Nissan GT Academy Middle East. One on One with the Champ

crankandpiston goes head-to-head with the inaugural Nissan GT Academy Middle East winner Salman Al Khater on the Gran Turismo race simulator at the Dubai Autodrome. Who’s your money on?

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Back in 2008, Nissan took a calculated risk: could a successful player on Gran Turismo, one of Sony’s most popular and realistic driving games on the Playstation, race competitively for real? Probably not, most and sundry claimed. In the five years since then, Nissan GT Academy winners have claimed podium finishes at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the Blancpain Endurance Series, the World Endurance Championship, and the Dubai 24 Hours, and scored points in European Formula 3. Critical words have been eaten.

So successful and popular has the Academy proven that 2012/2013 saw the first ever Middle East chapter take place, with Qatari Salman Al Khater ‘moving from Virtual to Reality’ as the Academy’s tagline decrees and being crowned the inaugural winner of Nissan GT Academy Middle East. Fast forward and Salman is now celebrating his newfound celebrity status at the Dubai Autodrome. How? By going one-on-one with crankandpiston.com in a Gran Turismo race simulator.

I’m feeling confident as I head to the Autodrome. Not wishing to brag, I have driven at least one race on every Gran Turismo game released since 1997, have set laps at the Nordschleife aboard a virtual Nissan GT-Rthat friends, colleagues and neighbours have found ‘difficult to beat’, and boast a reputation on Mario Kart 64 that borders on legendary. Let’s see how the newboy deals with that lot.

Our dueling simulators are setup almost line astern in one of the paddock suites, alongside a GT Academy-liveried GT-R (we’re still wondering how that’s managed to fit through the door). The pods are pretty impressive. Each comprises a large roll hoop to which a Recaro seat, a flatscreen TV and the game console stanchion plus steering wheel is bolted. There’s also a set of pedals and a short-shift gear lever. In a neat touch, plastic engine cylinders have been attached to the Playstation 3 for added sportiness. Both of us shall be playing Gran Turismo 5, and be piloting a virtual 2007MY GT-R.

I’ll have to wait before showing Salman how it’s really done, since I’m quickly helmeted up and placed behind the wheel of a 2013MY GT-R for a few laps of the Autodrome. Salman – an impressively tall chap with a bone cracking handshake and an immediately likeable personality – is sitting next to me in the passenger seat, the Obi-Wan to my Skywalker.

Having signed up online for the inaugural season of GT Academy Middle East back in September, Salman went up against nearly 15,000 other regional entrants during Recruitment. Having proven his speed ‘on-track’, the Qatari was one of only 24 players to advance to the Regional Finals, where speed and outright performance were further tested to whittle this number down to just eight. These lucky few made their way to Race Camp at Silverstone. Here their training became really serious, as a panel of judges – which includes former A1GP driver Khalil Beschir – considered physical and mental fitness as well as determination throughout the Driver Development Program. After seven solid months of training and evaluation, Salman pipped the UAE’s Steve Smuts and Kuwait’s Abdullah Al Qaoud to be crowned the inaugural Nissan GT Academy Middle East winner.

“I just kept pushing,” Salman explains as we discuss his journey thus far. “I pushed here in Dubai in the regional finals, then went to Silverstone for Race Camp, and it got even tougher over there. But I fought through it and it’s worked out for me really well. I’m really happy.”

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