Images courtesy of Nissan
Nissan's popular GT Academy program has produced significant promotional value for the brand since its inception in 2008, and has also introduced a few new names to the world of professional motor racing. The concept – to turn gamers into racing drivers during an annual competition – has had one surprising result, and it can be found with Spain's Lucas Ordonez (at right, ABOVE), the inaugural winner of the competition.
Ordonez received his rewards, competed on behalf of Nissan in 2009 in the lower European GT ranks, and was heavily promoted throughout; but rather than shift its attention to the next wave of GT Academy drivers, Nissan continued to train and elevate Ordonez.
More GT racing for Ordonez was soon followed by his move to a Nissan V8-powered LMP2 prototype (RIGHT, photo by the author), and with the 2011 ILMC P2 championship added to his burgeoning resume – an amazing result given his starting point in the sport – it would have been reasonable for Nissan to let Ordonez find his own way in 2012. Simply put, what should have been a temporary moment in the sun for Ordonez has turned into a permanent place in the spotlight, and there's no immediate end in sight.
Yet five years after becoming the face of Nissan's GT Academy, Ordonez continues to represent the marque as he races in multiple championships – including the Pirelli World Challenge series, where he competed last weekend at Mid-Ohio (BELOW) – and also serves as a brand ambassador. RACER sat down with the 28-year-old during his most recent tour of America, and was interested to learn he's also surprised to have spent a half-decade stint within the Nissan Motorsports family.
“To be honest, when the program started in 2008 we didn't know how far we will go,” he said. “But five years later I've race at the Le Mans 24 hours three times with two podiums, we've won the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup and at Petit Le Mans here in America. You never expect something like this to keep going for so long. Maybe one or two years, but this has become my future with Nissan. It is really incredible and I am very fortunate that from the GT Academy, I now have a career with Nissan.”
In addition to his primary duties racing in the FIA GT championship and the Blancpain Endurance Series, Ordonez has been dispatched on a whirlwind tour throughout the globe, taking in his first PWC round before continuing on to Japan and Australia where Nissan has other high-profile motorsports programs for the Spaniard to sample.
“Nissan is more involved in motorsports every year and this year we've got a big program doing GT3 in Europe, Blancpain, I'm also doing one of the Super GT races in Japan so this driver exchange program has been really, really nice for us,” he noted. “Then I leave Ohio to fly to Melbourne to test the Nissan Altima V8 Supercar and then the next weekend it's to Japan for Super GT and GT 300.”
One of the more interesting side effects of racing throughout the world has been the temporary amnesia that seems to strike those who jump from different continents and time zones on a regular basis. Ordonez admits he suffers from the same phenomenon, and only expects it to get worse this season as his schedule gains momentum.
“To be honest, I woke up this morning at 5:30 and I didn't know where I was!” he said with a laugh. “And it happened to me three weeks ago in Japan because we changed locations four times during that week and I didn't know which country I was in. That's only for 10 seconds or five seconds, but when it happens, it's really crazy. I'm having fun, though.
“It's really nice to meet new people and to know new tracks like this one [Mid-Ohio], which is really, really cool. And ultimately to drive different cars and gain more experience. It's always positive, even if you start at the back of the grid, it's always positive to learn and do some racing in different environments. It makes you a better driver, for sure.”
As the veteran of the Nissan GT Academy, Ordonez has become a mentor within the program as new drivers have come along – also something that was unexpected when he won the competition. American Steven Doherty, the most recent GT Academy winner, was under Ordonez's tutelage at Mid-Ohio as the pair raced Nissans in the GTS class, and the trend will likely continue as new talent emerges from the contest.
“If it's your dream, you have to push for that and show everyone at Nissan that you want to have a career and not just winning the [GT Academy] prize,” said Ordonez. “That's what I tried to do. And every year the program is increasing and growing. There are more GT Academy graduates coming, and now five years later, they can see that I am racing around the world in different championships, in top-level racing – LMP2, Le Mans, Super GT, with testing the V8 Supercar, racing in America. These are opportunities they can make for themselves and I want to encourage all the drivers like Steven to go as far as they can.”
It's unclear exactly how long Ordonez will continue with Nissan, but if he has any say in the matter, the relationship will continue on for quite some time.
“It's absolutely amazing everything we have accomplished, and I want to continue to focus on a professional racing career and to look forward and further for the future,” he revealed. “And to be on top of championships and fight for the win, obviously, in Le Mans is what I want to do for Nissan. It's good to have positive results, but I want to give them championships and show how valid the GT Academy is. It's not only a contest, but it can make champions. That's our main objective.”