When Jann Mardenborough arrived at Brands Hatch last May, it was the shy 19-year-old's first trip to a 'proper' race circuit. He had just dropped out of university and was earning his keep by temping in a Next store in Cardiff while he decided whether to sign up for another degree in furniture design.
"There was not much going on, really," Jann says in a Welsh accent flecked with some of his family's midlands heritage. "I'd just wake up and think, right, what am I going to do today? I might play the PlayStation, see some mates or go to the cinema." He'd entertained ideas of following in the footsteps of his father - a journeyman professional footballer who in a 20-year career played everywhere from Wolves to Sweden's IFK Östersund until settling in the Welsh Premier League - but at 18 he knew it was an unrealistic ambition. And besides, football wasn't his real passion.
As a child, Jann was besotted with cars; as a toddler he'd refuse to leave the house unless he had a toy car in each hand, and it's an obsession that would continue to gnaw away at him. For his seventh birthday he was let loose on a kart track in Ibiza, where he displayed no small amount of natural talent. From that point on, he began to dream.
"Once I found out that you could be a professional racing driver as a job, that's all I ever really wanted to be," he says. "It's the first love that I ever really had, and it's the first interest I had in anything."
But getting anywhere in motorsport requires more than talent, and it requires more than good luck. It requires money, and an awful lot of it. A fledgling racing career proved too expensive, so the hopes of following in the footsteps of his heroes Alain Menu, Marcus Grönholm and Colin McRae ("Those drivers, it's either flat out or nothing," Jann says of their appeal) were quashed.
"I'd just wake up and think, right, what am I going to do today? I might play the PlayStation, see some mates or go to the cinema."
Video games, though, allowed him to indulge that fantasy, and it's no surprise that Polyphony's Gran Turismo would become his poison of choice. "I started playing it, and getting into it when I was living across the road from this other videogamer. He used to play a lot of games, and he had Gran Turismo on the PlayStation."
"I was round his house so many times that he eventually gave me the PlayStation and the game so I could have it myself and play it. That kick-started it, really. I used to go round there once a week, and once he gave me the console I was on it 24/7 - my parents weren't too happy about it, but I loved it."
And last year, an opportunity arose. In 2008, Sony partnered with Nissan to create the GT Academy, a marketer's dream that promised to turn gamers into real-world racing drivers. By the time of its third running in 2011 it had already proven a success; the first winner, Spanish student Lucas Ordóńez, finished second in class in his Le Mans 24 Hours debut, and was later joined by Martin Brundle and his son Alex for this year's race.
Having successfully worked his way through the online qualifiers, Jann found himself at Kent's Brands Hatch circuit for the regional finals. "I didn't think I could win," he remembers. "I didn't want to think about not winning, because it was too painful, but I didn't want to think about winning because my head would be in the clouds. I just didn't want to lose."
Jann didn't lose. He made his way through to the national finals at Silverstone where he went on to race against four other gamers in a deciding race. When he stepped out of the winning car last June, his life had been fundamentally changed. He moved to Silverstone soon after and began a programme of PR, training and racing - and it's at this famed former aerodrome that we meet.
In the background, the class of 2012 compete to follow in Jann's wake, being put through an exhaustive test designed, it would seem, to hammer home the physical challenges of driving a car at speed. There are early-morning races on a series of Gran Turismo 5 pods which give way to an outing in a Nissan 370Z that has everyone grinning. By the mid-afternoon, though, those smiles give way to grimaces.
In a car park in sight of the British Racing Drivers' Club's Club House, the 12 competitors are pummeled through a series of exercises. There are sprints, press-ups and a bleep test, the trademark grey skies of Northamptonshire bursting at midpoint to add a little extra challenge. The strain shows on some competitors more clearly than others as they collapse onto the wet tarmac.
It's a part of the process that Jann knows well. "They put you through an intensive training program. I've got nutritionists and a personal trainer, and they work you really hard - you've got to be strong in your upper body and your back so you don't get tired." When he started racing, Jann had to be lifted out of the cockpit after a stint; last November he participated in the New York Marathon, and he's now a model of fitness and prepared for the challenges that a modern racing car throws at a driver.
"The new car, the GT3, gets really hot. We don't have a lot of cooling in the car, and at Rockingham recently it must have got close to 60 degrees, and it was boiling. I raced in Dubai last year in the 370Z, and that was about 30 degrees outside ambient, and that was nothing."
There are other, smaller challenges that come when taking virtual skills to the track. Playing Gran Turismo 5 for any amount of time can drill you in braking points and turn-in points; it can school you in the basics of understeer and oversteer and how to deal with each problem in turn. But the thousand subtleties that emerge as a complex mesh of steel, carbon and rubber pounds against tarmac gives rise to challenges that no game can ever reasonably replicate.
As the competitors still wheeze their way through the physical challenges, Jann takes to Silverstone's National circuit for a series of hot laps in a Nissan GT-R road car. It's an evolutionary regression from his Sunday ride - the GT-R Nismo GT3 that shares only a handful of components with its road-legal counterpart - but the conditions at least promise to make things interesting. The track's sodden, with streams beginning to trickle across the entrance to Becketts - the exact same conditions that forced the F1 circus to seek shelter and wait for clearer skies only days before.
Jann loves it, though, leaning on the four-wheel drive of the GT-R to find the outer limits of the track and induce 50-yard drifts. It's like a game, really, the tail stepping out as effortlessly as an OutRun Ferrari's. A group of us sit and admire his skill from the old pit wall when I notice the rear brake lights strobing halfway down the straight. I ask a member of Jann's RJN Motorsports team whether it's a technical fault. No, comes the answer - he's just feather drying his brakes so that they're there when he needs them in the run-up to the next corner.
"I was asking myself the question how I'm going to get on with other drivers racing door to door. It was just quite normal, really."
A small detail, but one that highlights the presence of mind needed to drive a car at speed, and to do so professionally. Jann's team members say it's a presence of mind that he's had since the beginning, and that his is a natural talent. "I was asking myself the question how I'm going to get on with other drivers racing door to door," he confides later on. "It was just quite normal, really, just racing a few inches away from someone at 100mph."
Since his arrival in the British GT series, he's been afforded the respect of a grid that includes tin-top stalwarts such as Tim Harvey and Warren Hughes. Motorsport veterans who've worked with Jann go further and tell you that this kid is the real deal.
That much was confirmed late in June this year as the British GT series made camp at Brands Hatch. Just over a year after he'd first visited the track as a shy teenager figuring out exactly where his life was heading, Jann found himself in charge of a thoroughbred racing car as part of a two-man assault.
"Brands was great - the car's brand new for this year, and there was a lot of work to do. We qualified in 10th, which isn't great on paper, but a tenth would have got us to 5th and four tenths would have jumped us to pole. We were quite disappointed, but we knew the track suited our car because it's got a lot of high speed corners, and the GT-R's great at those - it's really stable in the rear."
Jann's teammate Alex Buncombe took the car for the first stint, finding enough grip on a greasy track to work his way up to fourth after just one lap. RJN's tactic was to go long and build up a cushion for Jann's closing stint.
"Alex handed the car over to me in first, and I was just holding off the pro drivers behind me," says Jann. The young Scot Jonny Adam led the chasing pack in an Aston Martin Vantage GT3, and set up one of the closest finishes that Brands Hatch has seen; when the flag dropped both cars were side-by-side, a gap of just 0.022 seconds splitting their noses. "I would have liked a bit more of a gap, really," Jann deadpans.
The GT Academy's had its share of success, but Mardenborough's the first driver to emerge from its ranks to score an outright GT3 win, a feat that can never be taken away. Others will try to emulate him, though, and there's some promising talent in this year's pick. Des Foley, a confident 23-year-old from County Carlow in Ireland, emerges as the winner of this round of regionals, and he's got the speed and demeanour of someone who's capable of going all the way.
Jann's immediate racing future is unconfirmed, though his ambitions remain grounded. "I want to keep hitting sportscars," he says when asked what the future holds. "I wouldn't want to venture into single-seaters, because the only reason you ever do single-seaters is for Formula 1 and realistically I don't think that's going to come off." A move to prototypes and a drive in next year's Le Mans looks more realistic, though, and could see Jann step towards fulfilling his next dream of tasting victory at the Circuit de la Sarthe.
But right now he's happy where he is, racing cars for a living and pursuing a life that just over 12 months ago was nothing but a dream. "Now when I wake up I think, 'I'm racing in two day's time,'" says Jann, his eyes widening. "It's wicked! Now I'm like, right - I have something to do. And it's something that I love doing."