Gran Turismo Racing Movie Tells a Fairy Tale That Was True

Jackson Wheeler
12 Min Read

The caller ID on my phone screen said “United Arab Emirates,” home of the Yas Marina Circuit, home of the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix this Nov. 26, and home, apparently, to a lot of race car drivers.

It was Jann Mardenborough, the young man whose incredible life story is the subject of the movie, Gran Turismo, in popular release now and also available on many streaming services. It’s the story of Mardenborough’s rise from Play Station gamer specializing in the racing game Gran Turismo to real-life race car driver. It’s a true story that, if you’d just heard about it, would have you saying, “They should make a movie out of that.”

Well, they did.

a man in a race car

The real Jann Mardenborough, early in his career in 2013.


Sony Pictures worked for years to produce Gran Turismo the movie, perhaps in part because Sony owns Gran Turismo the game, but also in part because it’s a fairy tale story that gives equal parts hope and legitimacy to millions of online gamers everywhere.

Mardenborough wanted to be a race car driver since he was old enough to pedal a pedal car. Had his family been better off—like, say, billionaire Lawrence Stroll better off—he could have gone right into karting like any respectable five-year-old racing aspirant does nowadays. But alas, his family didn’t have Stroll family dollars, or pounds since he grew up in Cardiff, Wales. So he did the next-best thing: He started playing the online racing game Gran Turismo.

Gran Turismo is the product of the detail-crazed developer Kazunori Yamauchi, who has striven to make it as realistic as possible, as close to what a real driver feels in a real race. The public seems to agree, as the game is approaching 100 million sold.

Mardenborough had a driver’s license for a year and a half before he entered the Nissan Academy.

Mardenborough played the game obsessively, becoming, as far as he knew, one of the best at it in the world. It fulfilled many of the elements of the racing life he wanted, but at a much more affordable price.

Then he saw an ad for a competition: “Win A Season in a Real Race Car.” It was a competition among gamers worldwide to get a full-ride sponsorship driving a Nissan GT-R in competition at real racetracks.

He won the competition and has been a professional driver since, first associated with Nissan, now in a number of series around the world, including racing in Japan and at Le Mans.

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His story is told in the movie with a minimum of Hollywood cliches, though not completely without them: the disapproving father who wants him to play soccer just like he did; the worried mother who fears for his safety; the unrealistically cruel crew chief who says he “wants him to fail.” But you can see beyond that and enjoy a well-above-average story that just happens to be about racing. And happens to be true.

It was not anything Mardenborough ever thought would happen to him.

“The movie stuff? No, because I’ve just been focused on my racing,” he said by phone from the UAE. “Then, in 2017 when I was approached by a producer, and he said, ‘Maybe there’s a chance a movie’s going to be made about your life.’ At that point I was doing 25 events a year, racing in Japan, living over there. I just kind of ignored it and said, ‘Okay that’s just Hollywood talk.’ And a few years later, things started to get more real where I was meeting, in person, script writers and producers. Then it became real. It’s still very surreal—the whole situation, very blessed. Just to be able to tell a story to a large audience.”

The audience is indeed fairly large. So far, the movie has made $110 million in general release alone, on a $60 million cost of production. More will come in as it goes into online release. In fact, when the movie premiered August 25, it actually beat out the summer juggernaut Barbie for that weekend (granted Barbie had been out all summer, but still…).

Mardenborough says the movie is an accurate portrayal of his life, too.

“I wouldn’t have done it if it wasn’t my story,” he said. “In one of my first talks I had with a senior producer I only had two stipulations to them: The actor who plays me has to look like me, and they have to have my full name. Because it’s not just me—I was representing my family, my family name. And I was comfortable to trust these people in writing a chapter in my life.”

a group of cars parked in a parking lot

In the movie, the real-life Nissan Academy puts gamers into real Nissan GT-Rs. They do well.


There’s a villain in the movie, played with near-Snidely Whiplash arrogance by actor Josha Stradowski. That guy is based on Mardenborough’s real-life nemesis, eventual F1 driver Nicholas Latifi, Mardenborough’s teammate in 2013.

“When I had the conversation with the script writers and all the guys, way back, they asked me the question directly, ‘Is there anybody that you have a rivalry with?’ I get along with everybody but this person, he was very similar to the character in the movie. Like the character, he’s from a lot of wealth, which is fine, but the way that I was treated in person and on track… when you race against somebody, there’s a respect that we have as professionals between us. Even if you don’t like the person, there’s a respect on track. This character has none of that to me. Yeah, this is why he’s represented in the movie as Capa, in the face of a real teammate.”

The character Capa’s first name is even Nicholas. The racing scenes are realistic, much more so than almost every racing movie ever made. They do fall back on the cliché of two drivers going side-by-side down a straight, making eye contact, then downshifting and flooring the gas, as if they’d only been at partial throttle before that. But almost everything else ontrack is accurate. That alone would make it worth seeing for the average racer or race fan.

But the premise of the movie is a video gamer thrust into the world of real racing, the exact scenario Mardenborough lived through. What was that like? Mardenborough had only had a driver’s license for a year and a half before he entered the Nissan Academy to learn to drive a real race car.

“Jumping into a racing car at the academy felt normal for me. I seemed to get to grips with it pretty quickly and it felt pretty normal in the car. The race car would be acting in the same way as it would when I’m at at home in my makeshift rig, when I held the steering and pushed the virtual car to its limit. All the inputs felt the same in the real car, with the added sensation of vibration and the g-force. Okay, that was an extra thing to deal with. But fundamentally, I kind of knew what I was doing (right away) even though I’d never done it before.”

In his real-life racing career, he was also confronted with the very real dangers of racing, too. Three years into his driving career, he had an accident at the Nürburgring’s Flugplatz, when the nose of his Nissan GT-R lifted off the ground and the car peeled over backwards, sending him over the guardrail. The crash wound up killing one person. In the movie he contemplates quitting racing at that point, but in reality he did not consider that.

“When I’m trapped in the hospital, the movie portrays it well. Where there’s time, where I was by myself, you have thoughts, and those thoughts that come into my mind were, ‘Do I still want to do this?’ And the answer has always been, ‘Yes.’ The movie portrays that well. Because you have to answer those questions.”

He answered a lot of questions over his now-15 years of racing professionally. He has driven in almost every form of racing except Formula 1: GT4, GP2, GP3, British GT Championship, Blancpain Endurance Series, Toyota Racing Series, FIA World Endurance Series, Super GT300 and GT500 in Japan, and twice at Le Mans, where he finished fifth and third in LMP2. It’s been a wonderful life, and if he can make enough phone calls and seal enough deals, he’ll keep doing it for as long as he can, into his forties, he hopes.

“It’s very clear what I want to do in my life. And it’s always, always to be a racing driver and be the best I can be. It’s what I believe I was put on this Earth to do.”

Having a successful movie about his life in popular release will certainly help him do that.

Headshot of Mark Vaughn

Mark Vaughn grew up in a Ford family and spent many hours holding a trouble light over a straight-six miraculously fed by a single-barrel carburetor while his father cursed Ford, all its products and everyone who ever worked there. This was his introduction to objective automotive criticism. He started writing for City News Service in Los Angeles, then moved to Europe and became editor of a car magazine called, creatively, Auto. He decided Auto should cover Formula 1, sports prototypes and touring cars—no one stopped him! From there he interviewed with Autoweek at the 1989 Frankfurt motor show and has been with us ever since.

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Jackson Wheeler is a skilled editor at, specializing in automotive content. With a background in Journalism and Automotive Engineering, he combines his passion for cars with his writing expertise to deliver captivating articles. Jackson's deep knowledge of automotive technology and his racing experience make him a valuable asset to the team, providing readers with informative and engaging content.
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