Former Nissan global motorsports boss Darren Cox has hailed Wolfgang Reip’s move to the factory Bentley Team M-Sport squad as the ultimate validation of GT Academy.
Cox, who was the mastermind behind the gamer-to-racer program, admits he, nor the Japanese manufacturer ever aimed to have one of its GT Academy graduates end up at a competing manufacturer, but it has proved the program’s effectiveness in the motorsports world.
“It wasn’t something we were going for back in the day but in retrospect now, it puts a real rubber stamp on what we achieved,” Cox told Sportscar365.
“For me, the greatest pleasure is the feedback I got from various sources at Bentley saying, ‘OK, the driver is fast, which I think everybody knew from Blancpain GT last year.’
“But also the way he was with the team, the professionalism, and the way he went about doing his work.
“These guys fit into the teams they go to. It just proves the education, not just on-track but off-track as well. The attitude they we instilled in them is as important as their speed on track.
“For me it’s a proud moment. And all the guys that have worked on bringing these guys: Nissan, RJN, the GT Academy team at Silverstone… They should all be taking a massive respect for what they’ve achieved.”
Reip, who claimed the 2015 Blancpain Endurance Series Drivers’ Championship in a Nissan GT-R NISMO GT3 fielded by RJN, was left without a ride following a decision by Nissan to let go multiple GT Academy graduates in February.
The 29-year-old Belgian was given a chance to test M-Sport’s Bentley Continental GT3 earlier this month at Paul Ricard and was announced Tuesday as its sixth driver in its Blancpain Endurance Cup effort this year.
“He’s been a bit stealthy,” Cox said of Reip. “He’s not the star name. You’ve got [Jann] Mardenborough, [Lucas] Ordonez, [Gaetan] Palateu and certainly [Florian] Strauss too. In many ways, Wolfie has gone underneath the radar.
“But you look at any Blancpain race last year or Bathurst, he was at the top or near the top of the driver data. He was compromised on a number of occasions… but he was always well up there.
“Sometimes he didn’t get the headlines but clearly people like WRT and Bentley have looked at that data, compared that data and have seen something in him that we all saw.”
Cox, who left Nissan late last year to start his own automotive consultancy firm, IDEAS+CARS, feels virtual racing has recently taken on new levels, with major championships now embracing what’s being called eSports.
“GT Academy, in many ways, has been the leader in eSports for motorsport and now everyone is crowding in that space,” he said. “We’ve seen WRC have an eSport event and just on Friday, both Formula E and MotoGP announced eSport activity.
“Everyone’s jumping on the bandwagon. As a collective sport, the next question is what’s next? How does this genre of racing games progress?
“Is it a copy of the GT Academy program? Is it a way of opening up sport to more fans? How do we use this wonderful marketing tool we’ve got, with millions of people playing games, how do we get them to watch the real thing in a sport that’s dealing?
“We’ve seen gamers transitioning to racing drivers, but I think we’ve got to focus on how do we drag those people that are interested in gaming in the virtual world to become fans in the real world.”