After 9 hours of flying, team UK finally touched down in Abu Dhabi!
It had been a long day travelling, so it was nice to finally have my feet back on the ground. We were picked up at the airport by our team leader Baz, over the next 10 days he was our guide/driver/coach and first point of call. Baz was a top bloke, he gave us a heads up on a few do’s and don’ts and kept us up to speed with the info we needed at times. Max Chilton (ex Formula 1 driver & current Indycar driver) was our mentor. I wasn’t sure what Max would be like as a mentor at first, but after spending a fair amount of time with him over my period at race camp, I was glad we had him. Max was really down to earth, he was good at keeping the morale up amongst the team whilst also giving us good advice when needed, he also has a cracking sense of humour!
So finally, I’d made it to race camp. In total there were 56 competitors competing for the opportunity of a lifetime, a contract with Nissan motorsport to race in the Blancpain endurance series. The lucky winner would be racing in the Nissan GTR GT3, an absolute beast in the GT racing world!
The first couple of days were all about filling out paperwork, doing some filming for the TV series and sitting our ARDS theory test, we also did a baseline fitness test. I still remember a moment on my first day when Rob Barff (GT Academy head judge) came over to the Team UK table to introduce himself.
After introducing himself and welcoming us to Abu Dhabi, he said “At the end of the day, you need to remember that there are 55 other people here going for the win, so the chance that any of you are actually going to win is pretty much zero, so don’t get your hopes up, just enjoy the experience” At the time I was a bit taken back by the comment, I thought to myself well that’s a confidence boost…..NOT! At the same time though it fired me up, in my head I thought to myself you can do this Ben, go and prove him wrong!
So the first few days flew by, after all the form filling and basic assessment stuff was completed, we were getting close to our first real big challenge and potentially our first opportunity to turn some laps on the Yas Marina south circuit! This is where we were based most days before heading out to whatever task or challenge lay ahead on any given day. After just a few days, cracks were already appearing within team UK, as well as the rest of the teams. Even though we hadn’t done any major challenges up until this point, the constant scrutiny in front of your peers was taking its toll on certain team members. You couldn’t help but feel on edge most of the time, knowing you’re being judged 24/7 and in front of your team, it was in fact psychologically a challenge in itself, you had to try and keep your cool in front of you fellow team mates no matter how much you were feeling the pressure.
The fitness test was held at Wadi adventure, the test would involve a 2.5km run on a rocky and sandy terrain within a quarry type setting, at the same time we would be climbing/swinging across different obstacles throughout the run, as soon as the run was finished we then had to jump into a wave pool and swim across the pool to land, once back on dry land it was a short run to the white water rafting section where in teams of four we jumped into the rafts and paddled the course as fast as possible to the final part of the challenge which again involved jumping into what looked like a recreation of the sea!
We then had to swim against the current to the rocky edge, pull ourselves out of the water, then jumped straight back into another section of water which was like a fast flowing waterfall whilst grabbing hold of a rope, we then has to use our strength to pull ourselves through the battering water and again out of the water to safety where 6 crash helmets were awaiting each team.
This meant 2 people were immediately eliminated, there was another twist in the mix though, little did we know at the time, the first 2, would be safe from another challenge that the remaining 4 team members would have to go through later that day, effectively this meant by the end of the day, a team of 8 finished up as a team of 4. Oh yeah, and we had to do all of the above wearing a helmet and life jacket in the sun blazing 45 degree heat!
Somehow, with a semi recovered knee, I completed the course. It was tough for several reasons, not just because it was tough physically but because I faced personal challenges along the way. My knee was one factor I was worried about, I decided to pace myself on the run, trying not to aggravate it too much, a lot of people shot of like whippets, but they soon paid the price! By the end of the run id pretty much gone from last in the UK to about 4th.
Swimming was another big challenge for me, when I was little I had a fear of water, I use to run out of my swimming lessons when I was around 4 years old crying my eyes out, consequently I am not the strongest of swimmers. I do like jumping in the pool on holiday now, but this was a completely different ball game, and wearing a life jacket made it even harder to swim properly! Thankfully, determination and focus kicked in and I launched myself into the first wave pool and used my upper body strength to power over to dry land. To my surprise, I was overtaking more people in the water, including some team mates! That gave me a real confidence boost, at the end of the challenge I finished 2nd. Safe from elimination and immune from any further challenges that were in store that day. Whatever happened now, I wasn’t going home early and had made it to the final 4 in the UK.
The next big test and elimination challenge was a called the bridge to nowhere. This was a head to head slalom challenge against the members left in your own team. The end result was that 4, would become 3! I was drawn up to go head to head against Fabio, Fabio was Portuguese, but lived in the UK, hence his eligibility to be part of team UK. The winner of the heat would be safe from elimination, the loser would go head to head with the other loser from the 2nd heat between Matt and James. We were racing Nissan GTR’s through the course, if you clipped or hit any of the obstacles you would incur a 4 second timed penalty.
It was a really tense challenge, we had 2 practice runs at lower speeds to learn the course, and then it was the real deal. Initially I had a great start launching ahead of Fabio at the start, I carried my slight advantage through the majority of the course, as we were approaching a tricky section towards the end of the course though, I went in to hot and got a shed load of understeer! Fabio took advantage and as we crossed the line he was 4 thousandths of a second ahead of me! I was raging at myself for my mistake, knowing id now be facing the elimination heat was a bitter blow.
Just as the head judge Rob Barff was grilling me for my mistake, a report came across on the radio that Fabio had hit one of his wing mirrors on an obstacle, therefore he incurred a time penalty and I was through! I went from being so frustrated with myself to feeling instant relief in about half a second! I was now down to the final 3.
In the end it was James Garner who was eliminated from team UK, to be honest it really knocked me for six.
James was my biggest competition in my eyes, not in a disrespectful way to the others because the whole team was strong, but from the outset we looked at each other as the biggest threats within the team, despite this though we were like two peas in a pod!
We got on so well and had a massive amount of respect for each other. I can genuinely say, he wanted it as much as me, I could see it in his eyes, so when he was eliminated it was a bag of mixed emotions, potentially my biggest threat within the team had gone, but I also lost a good mate and I could feel the pain he was going though and it was horrid! Up until that point he was one of the overall favourites in the competition, our approaches were very different, James was on the pace and pushing it straight away, whereas I was taking my time, building things up, doing enough to get through without risking making a big mistake, which ultimately had got me through all the challenges so far to make the final 3 in team UK.
The end of the competition was nearing, and another challenge loomed. At first we were under the impression there would be no more eliminations now until the final day, but that wasn’t to be the case. We were driven 4 and a half hours away from our base at the Viceroy hotel, to the Saudi Arabia desert!
We would be spending our last night as a team of 3 in the desert, the following day we would be competing against each other in a time trial style rally buggy race up a sand dune course. The night in the desert was hard, it was unbearably hot, we didn’t stop filming for the TV series until the early hours of the morning, by which point we were all starting to get a bit fed up. It had been 8 days of mental and physically draining challenges in the heat, on top of this all the filming during the day and at the end of each challenge was starting to get to all of us. I didn’t imagine spending my penultimate night sleeping in the desert with sand in all manner of places, sweating my arse off. Looking back it was an incredible experience, but at the time, I was not a happy camper!
It had been 8 days of mental and physically draining challenges
The penultimate day of the competiton was upon us, and after spending a lot of hours waiting for team UK’s time slot, the time trial race began. One person would be going home, we had no idea who had set what time and it was impossible to try and predict who was quickest/slowest. Matt was announced to have been the quickest up the dunes, my heart started to beat harder and faster, had my tactic of not risking too much backfired? If Fabio was faster than me I’d be going home, and Fabio had already proved in the bridge to nowhere challenge he was very fast! After a long anxious wait, Max announced Fabio was going home, I was through to the final day where me and Matt would go head to head on track to be selected to represent team UK in the final, and to get the opportunity to compete to win the competition overall!
A little bit of self-doubt started to creep in and I knew I had to up my game on the final day to secure my place in the final race. I’d gone through the process being a little bit cautious, there was so much up for grabs understandably I didn’t want to make a big mistake and blow it, and at the same time, others had done well by attacking from the start and showing their speed and ability, I was in danger of getting overlooked.
I had a quiet word with myself that evening and went to bed thinking positively, whatever happened next, id made it to the final day, the final 14 overall at least, of which I could be incredibly proud about, however I had other plans, I wanted to win more than ever, and I went in to the final day with the mind-set that I would be UK no1.
On the morning of the last day I woke up feeling energised and positive after a good night sleep, I just felt like this was my time, the moment id be working towards throughout the whole competition was finally here and I was ready to claim my place in the final race. There was a lot still to do, and a lot still to prove. The day would involve some more laps around the Yas Marina south circuit, this time our team leaders would come out with us in the cars, give us some feedback and then hit the track again to prove whether we’d taken that feedback on board. Overall Baz gave me good feedback, he gave me a few pointers and just told me to relax because overall I was doing a good job. That gave me a little boost to hear positive feedback and just as well because the final part of the process was approaching. The final 2 contestants had to take their mentors out on track which was being called the ride along challenge, this was our final chance to impress our mentors and bid for our chance to be selected for the final race later that evening.
Matt went out first with Max, I watched on at the pit wall, collecting my thoughts, all day I had felt calm and controlled, I felt ready to prove to Max I was the one to choose. Matt returned to the pits, I looked at him and he didn’t look best pleased, throughout the whole process Matt had a really relaxed look about him, but I was finally starting to see the pressure in his face and when I asked how it went, he wasn’t over confident about the laps he’d just done with Max.
I got strapped in and away we went, I just completely blocked out the fact Max was sitting next to me, I didn’t try to set an amazing laptime, I pushed hard enough to show I had some speed, but made sure I hit all my markers and references and didn’t miss any gears. 3 laps flew by and it was back to the pits, on the way in Max said to me nice job, tidy, smooth, not rushing it and no mistakes etc. In the back of my head I thought maybe that was him saying you’ve got this, but nothing had been decided yet!
Matt and I had an agonising lunch break to deal with before we were summoned to see Max who would give us his verdict on who would be racing in the final against the other European regions. As we stood in front of him, I just closed my eyes as he started talking praying he would select me, my heart was beating so fast, id made it to the final stage of race camp, there had been points I didn’t think I’d even get to this point. Finally Max delivered the news……………., “Ben you’re in the final, congratulations”. I cannot explain the overwhelming emotion I felt, and it all came out in floods of tears, it all started with a text to my wife saying I was going to enter GT Academy in 2015 and win, via a game id never played, and now I was UK no1, out of 100’s of thousands of entries, no matter what happened now I was UK no1. It was pure relief getting to the final, it had been such a hard process mentally and physically, and now it was all worthwhile, a genuine chance to achieve my childhood dream and become a professional racing driver, all that stood in my way was 6 laps of the Yas Marina south circuit and 6 other competitors, best of all I was starting from pole position due to winning a different challenge earlier in the week.
One more article to go, dedicated to the final race of GT Academy, watch this space!