When motorsports came to a standstill last March, drivers and teams quickly flocked to sim racing. It turned sim racing into the new battle ground for motorsports and gave a glimpse of hope to sim racers to one day step into the world of real-life racing.
One man who has made that journey before is Jordan Tresson. As the winner of the GT Academy in 2010, the Frenchman was ushered into a new career in motorsports, spending seasons in the Blancpain Endurance Series and FIA World Endurance Championship. Nowadays he competes in the VLN Nürburgring Endurance Series – keeping his career going still with the help from Gran Turismo’s creator Polyphone Digital ten years after winning his first ride in racing.
Coming from sim racing with hardly any real racing experience, the GT Academy gave Tresson his first taste of what it was like at the wheel of a race car.
“I had no background in racing at all,” Jordan Tresson begins his story of becoming a race car driver. “I had only go-karting experience before the GT Academy. That was just for fun, never any competition.
“I don’t really know where my love for cars comes from. Karting started when I was around nine years old. A karting track opened close to where we lived, and my mom asked me if I wanted to try it. I enjoyed it and kept doing it.
“Then with the GT Academy, it was virtual in the beginning and then became more ‘real’.”
More than the occasional go-karting, games such as Gran Turismo, GTR and iRacing taught Tresson his race craft. How much of a school those sims were became apparent when he made it into the 2010 finals of the GT Academy as both he and his fellow competitors were up to speed quickly once they stepped into real cars.
“I’m not saying that any good or very good sim racer will be a top ‘real’ driver, but for sure it helps with the physics, the racing line and so on. It helps and I think the GT Academy proved it.
“The year I was in – 2010 – it was a virtual selection but once we got our hands on real cars everyone was on a decent level. No one was completely off, it wasn’t like they’d been picked up right from the street, put into a car and asked to do lap times. For sure, sim racing helps, it’s not perfect, but if you are a good sim racer it’s a good start to drive a real race car.
“You also train the mentality for overtaking: how to prepare and initiate the overtake and so on is also pretty helpful – you can learn from the virtual world where you can overtake and initiate it. It’s the whole ‘spirit’ of virtual racing that you can translate into the real world.”
Despite a serious lack of experience in real racing, Tresson took to it like a pro. His recollection of how easy it came to him speaks volumes to why he was picked the winner of the GT Academy.
“I adapted pretty quickly,” he continues. “Everything was new, but nothing felt completely strange. The g-forces and the bumps; of course, it’s different in a race car, but it is always somewhat familiar. There was nothing that took me by surprise, where I thought: ‘Oh fuck what is this – it’s completely new.’”
The prize of winning the GT Academy came with a multi-year program to bring him to the FIA World Endurance Championship. Only the second winner of the contest, Tresson went into a months-long preparation with RJN in the UK – all the while still studying for his master’s degree in automotive engineering at ESTACA near Paris.
“At the time I was still studying, I was in my fourth year. After winning the European finale I had to live in England for two months to get the racing licence. My friends sent me all the lessons through e-mail so I could continue studying in England. When I came back from England, I did my year exam. The European GT4 season in 2010 was actually my internship for my fourth year at school – it was a busy year but made for good memories!
“Combining studying and racing wasn’t too complicated because we had quite some free time during the week. Except for a bit of training and learning the new tracks and so on, it was quite OK. I could find time for studying without too many problems.”
Once he had earned his racing licence, a successful first season in the GT4 European Series – finishing the year in 4th place tied with 2009 GT Academy winner Lucas Ordoñez – was followed by two race wins in the GT4 class of the Blancpain Endurance Series the year after, and finally his debut in the FIA World Endurance Challenge in 2012 with its centre piece the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
“Le Mans is obviously quite a mythical track,” the Lorrainian recalls his Grand Prix d’Endurance debut in 2012. “It was a very good experience despite the result not being what we had hoped for but I think as long as you are not on the podium or win the category it’s not what you expect. The whole week was nice but tiring as well because there was a lot of press and other things to do during the whole week. The drivers’ parade, night practice, qualifying and the race is very special.
“To be honest, I couldn’t prepare much at all for LMP2. I had a few test days in GTs between the races. At the end of 2011 I knew I would be in an LMP2 in the World Endurance Championship the next year. I knew it from late October and the only thing I got was one test day in Magny-Course, one shakedown in Lurcy-Lévis and two test days in an F4. When you go from GT4 to LMP2, with only this kind of background, into a car with downforce, it’s not much at all. It was quite a huge step, and a pretty hard one. When you have no experience racing cars with downforce, stepping into LMP2 is a bit different than a GT4 car.
“It was not easy at all to adapt but I think that with the driving time I had, looking back at it, I’m not dissatisfied at all with my performance because I finished the season about five tenths per lap on a stint behind my team-mate Franck Maillieux – for me Franck is still quite a reference in LMP2. Knowing how little time I had in the car in one year, I was pretty satisfied, also with how at Sebring I couldn’t drive in the race as we had crashed before I jumped in and in São Paulo I lost a wheel in my outlap and the race was over.”
That final season in 2012, however, was when things with Nissan came undone as he met the ugly side of motorsports.
“It was not nicely at all [how it ended]. I knew I had nothing [for 2013] in March through a press release – no one told me anything before and by the time it is March it’s too late to still find something. To do it with a press release and no one having the balls to call you to explain the situation – it wasn’t nice at all.
“But, to be honest, I felt it coming. I was a bit surprised, but it’s more the way how it happened. When you ask about next season, how to prepare, and they tell you: ‘It’s not easy with the budget and we’ll try to find something but nothing is sure at the moment so please wait a bit,’ then, yeah…”
It’s clear from his words that Jordan does not have warm feelings for Nissan anymore, but, he adds with a wink: “I also have to say that since I saw the LMP1 project it’s been better!”
Having lost his ride with Nissan at the start of 2013, Tresson’s career seemed all but over. Rescue came from PlayStation and in particular Gran Turismo creator Kazunori Yamauchi as they hadn’t forgotten about their champion. Whilst ready to quit racing altogether, a new opportunity arose at Ring Racing where Tresson would be racing the innocent eyeing yet fast Lexus IS F CCS-R – and continue at the Nürburgring to build a career for himself in VLN.
“I kept going thanks to PlayStation and especially Polyphony Digital with Kazunori Yamauchi. He called to offer me a seat with Ring Racing – obviously I said ‘yes!’
“That’s how everything started in VLN. Every season since 2013 in VLN has been thanks to Yamauchi-san.”
Via Ring Racing, PlayStation brought Tresson to Schulze Motorsport for the 2014 and 2015 Nürburgring 24 Hours in a privately entered Nissan GT-R Nismo GT3 and back to Ring Racing to pilot the Emil Frey Racing-entered Lexus RC F GT3 until eventually joining Walkenhorst Motorsport in 2016 where he has been racing since taking Pro-Am class wins, breaking the Nordschleife lap record and reaching the overall podium.
Despite the opportunity to race the PlayStation-branded BMW M6 GT3 on a regular basis, the 32-year-old yearns to be back with a competitive Pro drivers line-up after being moved to the Total-sponsored Pro-Am BMW in 2019.
“It’s obviously nice to race a GT3 car on the Nordschleife, but the drawback is that the line-up we had is only competitive in Pro-Am. In Pro-Am, you try to do your best, but you know that it’s not a few tenths that will make the difference – it’s the Am that will make the difference.
“Sometimes you ask yourself why you should try to beat the hell out of yourself to be five tenths or one seconds faster while the Am can lose ten seconds with a simple mistake.
“It’s a bit strange, and to be honest, I didn’t fully enjoy how things turned out last year, being on the Total car and not on the PlayStation – it was a bit political. Especially with the bad luck we had it wasn’t the greatest of seasons. We haven’t been particularly lucky since I joined Walkenhorst – that’s motorsports but it does cause quite a bit of frustration. The most of it was due to bad luck or things happening on the track causing a lot of driving time to be lost which was a shame.”
With Sony-owned PlayStation making a change to its sponsorship plans for 2020, Tresson is likely sidelined for the season. However, he doesn’t seem rattled about the prospect of not racing as being a new dad has put things into perspective.
“I’m not going to race this year. Sony is investing elsewhere and there won’t be anything for me at Walkenhorst unless I find the budget. I don’t think I’m going to race this year, honestly. We will see in the future, especially with the COVID-19 crisis and how everything could turn out.
“I’m not particularly sad to not be racing, to be honest, especially as how it turned out to be last season with Walkenhorst. Of course, driving a GT3 on the Nordschleife is always a joy, but as I said, last year brought a lot of frustration and now with the baby, I’m starting to think like… Sometimes I’m going to the Ring for a weekend, and I’m getting two or three laps into the race, while now I can stay home and enjoy my time with the baby girl.
“Everything will depend on PlayStation if I have a budget, or if I get a call from another team, but racing without a budget is not easy at all even being a Silver driver. I do have a proposal from Phoenix and some other teams, but it’s clearly a budget that I don’t have.
“Right now, with the COVID-19 pandemic – it has never been easy to secure a budget – but it’s even worse now for the last three months. 200.000 euro for a full season is not something you can find easily. If you have the right contacts it is not impossible, but in my case, I think it would take me a pretty long time to find this!
“Racing is expensive and if it would be that simple everyone would do it, but when you see the budgets teams ask for nowadays, it’s getting crazy. In 2013, after I did the WEC with Signatech, I was in contact with Lotus to race the LMP2 with them and they asked for 1.1 million, without any of the traveling expenses.
“It’s impossible to get that kind of money, except if you’re a gentleman driver with a well-running company.”
The only other alternative would be a team up with a gentleman driver – a concept championships such as British GT and the GT World Challenge Pro-Am and Am categories thrive on.
“I would never say no to racing, even if it’s with someone who is deadly slow, I would always enjoy being in a race car. Then, of course, when you know you have no sportive interests it doesn’t motivate to push your limits, but it’s still nice to drive. Even if I were with an Am that was ten seconds slower than anyone else, I would still enjoy being in the car and use it as a test day and a day of fun.
“Finding an Am that is paying for two people to race, you’d have to be very good friends. And also finding a fast Am is not easy as every Pro driver who isn’t paid by a manufacturer is looking for that.”
Tresson won’t have to miss pushing cars to the max this year: besides racing for sports, Tresson also works for Goodyear in Luxembourg as one of its development drivers.
“We have two big programs in testing: replacement, meaning for tyres you buy in the tyre shop; and OE, Original Equipment where the equipment comes straight from the manufacturer, developing the tyres that the brand is asking for.
“At the moment I’m doing a bit of both, but mainly I’m working on a new project for the Škoda Octavia RS. When there is a bit of free time with Škoda I also work on the replacement projects such as winter tyres.
“To be a race car driver helps because to test tyres you need to have good car control, be able to push the car and the tyres to the limit. All our test drivers in Luxembourg have experience in competition, be it hill climbing, rally or circuit. We are with about twenty, and all have different kinds of race car experience.”
Along with his master’s degree in automotive engineering, it was the experience gained in top-level racing that helped him get the job.
“Being a race car driver definitely helped me get the job. My profile was what they were looking for and experience in competition was a clear plus. On the day of the job interview I was asked why they should choose me and not someone else. ‘I like cars, I have a passion for it.’ Of course, all the other candidates had already told them that, so instead, I said: ‘I’m the only candidate who has this kind of competition experience; find me one other candidate who has driven the World Championship in an LMP2.’”
Everything comes back to the GT Academy. It was the only chance Tresson ever got to make it in motorsports and winning it changed his life.
“I would have never been in motorsports at all, I think. Maybe I would’ve bought a two-stroke kart to do some competition, but even if you see the budget there, in karting, it’s expensive. I don’t think I would have invested so much money into this.
“I would have liked to have worked in motorsports [as an engineer], but don’t think I would have. Without having won the GT Academy, I think I still would have been interested in motorsports, but I don’t think I would’ve ever driven a proper race car without the GT Academy.”
Now with the world of motorsports turned to sim racing, more sim racers like himself could make the jump into a real race car, Tresson believes.
“It’s quite possible. There has been the GT Academy and other projects such as The World’s Fastest Gamer. Quite some racers have already made the jump to real racing, and as I said before, if you’re good in a sim you will not be too far back in a race car. Any good sim racer that manages to find the budget can be a positive addition to the team. I don’t know if many will do it, but we are seeing more and more drivers making the jump.”
Despite owing much if not all of his career to sim racing, Tresson isn’t part of the group of professional drivers that has turned to racing online during the months in lockdown.
“I follow sim racing a bit, but I spend more time enjoying my time with the baby than following sim racing. Sometimes I watch the highlights of the V8 Supercars races and some iRacing. But it’s randomly and I’m not actively following.
“I don’t have a sim anymore since I moved to Luxembourg a few months ago. There is no place to put it except for in the living room, which is out of the question for my wife!
“It could be a missed opportunity, but I also don’t feel the need to play sim racing again. I have enjoyed it, but maybe my mind has changed, and maybe also now that I’m racing real cars and know what it’s like, I might be less interested in sim racing. When I have some free time, I now try to chill out a bit, especially with the baby. It’s nice to just sit back and enjoy when she’s asleep. I don’t really miss the racing.
“Also, with work I am quite often abroad, about 80 working days per year. It’s not too much, but it is something, so when I’m at home I like to take my time and enjoy – I don’t play any video games at all, really.
“We are now also seeing a lot of real racers making the jump to sim racing. It’s quite nice to have names like Max Verstappen and Lando Norris going into sim racing. I think it helps to get media and press to take interest in sim racing. But once the lockdown is over and at least racing goes back to normal, I think it will go back into the shades like it was before when the better-known names aren’t playing the sims anymore. But right now, it’s good, it shows sim racing exists.
“The only drawback I see is that some real racers haven’t given sim racing a good image of what sim racing is, with crashes that happened on purpose – look at Simon Pagenaud and Lando Norris at Indianapolis. This isn’t what happens normally in sim racing. When you reach a decent level in sim racing the races are pretty clean and good. It’s a shame that some real racers have been giving a sort of bad image to sim racing.”
For sim racers hoping to one day make it into real racing, Tresson has some advice.
“The best advice you could give is to just continue playing and improving. It’s always a continuous process: what mistake did I make and how can I correct them? I think that’s also why sim racers are quite good when they jump into a race car because they are so used to finetuning every detail. Every lap you learn from your mistakes and improve. To make the jump from virtual to real, that is the best advice anyone could give you.”
But, in the end, he believes it all comes down to money – sim racer or real racer.
“As long as you bring the budget that a team asks for, sim racer or no experience at all, the team will take you anyway because you have the budget. That isn’t anything new in motorsports, but now that racing is getting more and more expensive, every team will prefer someone with 20k more budget than somewhat with more experience but less budget.”