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

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For today though, Salman steps into a new pair of shoes as my driver coach. It’s been a while since I last lapped the Dubai Autodrome Club Circuit so I’m keen to get some tips as we trundle down pitroad. For the first half lap Salman, sitting next to me in his brand new Nissan GT Academy racesuit, says nothing, preferring instead to gauge my performance. I now understand how it feels to have my on-track performance judged.

For me, the opening few corners are a little tentative. At the mercy of my right foot is a 3.8-litre V6, which coughs out 545hp. This is a monster, less we forget, that can outlap a Porsche 911 at the Nordschliefe and is therefore a not to be taken lightly. Added to that, the temperature has climbed to a barmy 40 degrees, and the asphalt is stiflingly hot underfoot. As we barrel into the first corner, I’m unsure exactly how much grip there will be.

Plenty, as it turns out. The back end is trying to cheekily step out through the long sweeping first corner but front-end grip is unwavering. Picking up speed out of the first corner, the acceleration is brutal as I flick the right paddle and select fourth. Scrubbing the speed off is similarly impressive, the visor on my helmet coming perilously close to clouting the top of the windscreen. Handling is sublime through the wheel, and no doubt I would be clipping apexes beautifully were I not consumed with remembering which way round the track I’m meant to be going.

A couple of sighter laps in, I put on my brave face to give the GT-R the beans down the main straight, and we nudge 220kph. Salman meanwhile has stopped watching my performance and started giving me pointers, explaining that I should be braking much harder at this marker cone, turning in at this one and almost clipping that one to keep the speed up through the turns. “It’s also important”, he continues, “ to look through the next corner to the one after that”, since that allows you to position the car more accurately. I try, though it proves difficult to think ahead of a sports car capable of 0-100kph in under three seconds with launch control.

My gorilla-like attempts to plant the loud pedal aren’t working either since this only upsets the balance and makes the back-end fidgety under heavy acceleration. What I should be doing is keeping my movements smooth, pushing the car through the corners rather than coercing it, a point Obi Wan proves to good effect a couple of laps later when we swap places. His steering and pedal inputs are so smooth and relaxed that you’d think we were still trundling down pitroad, and it starts to dawn on me just why the gentleman sitting next to me beat nearly 15,000 other motorsport aspirants to the top spot. And this on his first trip to the Autodrome with only three practice laps under his belt.

Shortly after our track session, Salman and I are back in the Nissan suite ready for our head-to-head duel in the pods. Jonathan Bowers, account director (and oracle) of Nissan GT Academy, is keen to see how we get on. As we get ourselves ready, I’m keen to know: what was it about Salman’s performance that earned him the Nissan contract?

“The most important thing is to find someone who shows consistent improvement”, Jonathan explains, “and Salman didn’t start the first few days as one of the top guys. But then as Race Camp progressed, he showed his potential and he did finish as the winner. It’s that line of progression we’re looking for, for someone who shows not only the talent behind the wheel but also the right mental approach, the commitment to the program and the willingness to learn. Salman demonstrates all of that”

Presumably though it’s tough for the guys who finished second and third, since they will no longer be eligible to compete in next year’s Academy…

“Yes, but Nissan GT Academy does give these guys a great launchpad to go and make a name for themselves,” Jonathan continues. “There was gentleman called Sean Johnston who finished second in the first year of the American GT Academy. But he didn’t give up on his dream, he pushed and continued to pursue that dream, and at the British Grand Prix, Sean was there racing in the Porsche Supercup. So there is still plenty of opportunity even if you don’t win.”

STORY CONCLUDES ON PAGE 3

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