The PlayStation video game’s realistic cars and racetracks helped Jann Mardenborough find his calling as a professional driver.
By Brandon Yu
Jann Mardenborough can vividly recount the first time he ever played Gran Turismo, the popular racing video game that would completely alter his life.
While seeking refuge on Bonfire Night, a British holiday full of firework celebrations, an 8-year-old Mardenborough stumbled upon the game at his neighbors’ house. He selected a violet Mitsubishi 3000GT and began racing on the Autumn Ring track. Mardenborough went on to play the game all night, and then every day after that, showing up at his neighbors’ door immediately after school.
“They got so fed up with me turning up at their house, one day the wife came across the street, knocked on our door and had in hand the PlayStation and GT 1, and gave it to my parents,” the 31-year-old racecar driver recently recalled during an video interview.
It’s the origin story to the other origin story: the true, improbable one depicted in the film “Gran Turismo,” which was directed by Neill Blomkamp and opens on Friday. The movie dramatizes Mardenborough’s journey, from gaming in his bedroom to winning the 2011 GT Academy — an annual competition that, from 2008 to 2016, put the game’s best players in real vehicles — to driving formula cars professionally.
The eight main games in the Gran Turismo franchise, which debuted in Europe and North America in 1998, are known for their scrupulously reproduced cars and exacting racing simulations. In the months before he attended GT Academy, Mardenborough upgraded from a plastic PlayStation controller to a homemade wooden racing frame along with a steering wheel and pedal that he bought with money his parents gave him for good grades.
The competition was a godsend for Mardenborough, who was trying to sell car parts on eBay after losing a retail job; he had dropped out of college after realizing that studying motor sport engineering did not mean he could actually drive the cars.
Even so, Mardenborough said he was skeptical of his chances. He had played Gran Turismo no more than an average teenage gamer after his initial fixation, had never competed in a tournament and had barely any experience driving a normal car. The first time he brought his rickety 1991 laser blue BMW E30 onto a highway was on his way to the competition.
Mardenborough’s perspective took a visceral turn when he qualified for racing camp — a stretch depicted in the film that follows the finalists training in actual cars — and was given his first taste of the track.
“After my first few laps, when I got out the car, I remember thinking, ‘I don’t want to go through life never experiencing that again,’” said Mardenborough, who served as a producer on “Gran Turismo” and as the stunt double for his own character.
Mardenborough can eagerly describe the technicalities that distinguish game from reality — the sensation, for instance, of the vibration through the car seat — but said that much of the real-world feeling and reactions mirrored Gran Turismo.
“When you race against real people,” he said, “everything is real.”
Mardenborough, who is played by Archie Madekwe in “Gran Turismo,” went line by line with Sony over early drafts of the script, which he noted is mostly true to his life. The characters played by David Harbour and Orlando Bloom are both fictionalized but loosely based on real people. And a crash involving Mardenborough in Germany that left a spectator dead really happened, although detractors have complained about how the tragic event was translated to the screen.
In the film, the crash occurs right before Mardenborough returns to the track for a podium finish at Le Mans, the famous endurance race in France — back-to-back events that form an emotional arc of setback and triumph. In reality, Mardenborough’s crash in Germany came two years after that podium finish, leading to criticism that the film’s timeline was edited to serve a narratively pat movie ending.
“The order is the order, but those events happened in my life,” Mardenborough, who avoided serious injuries, said in response. “This isn’t a documentary.” He did race in Le Mans one year after the crash, and Mardenborough said the emotional battle the film constructed was consistent with his feelings.
“When you believe the reason why you’re put on earth is to race a racing car, and then you’re asking yourself, ‘Do I still want to do this?’” he said. “It’s not a pleasant question to ask.”
Mardenborough last competed in May and is talking to teams about potentially racing in the United States next year. And occasionally, the driver who fidgeted with a gaming steering wheel during our interview will still play Gran Turismo.
If he were to race against his 19-year-old self in the game right now, who would win? Mardenborough thought for a moment.
“Me,” he said with a competitive smirk. “If I put in the amount of hours I did back then, considering my experience in real life, I would be quicker. But all it is is hours.”
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