When I was growing up, the last game series I’d have told you should be made into a movie would have been Gran Turismo. It’s a racing simulation franchise that’s fantastic at making you feel like you’re driving in real races on real tracks worldwide. But the story of your journey from nobody to racing legend happens only in your head.
However, as I got older, I read about the GT Academy, a virtual-to-reality competition, and how racing drivers were using high-tech simulators running Gran Turismo games to prepare for races. It seemed surreal and totally unattainable to someone my age who loved games and driving in them.
Jann Mardenborough was just like me and so many others, but he has gone further than anyone else I know. He’s made it to the big leagues and has raced in the Super GT and Super Formula championships. He went from Gran Turismo player to being someone that game looks to for inspiration.
It’s How You Would Expect it to be Strange
Now, a big chunk of Jann’s life has been made into a movie, Gran Turismo. Sounds a bit more exciting than someone grinding through all their licenses in old bangers right? I had the absolute pleasure to sit down and chat with Jann about the movie, the stunt driving he did for it, his journey into racing, and even what he feels helps makes dreams like the one he had come true.
First and foremost, I had to know what it was like to have such a large part of your life turned into a movie. Jann told me “It’s very surreal really, to see part of my life on screen. I feel very blessed as well to be able to tell my story to such a large audience all around the world. I’m very privileged to be able to do that. It’s strange for me to see it and there’s somebody else who looks like me, who is wearing my race suit with Jann and Mardenborough on it, and also wearing the same helmet design as me. That’s very strange for me, but it’s how you would expect it to be strange.”
Right here, I could see Jann’s stance on all this. He’s very much like one of my best friends, mannerisms and all. He’s humbled by the position he’s in, and he’s conscious that he has a duty not to brag or get big-headed. He’s so incredibly down to earth, and I think that’s why he’s such great source material for a movie like Gran Turismo.
From PS1 to Now
I couldn’t help but ask Jann to just give me the whole story about how he went from playing Gran Turismo to being a real-life racing driver. He indulged me and I can’t help but think that every step of the way, he was just trying to do his best but not expecting any major success. He has always known how to graft and put the work in where it matters, and that just makes his story seem so much more within the reach of kids playing Gran Turismo today.
“So I’ve had every single Gran Turismo since they first came out.” He has me beaten here. “Of course, this is just with the (DualShock) controller, and for a long 10 years, that satisfied me because I didn’t have a simulator or wheels and pedals setup because it wasn’t in my consciousness when I was a teen. Then, when I was 15 or 16, when I realized you could play these things with wheels and pedals, I also realized they were expensive.”
“Not only the wheel and pedals itself, but the actual frame that it attaches to, which is the most expensive part. You want a decent one made out of steel so it doesn’t flex, and I knew that at that age. They’re worth £400/£500, so all-in, you’re close to a grand (£1,000) for all this kit.”
“So I had my final straw when I was 18. I was doing my A-Levels in design and technology, I was in my second year, and I was adamant that during the summer, I’m going to make my own rig. I’m gonna do it, I don’t care what the school says, I don’t care what my design and technology teacher tells me about designing something and then making something outside of school and then using it as part of your project. I don’t care. I’m doing it. I was adamant.”
I love this about Jann – he so wanted to build this rig that he found a way to make it school work so he could use all his spare time to create it. In the UK, making your projects outside of school unfortunately makes your teachers think that you had help from someone else. This is why Jann says he didn’t care what anyone thought. He was going to build this thing for himself, risking his grades and potentially getting himself in some more trouble at school, all because he wanted this rig to play on.
“So I brought a seat, it’s literally here.” Jann’s pointing off-camera, but I sadly don’t get to see anything but an arm that looks pretty precisely positioned. “It’s kind of redundant now, it doesn’t get used. More like an ornament. The seat was from a scrap yard from an old Alpha Romeo. I then went to B&Q (a hardware store) and bought a load of MDF and plywood. I studied, visually, cars that had good driving positions and then tried to design something which emulated that.”
“My parents kind of incentivized me with money to get good results in school. Everybody likes money. So, while I got some kind of okay results, I think I had £300. With that, I went out and bought a wheel and pedals, a Fanatec Turbo S Wheel, the best wheel I could afford. I could use it across many platforms, and I used that wheel to qualify for the GT Academy.”
To clarify, Jann used a rig he built himself at home to qualify for a serious racing competition set up by a genuine car manufacturer, Nissan, that could see him end up on the track one day.
“I’d been playing on the wheel for six months, I think, when I entered the competition. The only reason I had the wheel in the first place was just to take things to the next level. The fun. All I cared about was fun. I don’t care about time trials and doing these competitions for competition’s sake. I just wanted to have fun in the game. At the time, it was GT5.”
“To improve my driving, to improve what it’s like to drive a car because I’d had my driver’s license maybe less than a year at that point. I’d heard that F1 drivers use simulators to improve their time and knowledge and stay inside the zones. To keep that feeling in the off-season. I’d never have thought that I could use Gran Turismo to turn myself into a racing driver. That wasn’t really in my consciousness. I’d heard of the competition previously but was always too young to enter.”
“When the competition came about again, I had my wheel and pedals, all the setup, I said okay, let’s see how far I can go in the competition. That was it. It wasn’t to win because I didn’t think I could win because I never thought about it. I just thought, okay, how far can I go. It turned out to be pretty far.”
I had to ask Jann what grade he got for his project, and while he was telling me through laughter at how ridiculous what he was saying is, he’s still haunted by the grade. It’s silly, really, because no matter the grade, he’s got an A* in his career as a result.
“There aren’t many things that bug me, but I got a B! And I’m still not happy about it. I remember his name, and yea, he gave me a B. I think it’s because a guy in my year had his grandad make a footstool which he used for his A Level. Word got out, and then they were very skeptical of anybody who designed something outside of school. So it tarnished my result because my teacher assumed I had help.”
For anyone wondering if Jann did have help, I’m 100% sure he didn’t from the energy he put into saying the following.
“No, I did it in my back garden, in my house, transported it to school on the roof of my car, to paint and finish off in school. I’ve mentioned it a few times, but I will contact him because I want a re-mark. I want to say look, I want an A* for this because it’s the catalyst to getting me to where I am, and it deserves more than a B.”
How Does it Translate?
The question I can hear every parent of my generation screaming is ‘how does racing in a game translate to real driving?’ I asked Jann exactly this, and he surprised me with is answer, probably because he was so heavily invested in racing games for so long.
“Cars were my first interest in anything, they’re really my only interest. Fast racing cars and racing. From about 6 years old, once I was exposed to these little cars, and once I had the concept of what a job was at around age 10, I thought that was all I’d want to do. To be the guy that gets to be behind the wheel controlling that thing there.”
“I think. No, I know having that in my head was like, okay, I want to be able to do that. Then here’s this games console with a vast collection of all these cars I’ve never seen before from different parts of the world and different models. I was very aware as a kid that Gran Turismo and then Sega were very different. Even when I was 8 I preferred this (Gran Turismo) because of the feel and the car looks like it’s visually how a real car would act going around a corner in real life. There’s no smoke coming off the tires, the car is actually rolling like it does in real life. That was important to me because I want to be able to drive the cars.”
“I didn’t know if I was gonna drive this fancy car in the future, but it brings me satisfaction knowing that I’m currently driving it in the game, and this is what it feels like. Potentially what it would feel like in real life. That was really important to me.”
“So, of course, as you get older, Gran Turismo get’s physics improvements, and the graphics get better. You have more of an understanding of what’s involved and what goes on in developing the game. Then they tell you, okay, we have all these sensors we put in these production cars or these recording devices for sound, physics, and G-force. Then we use that data and implement it in our game. I was just reading and watching documentaries on this.”
These are the articles and videos I remember watching about Gran Turismo growing up.
“That interested me, to know that I’m driving something that’s at the cutting edge that could potentially feel like driving a real car even though you’re not physically driving it. Just that alone y’know, you’re blurring the line of virtual reality right there because you’re having real life data implemented into the virtual world. The next step is, okay, can somebody actually be fast in real life if they’re fast in the game. Because if they’re fast in the game, there’s no reason why they can’t be fast in real life.”
“So, it blurs it even more. Then you get to the point of being human. There’s no sense of self-preservation when you’re playing behind your screen at home, where it’s nice and warm and you have a fan behind you cooling you down. It’s very different to being in a racing car. I can’t speak for other people because I’m not them, but for my experience, when I jumped into a race car or fast sports car for the first time, it felt normal to me. What I was doing behind the wheel was what I was doing behind the screen at home. There are many things had to do to improve that, but it felt normal.”
Jann tells me how he’d correct the car and it would feel normal to him based on time in Gran Turismo and subconsciously logged all the minor tweaks as he drove.
“That’s a testament to the game. I’d never done anything before, I’d never driven on a track or done karting, I was the first step on the ladder that you could get. I’d had my driver’s license a year and a half, and now I was behind the wheel of a GT2 350z that was racing at the top level a few years prior. It smelled of race, and it’s the best smell in the world.”
I think Jann summed it up best though, with, “Yeah, It works!”
That’s what I want to do, and I’ll Never Let That Light go Out
While he was talking, Jann made a few points that struck a chord with me. Namely, how he always knew he wanted to race and never let that go, how he always seems to just try and do his best and put himself in situations where he gets to try to do that more.
I asked him what he thought about mindfulness and positive thinking. The idea that if you visualize something, a dream, and hold onto it, you’ll take steps, no matter how small, to make it happen.
“I like this question. I like that because when you talk to anybody that has done something really big or they’ve achieved a milestone in their life, they all say the same thing. They all had some internal belief, whether that be visualization, or having a dram and never letting it go out. For me personally, it was wanting to be a racing driver, that’s all I ever wanted to do. I never let that dream go out.”
I agree wholeheartedly with Jann. If you ever speak to people who have achieved a goal, they won’t tell you the secret to doing everything you’ve ever wanted to do. They just say they had a dream, and they kept it close to their heart, focused on it, and never let the flame die out.
I can’t help but feel that for Jann, whose father is a well-known footballer, Steve Mardenborough, there’s a slight tinge of pain when he speaks about his dream. Not because anyone let him down but because, like so many of us do, he kept it close and didn’t speak about it. In a way, this can make our dreams almost turn into burdens, but they drive us as well.
“There were years when I never mentioned it to anybody, not even my family or friends. It’s not like you go to school, go to the career’s officer in Year 11, and say to them, ‘I want to be a racing driver.’ they can’t help you!”
We both burst out laughing here. The careers officer helps point kids in roughly the right direction at a point in their lives when they think they know what they want to do. But it all has to be linked to subjects that can be studied within the school or there are local facilities for. I don’t think I even knew what I wanted to do when I saw mine, and that was about as helpful as it sounds.
“They can tell you that you probably want to go to university and which one to go to so you can do some course, but not that. I guess for people that can’t visualize it, it’s like, for example, when you have a certain car, say the Fiat 500 and you have that car, you will naturally recognize more Fiat 500s out there because you have one. It’s like you attract what you think.”
“You create your reality. Not a reality, you create your own reality. So it’s like lucky people. Lucky people believe they’re lucky, and I believe I’m lucky, so I’m lucky. If you believe you’re unlucky, fine, you’re that. If you believe you’re not gonna do something, you won’t. As a kid, I didn’t know this, I didn’t know that at all. I just had a dream. I was like, okay, that’s what I want to do and I’ll never let that light go out. Even if I don’t talk about it to anybody, if there’s an opportunity to help me become that, I’m all in.”
This is where I feel that tinge of pain. It might be me projecting my own experiences onto what Jann is saying, but regardless, I think this point, more than anything else he says, can hit home with every single person on the planet. If you have a dream, don’t let that light go out, even if you never talk to anybody about it.
“And I was. I just dropped out of university, I was there for three weeks, so my social status in the world at that time, before entering the GT Academy, was zero. I’d just finished hanging clothes in Next, not really any direction for where I wanted to be the following year, and an opportunity presented itself with GT Academy. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time, but I told myself I’m in.”
“Now, all my focus is on that. So, yes, I believe in that. I really do. The older I get, the more faith I have. The universe is very giving. If you think the universe is not giving, then it won’t be giving. If you do the hard work, the groundwork, the stuff that nobody gets to see, you will reap the rewards because it sees what you do.”
The Toughest Scenes to Film
After putting in all the hard work and now having a movie about him on the big screen, I wanted to know what the hardest scene for Jann to do was. He worked as a stunt driver, playing himself in Gran Turismo. I can’t really think of a better person to do so, either.
“The night scenes imitating Lamar, because we shot Lamar at a couple of different locations because we couldn’t film there. We had these water towers, these huge towers that made the circuit artificially wet. But there was so much water and racing cars, when there’s a certain amount of water, they turn into boats because the floor of the car is flat for aerodynamic reasons. Therefore, when you go fast across this water at speed, you turn into a boat where the wheels lose connection with the ground. That happened many times during those scenes.”
“We’re having to drive at speed, in the dark, under those water towers for the cameras and different scenes. Which is fine, but for those particular shots, in order for the cameras to get the shots, the headlights couldn’t be too bright. So the production team covered the headlights with tape. So you have no headlights, and you can’t see where you’re going.”
“Also, they’d freshly painted the track. So there’s the tarmac and the white line and then gravel. That white line wasn’t quite dry enough when they turned on the water towers. So when we would be driving on the track and go across the white line, it would not only flick up water but white paint. So we have lower headlights, it’s raining, the wipers are going, and it’s not only water on the screen, it’s paint.”
I can barely see when there’s a heavy downpour and I’m driving, so I can’t imagine what this must have been like for Jann. “You’re going pretty fast as well. So that was the most difficult scene, but they look the best. Those scenes are my favorite scenes. I wish there were more night scenes in there because they look absolutely stunning.”
It definitely speaks to the kind of character Jann is that the hardest thing to do in this movie is his favorite to watch. It goes back to that idea of putting in the work no matter how hard it is and being all in.
I’m There to Work
At this point, it’s clear to me that Jann is a hard worker, and his ability to visualize plays into that. He can see a desired outcome, and he works to get it. I asked him if that visual ability played into his days on set at all if he was involved in changing any shots or said something that changed the movie in some way because he remembers events differently. His response surprised me.
“I went with it (the director) and I was happy with the script. So before going to set, I was done, had read every single script, and had been involved since the first one. Once it got to that point and I was happy with the script and who was playing me, I knew who else was playing the other characters, now I’m being asked to be a stuntman in the movie, okay brilliant. Now I can control my area of driving and having that influence there.”
“So I’m aware of what’s going on, I’m more interested in how they shoot things. Because I’m a visual person but I also know my role as a racing driver. I’m not a cinematographer, I don’t know how this is gonna look. I was, to myself, just paying attention to the cameras. I was just paying attention to how this (his work) was going to look.”
“At the end of every day, they have a daily. It’s a rough edit of what they shot that day. They asked me on day one do you want to see this every day? Because it’s a rough edit, I said no, I don’t want to see it. I want to see the finished product. If that looks bad to me right now, to somebody else like the director, he’s gonna look at something and go wow! Okay, this has got so much potential. For me, I don’t know what this is. It’s like a rough edit, I have no idea. I have no concept or visualization of how to take this rough edit and make it look like something.”
I admire Jann’s position on this. He knows his strengths and weaknesses and isn’t willing to hop in and try something he could screw up. He has a skill set and wants to utilize that to enable what he’s working on to be the best it possibly can be. Whether that’s in a racing team or part of the staff on a movie set.
“I don’t wanna see it because I’m gonna have an opinion on something that isn’t the finished product, and it’s not my world. I was focused on the driving and what I can control in that. Working with the stunt team and coordinator, and that’s what I focus on. I’m not having an influence on something else because I’m happy with the script and who’s playing me, and I’m just interested myself in how they frame things and where the cameras are positioned. I don’t want to insert any influence on something I have no idea about.”
“That was the right decision because those people are there for a reason. They’re so creative. My creativity is my own personal photography that I take myself, that’s what I do, and then there’s my profession is my driving. So I’m just gonna focus on that.”
Jann’s compartmentalization and values on knowing where he can help make something better even extend to some of the perks others working on movie sets might have taken more advantage of. I wouldn’t expect anything else from him, though, because he clearly just wants to do the best job possible. Exactly as he’s done time and time again throughout his life. This became crystal clear when I asked if he took any family and friends onto the set on various days.
“Same reasons as I just pointed out, really. For me, it was just me on set and that was because I didn’t want any external influence, whether it was good or bad, to be involved. The people on set are there to do a job. So anybody in my circle, be it family or friends, they’re gonna see the finished product because I’m gonna see the finished product. I don’t know what it’s gonna look like during the edit.”
“That’s why they weren’t there. They did ask me, but I was like, no, we’re here to do a job, I’m here to do a job, I’m not here to have a nice jolly boys outing. We’re here to put out something which is representative of my family name, racing, and the gaming community of Gran Turismo. Even if nothing happened, it’s just the risk of something being said and something changing for the sake of someone close to me being there. I could not take that risk.”
I could feel the sense of responsibility, legacy, and the weight of it all on Jann’s shoulders as he spoke here. I think we all struggle with this, especially when parents start to put that on their children. It’s no bad thing to want to do your family proud and show the family name doing incredible things. Jann seems to have a really well-balanced mentality towards doing what’s expected, what’s right, and what he wants.
Letting People in When You’re Ready
To get to the point he’s at now, I knew Jann had to have supportive parents, and I asked him about their reaction to first the gaming rig, but then everything that followed. He said, “With the gaming right, they were supportive because they knew it was for school. I’m very headstrong as a person, so when I say I’m gonna do something, that is what I’m doing and no one is going to tell me otherwise.”
“I guess because it was part of my A Levels and I was that passionate about making something, they were calm with the fact that yes, it’s for his gaming, but it’s also school work. I’ve never thought about this before, but I assume that’s why they didn’t get in the way.”
“With the racing, the moment I told my family that I was entering this competition to potentially become a racing driver, I told everybody at the same minute. I came downstairs and told my brother and dad they were watching Saturday League or something. They kind of turned to me and said ‘yea, righto’ and continued to watch the football.”
I love that such a defining moment in Jann’s life can be boiled down to the cozy moments of a functional family life this. It rings true in so many ways. “When I spoke to my mother, she said the same thing and she was immediately on board. Of course, as I progressed in the competition, there was support there.”
Gran Turismo is a movie about Jann’s life. His story is what people see on the screen. We all have secrets or inner thoughts that we keep to ourselves, but in this movie, a lot of Jann’s are laid bare. His highs, his lows, and his dreams. I wanted to know whether there had been any reaction from friends and family after watching it that he took to heart or noticed that impacted him.
“With my friends, they’d had no idea that being a racing driver was what I wanted to do because I never told them. I never told anybody apart from my family apart from my family when I went into the competition. They knew I liked cars, but I don’t think I ever said I’m going to be a racing driver or I want to do (points) that.”
Jann then goes on to tell me something that I think will resonate with everyone. “I kept that to myself because I believe your dreams, you have to protect them. You can’t have external influence. You shouldn’t tell anybody your dreams, I believe.”
I can’t help but agree because it’s so easy for someone to dash your dreams with a thoughtless comment. I remember when I was younger, I wanted to be a vet, and after a single disparaging comment from my dad, I gave it up. Luckily, I’ve achieved many dreams, like becoming a dad, since then, but if I could have had Jann’s wise words ringing in my ears back then, I’d have listened to them.
“It’s funny, two weeks ago, my friends watched the movie for the first time, and we were in a bar. It was 1 in the morning, and they’d had a bit to drink, I walked in and they were talking kind of “naturally,” and they said to me ‘I had no idea that you wanted to be a racing driver. You never told us’ I thought about it, and it’s true, I never told them, my close friend, and I never told anybody. They were like questioning me, asking if I really wanted to do that, and I just said yes, ever since I was 8.”
“They had a hard time fathoming it, processing it. Those friends were around when I was in school doing that project, so when I tell them the relation of why I designed that and how I used it to get to there (GT Academy), that’s why I was so focused. They knew about what happened and is portrayed during the movie when it shows what had gone on, they’d heard about that.”
“But there’s been a lot of my friends who haven’t really known me before racing who then watched it and go ‘ah! I didn’t know that happened!’ They’d heard of my story of gamer to racer but they didn’t really know the details of it. It’s been an interesting few months from seeing the reactions from friends but also people who don’t know me but know me through the movie, it’s all been positive!”
I’m so happy for Jann that he hasn’t had to put up with some of the truly awful hate some celebrities put up with on the internet. Even with so much positivity being showered upon him, though, he retains that humble air and never once comes across like we’re doing anything other than having a friendly chat as mates.
“I was preparing for some negativity because, it’s the internet. But it’s wild how 99.9% of thousands of messages have been fabulous. I’m just glad that I can bring light to racing cars, gaming and just the fact that you can do whatever you want in your life.”
You Can’t do Everything, But You Can do Anything
“You can’t do everything, but you can do anything. You have to focus on something, and the only limits you have are the limits you place on yourself. So it’s been absolutely wonderful to see and hear those messages. I’ve got some person who doesn’t know me but they know me through the movie, and they’re saying, ‘I’m going to do this in my life.’ And that’s brilliant, I love that.”
Jann genuinely gets so much joy out of people telling him that because of the Gran Turismo movie, his story, they’re not giving up on their dreams. They’re going to do that thing they’re passionate about because he did.
Looking to the Future & Gran Turismo’s Duty to Gamers Today
Before we wrapped up, I wanted to get Jann’s opinion on where he thought Gran Turismo and the racing game genre should go in the future. As someone who has gone from playing to living as a racer, I think his views are invaluable.
“Why aren’t there more GT Academy competitions? Because with the messages I’ve received online, a lot have been ‘I’d love to be a racing driver, how do I get into it?’ I can’t give them an answer which satisfies me because there isn’t currently anything out there similar to what I did. Nothing.”
“There isn’t a consistent gamer-to-racer program. There are a lot of programs to be an eSports driver for various categories, but not one to get into real life racing. Why? There’s a movie about it, and the guy in it had no real experience in racing or karting, and yet I’ve achieved some success. So that would be one thing I’d like to see more of.”
I can’t agree more with Jann. I used to read about GT Academy every year, but it seems to have disappeared. More and more companies are investing in eSports, but outside of that, racing is a huge industry, and if the next best driver is sitting at home right now playing Gran Turismo, it would benefit any manufacturer to give them a track to follow to get to into a real race car, entertain millions, and generate that manufacturer a lot of money in the process.
“Secondly, more integration with real racing. There’s some other games that do cool stuff with real life racing championships. They sign an eSports driver on a particular platform, and this person is part of the team. They will come to the events, they’ll have a sim racing event, and those points are added to the points of the real life championship.”
This is a part of both the games industry and racing industry that I had no idea about. Janm is obviously so knowledgeable because he lives and breathes it, but I think more racing fans would love to see those sim championships and get into racing based on the fact that games are integrated.
“It’s a halfway step, but I like that because you have eSports who are really quick on the game, and they will coach the real racing drivers because they have their own competition. This driver coaches real drivers to go faster on the sim platform, which is great. It helps real life racing as well because you end up crossing paths, and I just want more of that.”
Jann also wants to see more championships and competitions within Gran Turismo. He still plays and hopes there’s more to come, but is desperate for racing games and racing to become one and the same.
I also just wanted to know where Jann sees his career going in the next couple of years now he’s a racing star, gaming star, and movie star. E told me he really wants to focus in on his racing, get back into Hypercar LMP1 and endurance racing in prototypes. That’s what he loves and is most passionate about.
He also wants to jump over to the US and race in IMSA in the same category. He purely wants to be busy racing in the top class of racing.
With that, our time comes to an end. I had the best time chatting with Jann because he’s such a lovely person but also because he’s so incredibly driven. Speaking to him is like fueling the fire inside of you for that side project or thing you love that might have dimmed.
Oddly, the thing I walked away from this interview with the most was a sense of dreaming big and visualizing how I could achieve my goals. Jann is such an inspiration, but it’s what he says and who he is that’s left me in awe of him, not only what he’s done. I’ll be telling my kids that they can’t do everything but they can do anything, and to guard their dreams even from me if they want to see them come to fruition.
The games industry is packed with hard workers, from the biggest Triple A to the smallest indie game. That hard work and passion flows through those creations into the players. Positive energy follows the path of least resistance from creator to creation and back again. Jann is a driver sure, but it’s his creation, that rig, that even he admits was the catalyst to getting where he is today. None of that would have happened if he hadn’t sat down on his PS1 to play Gran Turismo.