x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

From video screen to race track

Feature A talented young gamer has made the unlikely leap from playing Gran Turismo 5 to becoming a real driver.

The video game whiz-turned-racing driver Lucas Ordonez teamed up with the ex-F1 driver Johnny Herbert and the sportscar racers Rob Barff and Alex Buncombe to compete in January's Dubai 24-hour endurance race.
The video game whiz-turned-racing driver Lucas Ordonez teamed up with the ex-F1 driver Johnny Herbert and the sportscar racers Rob Barff and Alex Buncombe to compete in January's Dubai 24-hour endurance race.

Spa-Francorchamps is generally regarded as the ultimate driver's circuit, a favourite track for every level of driver from Formula 1 championship leader Jenson Button right down to the relatively unknown karters. It boasts plenty of historic twists and turns: the Bus Stop, Rivage, La Source hairpin and, of course, Eau Rouge, the most famous and challenging part of the circuit where competitors must contend with a blind uphill corner.

Lucas Ordonez is familiar with the circuit's layout - when he closes his eyes, he can even picture the start-finish line and the run to the sharp opening corner at La Source hairpin. But what Ordonez cannot begin to describe is the "strange, fun feeling" that fellow Spaniard Fernando Alonso talked of when it came to tackling Eau Rouge at the Belgian Grand Prix last year or the telling G-force inflicted on drivers in all manner of racing classes.

For Ordonez has only ever experienced Spa's history on his PlayStation games console courtesy of Gran Turismo 5, a game that turned his life around to a staggering degree. The 24-year-old always fancied himself as an accomplished gamer and last year joined 25,000 other people entering a competition to set the fastest possible lap time on the game with the chance to join the Nissan/PlayStation GT Academy.

Ordonez was one of 22 people selected from across Europe to take part in the academy at Silverstone in the UK, the ultimate prize being a one-off drive in the Dubai 24-Hour endurance race at the start of this year. Amid a variety of mental, physical and driving challenges, the 22 were whittled down to a final line-up of eight who battled it out in a race format, which Ordonez won, to finally round off his stunning move from gamer to real racer.

And in January he teamed up with ex-F1 driver Johnny Herbert and established sportscar racers Rob Barff and Alex Buncombe to compete at the Dubai event. Much to everyone's surprise, Ordonez produced an error-free drive, leading Herbert, a two-time grand prix winner, to mark him out as a "special talent with a special future in motorsport". And Ordonez is still very much living the dream, having been signed up to drive for Nissan with Buncombe in the GT4 European Cup this season, a decision that led him to pronounce that "I half expect to wake up any moment now".

"It still seems crazy most days," admitted the Madrid-based racer. "My family still can't quite believe what's happened, while my friends think I'm living their dreams. It's my dream too and I can't quite believe it really." The son of a motorsport enthusiast - his father competed in lesser rally and sportscar events in Spain when he was growing up - Ordonez had dreamed of a professional motorsports career.

He twice attended the Spanish Grand Prix as a youngster and relished the idea of emulating his idol Ayrton Senna. However, after showing early prowess in karting, he gave up on his driving ambitions to focus on school, assuming he had had chance his chance. "Until this competition, I didn't think I had a chance," he said. "I was just thinking about getting myself a job when I heard about the competition. I'd just finished university, where I'd studied a business and marketing degree, and also an MBA in business administration.

"I didn't have a clue what I was going to do workwise and, having got this chance, being a driver is all I want to do." It remains to be seen whether Ordonez can continue his dream. It would appear he has the talent. He finished a remarkable third in his first GT4 race, pulling off a stunning overtaking manoeuvre on one of the BMWs in the field on the final lap to snatch an unlikely podium place. And at the last round at Oschersleben, he went one better to finish second, with a victory looking a dead cert before the end of the season and possibly as soon as the next round at Spa on July 25.

But he says he needs more than just ability to continue past this season. At present, his travel to the race weekends and expenses are paid for by Nissan but he remains an unpaid driver and makes ends meet by living with his parents. "I don't want to let this go," he said, "but it is hard, hard work, although I'm not complaining. I now have a personal trainer who I work with four days a week. He's a tough guy but it's just what I need as it's a little bit different playing on the computer to driving around some of the world's most famous tracks. Sitting behind the wheel's a lot harder than you think."

Understandably there were some who initially poured scorn on the relatively untried and untested Ordonez entering GT racing, including his own co-driver Buncombe. "I think when he first saw me and was told we'd be driving together, he thought that everyone had gone crazy, that it was a stupid idea," Ordonez said. "I think he thought I'd be a slow driver and it would make life difficult for him as a professional driver. But in that first race when we came third I think he was impressed.

"Things have been great, he's a great team-mate and he's worked with me a lot on trying to improve my driving. I like to think he's proud of me and what we've achieved together so far this season." Another big help to Ordonez getting up to speed was Herbert, who was his initial coach after he won the Playstation competition. But Herbert is not the only F1 driver - past and present - to have passed tips onto the Spaniard. He has met two-time world champion Fernando Alonso, while McLaren test driver Pedro de la Rosa has continually passed on information.

"A lot of people have really helped," he explained. "Pedro was really pleased for my achievement but he pushed me on to think ever more professionally and to work hard at every moment to hold on to this and to fight for my dream. I think that's what I've done." The one irony is that Ordonez's busy career means that his gaming past is very much on hold. He barely has time to use his PlayStation any more, although he admits Gran Turismo 5 is the one game he still plays in a bid to get up to speed with the circuits on the calendar, all of which are new to him.

"It's odd when you drive at some of these circuits, as you feel like you know them a bit from the game but it's very hard getting ready in that way," he said. "Every weekend I'm learning, learning, learning. I think I've done a good job and that I'm getting better every weekend. "To win at Spa would be another dream come true but I think that might be difficult as it suits other cars maybe a little better. But I'd be disappointed if Alex and I didn't win a race this season. We're getting closer and closer to it."

Despite uncertainty over the path his motorsport career might yet take him, Ordonez is already setting ambitious targets well past the GT4 European Cup. The ultimate dream is to compete at Le Mans. "I always watched that when I was younger and to be able to drive there in the 24 Hours would be incredible," he said. "Being a driver is something I want to do for the rest of my life, to never let go."

How he handles Spa-Francorchamps may go a long way to deciding that. mmajendie@thenational.ae