Interview with Darren Cox

Director, Global Motorsport, Nissan

Date: 29 Jun 2014
Darren Cox, Director, Global Motorsport, Nissan

Report - Rahul Kapoor

Can you tell me about the procedures, the skills you are looking for from these youngsters at the Nissan GT Academy? And where would you plan to use the winners for racing? In Endurance Racing, GT racing, Single Seater, Open Wheel, Rally?

Six years ago, everyone thought this was crazy. I remember someone saying in the press that just because you’re good at Tiger Woods Golf on the playstation doesn’t mean you can go and win the PGA tournament. Well of course playing Tiger Woods is just pressing some buttons to get your swing right. In Gran Turismo you genuinely have to turn the steering wheel; you have to push the pedals, obviously. But actually, the games are becoming so realistic now that these guys can feel important things in the car like Pitch sensitivity of the car, the way the car moves around in braking and acceleration.

That’s one element, but also to get to the top of the leagues of the online gaming side of things you have to be very, very dedicated. You know, you can’t just do it once and then do the time.  They have got to spend hours and hours and hours doing this and therefore they have a commitment to it, they have got dedication and actually if you think about racing drivers that is exactly what they need to do. What racing drivers need to do is repeat the same actions over and over again. And there are lots of books I have been reading over the last few years about the 10,000 hours theory; you know to be good in any sport or anything you need 10,000 hours of good practice and these guys have got that. It doesn’t mean they have got it on a race track. But they have got it in the virtual world so they are short-cutting; they are doing their 10,000 hours in the virtual world and that gives them a huge advantage because they can practice any time because if you’re in motor racing, you can’t practice anytime. You have to pay a lot of money, and if the car breaks down you’re red flagged. And that means that they have got abilities that guys in the real world haven’t got and there are great examples of our champions are faster than traditional guys.

 So yes, it’s the steering, yes it’s the brake pedals, yes where is the turn in point? But it’s also understanding vehicle dynamics. In addition to that, they genuinely are good gamers and that means they have got to be dedicated to something. If you find that in any form of life, if someone is dedicated to something, he will be dedicated to something else, so a lot of our guys are actually very fit as well. I expected in the first year of doing this, half of our guys would have never been racing cars; they would have been slobs basically. But we had a winner who was actually running marathons, Lucas [Ordonez] is very fit, Jann Mardenborough was playing a very high level of football. So if they have dedication in one area, they normally have in another area of life so that concern of not having that element of makeup is not there, so that’s the first point. So what are we looking for? We are looking for a fast racing driver, someone that dedicated, committed and someone with mental toughness, in any sport you cant be weak mentally and in motorsport there’s always going to be someone to say they’re faster or you’re not so good, or my cars better than yours, so mental toughness is critical.

In terms of where we’ll put the Indian winner, as to say we have created even more competition within the programme this year, effectively India will have a winner, there will be a and as a part of the GT Academy week which we call “Race Camp” on the last day, the Indian winner will race against the Thai winner, against the Middle East winner, against the Australian winner and the Mexican winner and that winner will become our official Nismo Athlete that will go forward to our programme as our international athlete. But we will also make sure that each of the different markets where we talk about local motorsport; the local winners will get opportunities to race in their home country.  It might be that when we get to the final, that these 2 guys that are so good that well put them both into the training programme once they have been into the main race. So they have got lots of opportunities. So the winner, lets assume the Indian guy is the overall winner, could follow in the footsteps of Jann Mardenborough who went straight into GT racing, and within 6 months he started racing the GTR GT3 car with 559 horsepower, 1250 kilos, racing against top GT drivers, in Mercedes and McLaren and Audis and Porsches or Ferraris at places like Spa 24 hours. So within a year they can be racing in that sort of race against top professionals, and we hope that’s the Indian winner but certainly as we talked about, whatever happens, the Indian winner will hope to make him famous in India in some way.

The winner of the international programme is put through an intensive training programme. We then step them back and then start again from basics and we get them into an effectively standard Z road car and we start training them in races. To get to the race in Dubai, you have to have an international racing license. So we can get a national racing license in the UK very easily so we can get them that, and then they have to do 16 races without crashing, without stopping and complete 16 races safely in the UK. During that point we progress them through faster cars basically as we go forward. And in the past they have raced in the Dubai 24 hours which we call GT4 370Z so something around 400 horsepower, a sequential gearbox, a very, very fast GT car and that within 5 or 6 months from the time we have fond them. Then usually the year after , and this is what we are doing with the current guys, the year after they start racing GT3 so they get the GTR so it’s the next step up, lots of aero, bigger tyres so that the next step and then the route seems to be yeah, to put them into a prototype in LMP2 car and as we have seen all through his year with Mark Shulzhitskiy, that’s what he has done, our Russian winner, he did extremely well  at Le Mans in the LMP2 car, and we see it as a natural progression. Within 2 years, almost exactly to the day that we find these guys from here, they could be racing in Le Mans in a prototype which is exciting and scary at the same time.

The GT academy is a tie up with the developers of Gran Turismo, Where did this idea of collaborating come from?

I’m happy to say it was my idea, I had an inspiration years ago. Like any good idea it was 2% inspiration, 198% perspiration. I’m actually only 21 only aged a lot. [Jokes]… we did this collaboration 8 years ago with Sony UK and basically we had a few gamers there, they weren’t good gamers, they were just gamers. The instructors who were doing this driving event said “couple of these guys can drive a bit” and literally it was a light bulb, I wondered if there were transferable skills between the two.  So I started researching it, researching on simulator technology, what Formula 1 teams were doing, why that was relating back, I read a lot of sport psychology books, read more on driving dynamics, on driver training, and I approached Sony UK at that point and luckily we found a guy in Sony who was an ex-Audi and he moved to playstation and he got it straight away. But then you had two big companies trying to work together, and it’s not that easy with all the politics as you can imagine between those two companies. We were very lucky we had Kazunori Yamauchi, Mr. Gran Turismo who was a supporter. He wasn’t a verbal supporter, he was the invisible hand from the back pushing us behind the programme and that’s how it came about. It took two years to get this thing off the ground and in the end it was supposed to be a one-off just to prove the point. But then we found Lucas [Ordonez] and we did the Dubai 24 Hours, and we realized he was a really good driver. We didn’t have any budget so we went and asked all our partners, and we got a small budget to go racing and he helped the team win the championship that year, he was 2nd in the driver’s championship, and the rest is history. So this was a tipping point for us. And we actually had a year off so 2009 we didn’t have a winner, and then in 2010 we had Jordan Tresson and then you see it expanded into other markets. So it was a very very simple idea: “Can you take a guy from playstation and turn him into a racing driver?”, but the root to get it making into reality was like any innovation, a struggle, but the support of top executives at Nissan was fantastic. Otherwise we wouldn’t have gotten it done if they didn’t believe, like someone like Andy Palmer, if he didn’t believe, then we wouldn’t be running this programme. 

How much have you had to change the game to suit your need for this challenge you have set up here?

Not at all. The only thing we do is put a structure in place so that people can progress through the game. Other than that everything is exactly the same. What is great for me is, the cars the GT Academy winners drove last year are in this game. So GT6 [Gran Turismo 6] you see a car with all the branding and the drivers names, so it was in the real world last year, now it’s back in the virtual world. So we keep having this loop so we haven’t had to change the game. But in fact we are forcing the game to be changed to add our cars that we race are going in the game so that’s a lovely circle of life.

Video games have come a long way and are getting more and more realistic these days. A man with no flying experience can land a plane with only experience from a game and a joystick, what about in the automotive industry? Where are simulators being used, and how far can one get with just a simple video game?

They are getting closer and closer all the time. The vehicle dynamics of the cars are incredible. I’ll give you an example. Jann Mardenborough, he drove a very difficult circuit called Oulton Park in the UK. It was raining and it was his first time in the GTR. He came in 5th fastest among 30 cars in the wet against pros. So someone asked him: “how did you know what the wet lines were?” as we know in motor racing, the wet and dry lines are different and he said without a flinch “well I’ve driven it in Gran Turismo”. He had an expression that said “Are you stupid? I’ve driven it in Gran Turismo. So I know how to drive it”. So for me that was another tipping point. I realised these guys are really learning from that. If you listen to these guys who play online a lot, they talk about a motor racing driving would normally talk about. They talk about pitch sensitivity; they talk about roll, about yaw and set-up, caster and camber, and you listen to them and think they are learning to be a racing driver. Not just by turning the wheel and pushing the pedals, but they are also learning to set the car up. So you hear them say things like “if the car dives down then I’ll need stiffer suspension in the front so  ill increase the front spring rating” and this guy has never driven a [Racing] car before. How can he understand that? Of course you don’t feel the G-forces. But other than that its al realistic as it can be and it goes to the point that why would formula one teams invest so much money into simulator technology like they have done? That’s the reason why Ferrari aren’t at the front anymore, because testing was pulled away and everything was done in the virtual world. Redbull have done a good job with that, and I think they are about to build their fourth simulator now. So, If they are right, well they must be right, because Redbull spends multi million dollars on a simulator if they didn’t think it was close to the real thing.

What does the future hold for video gaming technology in aspects other than entertainment?

What’s interesting is that we were talking about the road safety activity that Nissan India do, and also something similar in China, they use simulators. It’s not as advanced as Gran Turismo, but it’s to teach people how to be safe whilst driving on the road. I saw a video, there was a magazine, and there was this two year old, who was waving his hand over the magazine and he can’t understand why it’s not flicking the pages over because he thinks it’s an iPad. So if you look at the digital world, we can’t comprehend how it’s changing and what’s interesting is at the next stage we will be where we talk about Google Glasses with fully integrated technology with head gear and wearable technology will take it to the next level. So I think it’s not just about driving, there are number of other ways we can use gaming technology to help young people, students, old people as well, to learn new skills.

Do you see normal people giving driving tests or learning how to drive and training with similar technology around the world?

Absolutely, it should be part of the driving tests in certain emerging markets. What was interesting, where in my opinion, the greatest race in the world: Le Mans, if you were a rookie driver, you had to drive a simulator before you drive on the Le Mans circuit. So this is the oldest race, the organisers of Le Mans are a very conservative organisation; they decided that they wouldn’t let someone drive on their circuit unless they had simulator experience. The funny thing about that was Mark Webber had to go and complete the rookie test on the simulator before he was allowed on the circuit at Le Mans. So it proves that there is something in it. So if they make someone of that skill level go through a process in a virtual world, then it must work.

Would simulators pave way for car performance development before any physical part of the car is created?

They already are… Nissan use simulator technology to develop cars, Racing Cars and Road Cars. All across the world, but I don’t think it’s happening in India but soon they will do. Technology is becoming more accessible with time but if you look at the work we did on the GT-R Nismo road car, I’d say 90pc of it was done on the simulator and using CFD [Computational Fluid Dynamics] as well. So it’s already happening.

 I’d like to congratulate you for the success that Nissan had recently as Nissan powered cars achieved 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th in LMP2 in LeMans, the experimental ZEOD RC retired very early in Le Mans after hitting 300km/h on the Mulsane straight and Nissan finished 13th in class at the Nurburgring recently. How do you feel about that?

At LeMans, our GT academy driver should have won. We were leading with 2 hours to go, but a spark plug failed, which is unfortunate. The ZEOD, it feels painful because we didn’t complete enough race mileage that we wanted to, but we did actually achieve our objectives which were over 300km/h on the Mulsane straight, remember this is a car that’s designed to go around corners, not one that’s designed to go straight. So we can go a lot faster than that and we will do and another objective was to complete a lap of Le Mans, 8.5 miles on electric only in a car that was also carrying a petrol engine and we did that aswell. We can go a lot faster so we did a 4:22 min lap, if you see in the video there was an Aston Martin in our way so we would have atleast saved 5 seconds there so we could probably get it down to 4:04 mins on a clear lap. So we were ready to do all that during the race but unfortunately a traditional old fashioned part, a gearbox shaft, broke and it didn’t allow us to go any further. It something you would expect on any car, it was just a bad batch from our supplier, and it broke and unfortunately we couldn’t get the car back and that was the end of it which was massively disappointing because the car had potential to do a lot more and we will demonstrate that EV technology can be exciting, and the car is clearly innovative.

Talking about the Nurburgring, we are racing guys at Nismo so unless we are not winning, we are not happy. The Nurburgring, we haven’t been there for many years in racing, as you know we develop a lot of our cars there because it’s so hard and we had an international driver line-up with Japanese, German, English and Spanish drivers and we were on for top 6 finish and we had some bad luck with one of our cars had a puncture on the third corner and basically lost two laps because of the damage to the car that was caused. So we had some bad luck but we will be back there next year with hopefully better results.

 So when would the ZEOD feature again on the race track, possibly in the next round of WEC in Austin or anytime in the rest of the season?

No way. No. Maybe some time this year. But we are going to do some challenges like Electric Land Speed Record. We want to show what it can do on a shorter circuit, so maybe Silverstone we will go for a lap. Because you’ve only got a certain amount of petrol in the tank, as it [power] would be in a battery, if you try to stretch it all over 8.5 miles you can’t pull all the petrol out at the same time. In Silverstone, you can almost double the amount of petrol you can pull out as is the same from the battery so that what we want to do, run it on a short circuit and see how fast we can go.

Nissan and Renault Alliance are already in Formula 1, and Honda is coming back from next year, could we see Nissan also enter independently? What is up and coming with Nismo in the future?

Within the group, as you mentioned, Renault have been a fantastically successful engine supplier in Formula 1, Infinity our partners and Technology partners with RedBull Racing have shared 4 championship wins with them, so in term of the alliance between Renault, Nissan and Infinity, we’ll let them sit in Formula 1. We [Nissan] have just announced that we are going back to LMP1 after the success in LMP2 with the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th so we have decided to go and play with the big boys to race against Porsche, Audi and Toyota and we going to try and win Le Mans over all so that’s a big challenge for all of us. And maybe we will have some GT Academy drivers driving some of those cars.   

(This interview was conducted on June 29, 2014)

Tags Motorsport interview Nissan GT Academy

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Darren Cox
Date - 29 Jun 2014

Director, Global Motorsport, Nissan

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