[dropcap]A[/dropcap]ustralian Matt Simmons, winner of the 2015 Nissan PlayStation GT Academy International competition, has, from last week, been testing a Nissan GT-R NISMO GT3 at the Paul Ricard circuit in France.
The official pre-season test is important preparation for Simmons’ 2016 season, racing in the prestigious Blancpain GT Endurance Cup for the Nissan GT Academy Team RJN, defending series champions.
Last year, before winning GT Academy, Simmons was a passionate gamer, motorsport fan and Australia Post courier van driver. He speaks here about his transition from “gamer to racer.”
What’s life been like landing in a foreign country and doing something you only dreamed about previously?
Simmons: I had two or three months of training and just getting really excited about getting here and it didn’t really sink in that I’d achieved a contract until I was on the plane coming to the UK. But now that I’m here, getting a chance to spend some time with my teammates in the training camp, it’s definitely becoming really real and the excitement is there. I can’t wait to get back in the car.
You looked pretty fit before you came over for the first competition but what has the training been like and how has your fitness developed?
Simmons: As you mentioned, I worked hard before to get to that first competition; after that it’s just continued to go in a forward direction. The intensity has gone up and it’s only motorsport focus. We’ve really been focusing on sprint endurance and aerobic endurance so I can obviously mold my body into an endurance driver for the Blancpain GT Series. The development program has focussed on that with continued constant assessments. Then coming home, we were given a quite intense winter program, which was almost like a full time job of four days a week and around four hours in the gym a day. For me it was great to have the chance to just focus on my fitness and get my body ready for this year. I feel like I still have so much more to learn and if I can get myself as fit as possible then I can give myself the best chance to learn as quickly as I can behind the wheel.
You were able to do some miles with Nissan GT Academy Team RJN towards the end of last year in the UK, what was that like and how did you enjoy the experience?
Simmons: It was a dream come true to be honest. It was something that we were all not aware of when we first got here for the development program so it was very much a surprise. Also spending time with the team over the race weekends when we first got here was almost like a reward as well. It was like they felt that I was progressing to a level that I was given the opportunity to have a drive in their GT-R GT3 so it was an amazing two tests that I was given. Fortunately, one was actually in the wet and one was in the dry, so to me, now looking back it was actually ideal to have both those conditions, because now I feel that I have some sort of experience that when I come into those same scenarios in Blancpain I’ve got something to reference on.
When you get to the first race, obviously the level of competition is going to rise to an even higher level. What are your expectations?
Simmons: For myself, it’s to get as comfortable as I can with the car and learn as much as I can from my teammate Sean Walkinshaw being the pro driver, and obviously Romain (Sarazin), and just trying to work together to get ourselves up to speed. I don’t want to set too much expectation on myself because I feel like it’s going to be a challenge. For me, I want to be able to enjoy it but also learn from the team and overall just get really comfortable and work forward.
The first race we would obviously love to finish and that’s what our goal is and obviously the higher the better, because we are racing drivers and we are competitive! I feel like I’ve prepared really well coming into the test alone but will continue to push towards the first race. I feel very ready and I feel like I’ve been really well prepared to give myself the very best opportunity in the car.
Looking forward to the test this week, have you had the chance to do any kind of virtual miles at Paul Ricard, do they have that track on the simulator at all?
Simmons: Yes, it was part of our training camp. We had a day in the sim at NISMO lab and that was a good opportunity to use the process of the simulator and learn the track, the steering points and the braking markers. Generally, just trying to get into a rhythm so you’re not so much thinking about what is coming up next, you kind of feel quite comfortable, and that was my ultimate goal on that day and to find some pace. It was a very productive day, which we achieved yesterday so I took a lot away from that as well. I can see myself feeling quite comfortable when I do get out on track for the first time at the test in a few days’ time.
Back home, what does your family and your mates think about this opportunity that has been given to you?
Simmons: It’s been quite surreal and exciting with my family and friends. They’ve been able to watch every step and even when I’ve been able to go away and have the opportunities that you can only dream of having. To have the opportunity over the break to see them and share stories and just overall get an understanding of what I’ve done because has been great. We’re just so busy with the development program, you’re constantly trying to get the best out of yourself every day, you don’t have the chance to sit back and realize what I’ve achieved. It was a really proud moment to be with my family and friends. They’re really excited for the upcoming year and they’re definitely kind of riding along with me as the journey goes on this year and it’s going to be awesome to have my support back home while I get the chance to race over here in Europe.
Apart from the weather, what have you found to be the biggest change about living in the UK
Simmons: To me, it really is the weather! Everything else is actually quite similar to home, obviously food and all that, it’s sort of my normal surroundings of living at home. It’s difficult to get a little bit comfortable, but the weather is probably the hardest for me and getting adjusted to the time zones, that’s really quite tricky and something I’m trying to learn every time I do come from Australia to the UK to try and minimize that effect and try and get myself to 100 percent when I’m here, so that if I have the opportunity to be in the car or doing a training camp I can make sure that I’m healthy and that I’m fit and that I can prepare myself well.
I just also can’t get over how cold it is here. My body is definitely not adjusted to this; it’s well adjusted to Queensland weather! One jacket for me is still not enough but regardless of the weather I’m just really happy to be here. It’s very little to put up with for what I get to do because 12 months ago I’d normally be home and dreaming to be a part of this whole experience so the weather for me, I’m good. I’ll just have to go see my family more in Melbourne. I think that’s the plan.
When you grew up in Australia, who were your motor racing heroes that you looked up to or who were the guys that you were a fan of?
Simmons: I’m a very big fan of Mark Webber. I grew up watching Formula 1. It was one of those things where I’d stay up late Sunday night and I’d watch it, even if it was the early hours of Monday morning, before I started school. I think he just kind of encompasses what an Aussie spirit is and everything that makes an Aussie racing driver. He gave me a lot of motivation to be a racing driver.
The Nissan guys started the season really well in V8 Supercars and World Challenge in the U.S. – have you been following their progress?
Simmons: Yes, it’s been great to wake up and hear all the great news of the season kicking off well for Nissan. I think every year they continue to get better and progressing and learning with the cars and being able to get the results out of it on the race weekend. I’m hoping I get the chance to watch some clips of the Clipsal 500 at some point if I can because I really enjoy that event and the whole V8 Supercar experience. I followed that when I was a kid and really enjoyed it.
Also, really great news to hear Bryan Heitkotter, part of the GT Academy family, finishing P2 in Pirelli World Challenge. I think that’s amazing to see him in the pro class and start the year so well. I’m really looking forward to seeing how he progresses throughout the year in the step up to what he achieved in a great season the year before. It’s gives us a lot of confidence to see the Nissan GT-R and the Nissan program still continuing strong this year and we’re hoping for the same thing going into the test and then Monza.
[tabs type=”horizontal”][tabs_head][tab_title][/tab_title][/tabs_head][tab]”I’m a very big fan of Mark Webber. I grew up watching Formula 1. It was one of those things where I’d stay up late Sunday night and I’d watch it, even if it was the early hours of Monday morning, before I started school.”- Simmons[/tab][/tabs]