At the launch of the second season of the Nissan GT Academy in India, we caught up with Nissan Motor India Pvt Ltd president, Guillaume Sicard and spoke to him about the future of the Academy in India. Here are excerpts from the interview, where Sicard speaks of the training process drivers are put through in the Academy, and also the future role that the company will playin the field of Indian motorsport.
Guillaume Sicard, president, Nissan Motor Company India Pvt. Ltd
Can you tell us about your own experience with motorsport?
My own experience? Well it's not something I talk about very often, but when I was a student I raced a bit. I was racing in a Renault 5 GT Turbo, which was an incredible car because it was very light - 800 kilos - with a huge kick. So I raced from 19 to 20 years old. I had my international licence and it was a lot of fun. It was personally a great experience, obviously, but also from a friendship point of view, and a team point of view, also a great learning. So I got great memories out of that. And the last thing also, I was taught a lot of tips about driving that I am still using today - how to behave properly, how to take the right trajectory, how to behave under the rain, how to be careful and how to have a pleasant drive, because we can have a lot of fun while driving, being very careful and this is what I have learned.
How did you end up going racing?
Actually it was an academy through the business schools, and all these business schools had a competition, and after the competition I ended up to be one of the representatives of one of the group, so I was racing with a bunch of 20 other French students everywhere in France.
So you've seen the other side as well - a real world academy and a virtual academy...
Well, my experience was 20 years ago, and the virtual reality was not there then. What I think is so terrific about what we're doing today is that we are able to develop motorsport at the beginning through a very limited cost through virtual reality. I want to insist on the reality more than the virtual, because this is very close to driving a real car. Because the engineers who are working on this, are working with the engineers of Nissan, to make sure that the cars that you are driving on this programme on PlayStation is behaving the same way as the real car. So I think it teaches you how to perform. You can train as much as you want because you don't have any cost. And then after you can improve day after day. So I think this is a great opportunity to become better and a great opportunity to also get a very large scope of possible candidates. Here anyone can become a driver. I was telling the story of Mark - he was working in Vladivostok, he was working as a fisherman on the ports, with very little salary. He was passionate about cars, but was never thinking he could become a racer. He was the winner of the GT Academy in 2012. Next weekend he's in Le Mans. And he is one probably one of the guys that people are looking at that will someday be in Le Mans. And two years ago, three years ago, he was in Vladivostok port carrying fish. So this is a fantastic dream.
So what is the main objective of bringing the GT Academy to India?
In India we want to democratise motorsport. We want to build dreams. We want to show to many passionate people especially youngsters that dreams can come true. So you need to work hard. You need to have the right physical capabilities. You need to have the right mental capabilities also. You need to have the right focus. And once you have all those qualities, your dream can also come true. We want to do this in India and be part of almost 20 countries in the world now.
How far do you think the GT Academy will go in India?
Obviously we are going to select the 20 best ones from India. They will be in Chennai training with Karun. Off those 6 will be in Silverstone with the 6 best ones out of 20 countries. And all those drivers will meet together and with the professionals from the motorsport industry will be there to keep a look at these kids and thereafter the best ones will keep on competing. Competing in the Dubai 24 Hours, competing in Le Mans, competing in all the cups we have across the world. So this is exactly what is happening. If you take for example Abhinay (Bikkani) who won the Nissan GT Academy in India, he was picked up by the Nissan team, he lives in Canada, and he's racing for the Micra Cup in Canada. That was just a great opportunity for him to develop his passion and live his dream.
Is he completely backed by Nissan?
Yes of course. He has a contract with Nissan and he's completely backed by Nissan. Let's see what the future will bring for him. But he can be enrolled in any other programme. He's actually very well looked after by various people. He's with Nissan right now, but he can change any time. Once he finishes the season, let's see what can happen. We're just opening the doors for them.
Why the Micra Cup in Canada for Abhinay?
We look at the championships we have in the world. The Micra Cup in Canada is very active and very competitive. And we think he's got a great potential and we want to give him more exposure. We think it's very well targeted and we hope that thereafter he will keep on evolving.
Why the Dubai 24 Hours for the winner of the Asian Round of the GT Academy?
It is giving a very good exposure. We can test before Le Mans from a physical point of view, from a mental point of view. If the guys are able to run into a very difficult race from a nervous point of view, a very long race, 24 hours race, before Le Mans, so we think it is a very good point to start. Today in Le Mans, for example, we will have three GT Academy finalists racing at Le Mans. So, first step is Dubai, we need to progress step by step.
What sort of training will they get ahead of the Silverstone selection round?
Well, first they will be trained by Karun. He will spend time with them on the track to give them all the tips of driving. But the guys, if they are in the top six finalists, are already very good in terms of driving. I mean they practice 1000s of hours into a Playstation. Then after, on location, on track. But I think what Karun is going to bring them is that you need to be fit, you need to be light as well, but you need to be very very fit. You need to have mental preparation and concentration, like at a level we rarely have in normal life. You need to use your brain at 300 per cent, because you need to block out everything and have supreme focus on the driving. And he will meet with them at Silverstone to keep on the coaching thing.
Do Nissan's plans of motorsport in India extend beyond just the GT Academy?
I think this is the biggest programme that does exist in India run by a manufacturer. I mean the number of people that can compete, it can be 20,000 or 30,000 Indian people in four weeks. So this is the largest programme. This is also the only programme that is free of charge. You can compete, it is free of charge. You can be the 20 finalists and we'll fly you to the track. You can be the six finalists in Silverstone, we'll fly you. You can be the one selected for the Dubai 24 Hours and we'll take care of you. So Nissan is already doing a lot and it is free of charge. The next step will be... Let's see, it depends also how motorsport is developing in India. But I'm sure Nissan will be on the top if there are more developments in terms of motorsport in India.
You have single make series like the Micra Cup running abroad. Is that something that you're contemplating?
It could happen. I think it's the second step we're going to have with the GT Academy. We started it last year. This is our second year. I think we need to keep on learning also about motorsports in India. But I'm not saying no to your question actually. If we keep on having successful GT Academy, we might think of extending and doing further.
What has your biggest learning been so far then, when it comes to motorsport in India?
I think there is a lot of unsatisfied dreams in India. Because each time we talk of this programme we see a lot of stars in the eyes of people we are talking with. Because everybody wants to be a part of that story, everybody wants to be a part of that dream. We love to dream. A car is not only to transport yourself. A car is also to give you pleasure. Driving is also to make you dream. And this is what we are bringing. So this is what we've learned. There's a lot of passion for the automotive industry, for motorsport. This is what we're developing thanks to Nissan.
Realistically, as someone who has raced in the past, if you were given the chance to race or take the simulator route, what would you choose?
I think the simulator is very honestly the way to go. And I'm not saying that only in the automotive industry. If you look at Boeing or Airbus, or NASA. People don't start flying the plane, people don't start flying a space shuttle. They use a simulator, they learn all the tips and tricks, and they practice and they practice. I think this is the way - it's the most efficient way and it is the cost-efficient way. I think once you start to have the skills, then you can start developing skills in real life. Of course you can start directly - in a real car, or a go-kart - that's another option. But we have to live with virtual reality today. It is open, so let's do it.
What sort of impact do you think the GT Academy has on the way Nissan is viewed in India?
I think it can show us as a brand that is aiming towards a younger audience, a brand that masters innovation. A brand that brings excitement, but not only for a few. What we bring is innovation and excitement for everyone.
You don't think it distracts from what people think as hard-core racing?
I mean of course, it is not hardcore racing at the beginning. But if you talk to the people who were selected, or our friend that is running in Canada today, or our three GT Academy finalists in Le Mans this weekend, they will tell you that that is how it started really. That it started in that room, playing that game, and focussing really, and hours and hours of training, and then going into a programme to really train. I think this is the nice way to reach the real racing.
Have you tried the simulator as well?
Actually I have tried with my kids. They love to play with these things. I am a bit less into it now, I prefer the real driving honestly, I mean now. Especially when you're younger, it is something you need to try.
How far will Nissan India push a driver who they believe is talented?
We are behind this programme. In Tokyo I am pushing as much as I can Nissan India and this programme. Because I believe India has got the biggest potential in terms of supplying a racecar driver. India has got the passion, India has the youth, we are just bringing a bit of technology and a bit of open mind attitude to ensure that we can be one of the top countries in the world in terms of motorsport.