Race Review: Nissan’s GT Academy Team RJN take podium in close-fought British GT round at Brands Hatch


Here is a name for you. Jann Mardenborough. He’s 20 years old. He has no fear. And by God can he pedal..

Yesterday marked exactly 365 days since Jann graduated through Nissan’s pioneering GT Academy. A racing academy for gamers, spawned from the world wide phenomenon that is Gran Turismo.

Jann is Academy winner number ‘three’, following on from two previous academy champions (Lucas Ordonez and Jordan Tresson) that have since gone on to win in endurance racing both at sports car and prototype level.

Jann was backed up by the first class team that RJN Motorsports team owner (Bob Neville) and Nissan UK have put together to enter the British GT endurance racing series. Co-driver Alex Buncombe is no slouch in his own right. Having won the GT4 cup in the European Blancpain series in 2011 amongst other wins, this 30 year old from Taunton has become a guiding hand to his younger team mate.

As I walked up to the press office yesterday I met with the British GT press officer who forecasted that Sundays race was going to be a humdinger. Whilst hindsight is 20/20, I really should have listened to his prophecy and placed a wager. Little did I know how close it was going to be.

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Alex Buncombe take the first stint in the No.35 Nissan GT-R Nismo GT3.

Having qualified 10th overall for Sundays race, Buncombe was first in the seat, presumably to get as much work down as possible prior to the predicted summer-showers. But shortly after the lights turned green Paddock Hill bend was drenched, making the steep downhill turn treacherous to the slick shod field of twenty five race cars.

Nonetheless, Buncombe didn’t hang around. In less than a lap he’d crept up into a very respectable 4th on the Brands Hatch GP circuit which was just the beginning of the team’s march to the front.

Nissan heads Porsche at the Brands Hatch round of British GT.

Despite others falling off in the slippery conditions Buncombe managed to keep his cool and slowly picked off the leaders until just before the end of lap 2, by which time he’d put the No.35 Nissan GT-R Nismo GT3 out in front with its bassy V6 engine playing a distinctly different tune to the high pitched Ferrari’s and Porsches.

The No.35 car (a reference to the R35 code name given to the current GT-R by its development team) held its ground despite the constant sliding and shunting that was taking place behind it, even managing to put seven seconds between it and the second place Motorbase Porsche of Luke Hines.

The field was incredibly close in qualifying, with just 0.756 seconds covering the top 13 cars.

“The conditions were very tough at the start of the race,” said Buncombe. “When I took the lead the circuit was pretty dry at the start of the lap but still wet out the back so it was difficult to know how hard to push. Once I saw the Porsche I had taken the lead from start to close in on me I got my head down and worked on building up a ‘comfort’ gap. The car was feeling great at this stage and I could do all out qualifying pace on every lap so it was a lot of fun to drive.”

But this break-away from the pack didn’t last, as yellow flags came out after debris from an accident earlier on. This was followed by a safety car period, the 485bhp 3.8 litre Nissan Juke-R, who returned to the pits just one minute before the pit window was due to open. After a further 13 minutes Alex got the call (to box for a driver change) having completed 34 laps, but in doing so immediately lost the advantage he’d worked so hard to secure.

Nissan nearly scored an own-goal when its Juke-R safety car caused the No.35 GT-R to lose its lead.

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Time for the young Playstation padawan to take his turn, and show that the 1300kg 523bhp GT-R was well within his means on such a treacherous track. It also meant Jann would join the field, just as most of the ‘pro’ drivers from the British GT field took over from their first-stint co-drivers. Game on.

Within six minutes of being on track Mardenborough had the red-and-black liveried Nissan back on top, taking over from the leading Ecurie Ecosse BMW Z4 of Oliver Bryant. Shortly after, the race for first place would become a battle between Bryant and Mardenborough as they pulled away from the third placed Matt Bell in the United Autosports Audi R8 LMS.

The No.79 Z4 GT3 was no match for Mardenborough in the GT-R, but closing fast behind the BMW was the Beechdean Aston.

Bell’s attempt to stay with the BMW and Nissan was further hampered when he was given a stop-go penalty for stopping too short in the pits during the driver change when taking over from Charles Bateman.

With 40 minutes to go in the two hour race, young Mardenborough was still managing to keep the more experienced Bryant at bay, although the BMW Z4 driver had managed to narrow the gap to just 1.7 seconds. This was to change, as another fresh burst of rain caused Bryant to slow his pace in the rear wheel drive BMW, allowing Mardenborough to pull a further 5 seconds ahead.

“For the first 10 minutes the car was great,” said Jann. “But then as the fuel level got lower I started to get understeer out on the GP circuit. Bob (Neville) was on the radio telling me what the gap was to the BMW in second place and then 10 minutes before the end he said there was an Aston Martin catching the BMW at quite a rate.”

The Beechdean Aston Vantage GT3 was relentless in its pursuit of the No.35 Nissan GT-3, but Mardenborough kept his cool and held Jonny Adam off in a photo finish.

Twenty minutes later and the battle for third was coming to a head, as Tim Harvey, Jonny Adam and George Murrells all fighting for a piece of the podium action. The three cars were split by no less than six tenths of a second, but In the end it would be Jonny Adam in the No.007 Beechdean Aston Martin Vantage GT3 that would claim the second step on the podium, pushing Oliver Bryant back to third.

This was achieved as the clock ticked past the one hour and fifty eight minute mark, leaving just two minutes for Bryant to close the deal. The car was clearly fast and Adam was clearly committed.

Adam had his sights firmly set on young Mardenborough, however the new kid remained calm and focused, putting in consistent lap times to cross the line as winner in what can only be described as a photo finish. The chequered flag greeted Mardenborough, just 0.022 seconds ahead of Adam in the Aston, earning a standing ovation from both the crowd and those in the media centre.

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A mature head on young shoulders, Mardenborough has impressed in his first season of ‘real’ motor racing.

“Both drivers did a fantastic job today” said GT Academy Team RJN Team Principal Bob Neville. “Al took advantage of the wet conditions at the start and built up a useful lead which was then lost by two safety cars. Jann had to go wheel-to-wheel with the pros and he didn’t make a single mistake under huge pressure. It feels good to see him and the GT3 GT-R take their first major race wins.”

It was a great team effort from all at the Nissan GT Academy team, proving (yet again) that competitive race drivers can be picked from console gamers to become real-life racing drivers, with the right amount of dedication, training and support.

I have personally witnessed the talent this young man possess. In the paddock, he is open and honest, with none of the ego that befalls some other drivers. However in the car, he seems cool and collected and 110% focused on the job in hand.

There are many people at Nissan who are quite rightly proud of this programme, and whilst the concept is great, it’s the experience and attitude of the people behind Nissan GT Academy which makes the real difference. From the management team at Nissan, to the endurance racing expertise of RJN Motorsport and his co driver Alex Buncombe, Jann Mardenborough is a very lucky guy and he’s making every effort to repay his benefactors with the most stunning victories.

“What a great way to finish what has been the best year of my life so far,” said Jann after the race. “Winning GT Academy has presented me with so many opportunities and I’m delighted that Al (Buncombe) and I could get the job done in the Nissan GT-R today.”

Jann and Alex don’t have much time to enjoy their win as they head off to France next week for round three of the Blancpain Endurance Series at Paul Ricard.