll listen to their opinions. I doubt they have.
“Of course these guys were well prepared. But the budgets were very tight. Therefore, the preparation was off-track – testing was very, very limited for these guys, which makes their results even more impressive,” he added.
“One of the great joys for me was to hear from various sources how well Wolfie fitted in with the Bentley team and how professional he was. Again this is not lucky or a one-off. The same feedback has been heard about Mardenbourgh, Ordenez, Paletou, Strauss etc,”.
Fair enough, the GT Academy has created some presentable, fast and media-friendly faces but surely the proof will be in the pudding?
“Of course, Wolfie will now be a flag waver for the other drivers,” Cox added. “He will have no perceived smoke and mirrors, favouritism or safety net at Bentley. He will be in the same kit as well-regarded professionals. His relative performance will be very interesting to see. I’m sure the doubters will have a reason to question any good results he gets. I’d like to see their rationale, then, though.”
So, doubters, what do you have to say? If you have an opinion on this and would like us to publish it, get in touch by emailing email@example.com.