2012 saw the first Russian GT Academy take place. Around 30,000 people across Russia took part in an online Gran Turismo®5 qualifying round in May, hoping to win the ultimate prize of a unique Driver Development Programme over the winter months followed by racing a Nissan 370Z GT4 in the Dubai 24 Hours in January 2013.
The best gamers from the qualifying stage were invited to the National Final, held as part of the Moscow City Race in July. It was an incredible experience for the racing driver hopefuls, with a backdrop of Formula 1 cars darting through the closed streets of central Moscow, overlooked by the Kremlin and St. Basil’s. Jann Mardenborough, the 2011 GT Academy Champion, was on hand to inspire the gamers while also giving passenger rides in the Nissan Juke-R around the temporary city circuit.
After testing their fitness and natural talent at car control, as well as further qualifying rounds on GT5™, the 14 gamers with the most potential won a place at the final stage of the GT Academy competition: Race Camp.
The Russian Race Camp took place in August at Silverstone Circuit, the home of British motor racing. The competitors were greeted by the two people who would judge their performance over the next week: Nissan Le Mans driver Roman Rusinov and Renault WSR driver Daniil Move, who were also joined by TV presenter Anna Kasterova. It was Roman and Daniil’s job to study the competitors, eliminating them over the course of the week in order to select one winner to go into the intensive Driver Development Programme for the rest of the year before racing in Dubai.
Race Camp provided many challenges for the finalists. As well as various driving sessions, from single seaters at Silverstone and drag racing at Santa Pod, to a night race in the Nissan LEAF, they were put through their paces in a gruelling SAS fitness test. There were also sessions in the classroom, with competitors having to pass a test to receive their racing licence (ARDS) in order to stand a chance of winning.
After several nerve-wracking eliminations, only five competitors remained when they had their first official race in the Nissan 370Z around Silverstone’s National Circuit. Mark showed his star quality by qualifying on pole and then leading the race from lights to flag. Unfortunately Enri had a tougher time - a spin damaged his chances of winning the race and he was disappointed to then be eliminated from the competition, along with Sergey, before making it to the final day.
The last day of the competition saw Alexey, Dmitry and Mark have the chance to drive the Nissan GT4 race car that GT Academy 2008 Champion Lucas Ordoñez drove in the 2009 Dubai 24 Hours. This was the most powerful and challenging race car they’d driven so far, and Dmitry didn’t quite make the cut. This left Mark and Alexey to battle it out to be the champion, with a final dogfight race held around Silverstone’s Stowe Circuit in Nissan GT-R cars. This was planned to be the best of three, but with Mark winning the first two he took the crown without needing the final round!
After an incredible week of fierce competition, Mark Shulzhitskiy was the first winner of GT Academy Russia. The next four months were spent training every day and racing every weekend as Mark was fast-tracked to become a professional racing driver thanks to GT Academy’s rigorous Driver Development Programme. In January 2013, Mark was reunited with Roman Rusinov, this time as team mates in the Dubai 24 Hours race. Together with Lucas Ordoñez and the latest European GT Academy Champion, Wolfgang Reip, they brought their #127 370Z Nismo GT4 race car home in an impressive second place in class, earning a well-deserved podium celebration.