Matt Simmons, the 26-year-old former postie from Brisbane who won Nissan’s 2015 GT Academy, the groundbreaking video game competition which turns gamers into real life pro racers, is set to embark on his first pro race this weekend.
He will be steering Nissan’s GT-R NISMO GT3 car at the opening round of the Blancpain GT Endurance Cup, alongside fellow GT Academy graduate Romain Sarazin and British driver Sean Walkinshaw.
“Since hopping out of the Nissan GT-R GT3 at the Paul Ricard, I have been counting down the days until Monza,” said Matt Simmons.
Simmons was the first Australian to win the international competition when he beat over 700,000 people in last year’s event.
The competition was gruelling. Simmons had to prove he was the fittest through a ninja test, fastest in a series of cars including monster trucks and Nissan GT-Rs, the coolest in front of the media and that he could handle the high pressure situations that drivers have to face.
The Nissan GT Academy isn’t just some gimmick allowing gamers to try their skills in the real world. Previous winners have been hugely successful, competing in some of the toughest races around the world.
People who are just good gamers won’t cut it — winners need to have the potential to be elite athletes and good brand ambassadors.
Simmons, who had never raced a car before the competition, spent the last three months of 2015 living in the UK getting intensely trained by some of the motorsport world’s greatest teachers and will now compete in this year’s Blancpain Endurance Series in Europe, with his first race being at Monza this weekend.
He progressed through the initial stage better than most, taking out some low-level motorsport weekends throughout his three months in the UK and proved himself good enough for a test run in the same GT3 GT-R race car that won the Bathurst 12 Hour in 2015.
“I had my first go driving the GT3, which was worth a house, in the rain and that was utterly terrifying. There was no instructor, just Jann Mardenborough (former GT Academy winner) giving me tips when I came off,” he said.
“The whole time I was in shock and awe of the car and how fast it was.”
There’s also a strong pedigree of racers that Simmons will be following as part of the GT Academy family.
Inaugural winner Lucas Ordonez is now a formidable force in international motorsport for Nissan, winning some of the most coveted races in the world at tracks like LeMans, Spa and Germany’s Nurburgring.
The 30-year-old is currently racing in the highest tier of Japanese motorsport in the Super GT.
GT Academy graduates are even dominating Australian motorsport, with 2012 winner Wolfgang Reip and 2013 winner Strauss combining to win last year’s Bathurst 12 hour against some of the best GT drivers in the world.
And then there’s the current poster boy for GT Academy – 23-year-old Brit Jann Mardenborough.
Since winning GT Academy in 2011, he has gone from strength to strength and currently races in GP3 and had a couple of drives in GP2, the Formula 1 feeder series. Last year he competed for Nissan in their LMP1 car at LeMans, something many pro drivers spend their career aiming for.
He has even signed a contract to Red Bull’s Formula 1 development program, the same program that current F1 drivers Daniel Ricciardo and Sebastian Vettel went through.
For Simmons though, he’ll just be focusing on getting through this weekend. But every early indication says he’s the real deal.