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Le Man for Les Mans... Charlie Eastwood chasing World Championship glory

Life in the fast lane. The TF Racing Aston Martin Vantage car
Andy Watters

HE puts his foot to the floor down the Mulsanne Straight and the Aston Martin Vantage AMR tops 200 miles-an-hour.

As the corner approaches he slows down (just enough) and then the engine screams towards top speed again and the car’s stripped-down frame rattles and shakes. Charlie Eastwood’s neck aches, his back hurts, his eyelids scream for a moment’s rest... But he won’t stop.

Eastwood has been awake for over a day now but adrenalin keeps him going as seconds give way to minutes and then hours (two dozen of them to be exact) as day turns into night and back to day again.

The 24 hours of Les Mans are hours like no others.

The oldest endurance race in the world around the Circuit de la Sarthe, is trial by high speed endurance. A test of skill and fitness, bravery and brains in which only the strongest and best survive and Carryduff native Charlie, taking turns with his co-drivers Jonathan Adam and Salih Yoluç behind the wheel of their Aston Martin, completed 339 laps of the 8.467-mile circuit (close to 3,000 miles in total) to win the LMGTE (Les Mas Grand Touring Endurance) category of the French classic last year.

“It’s tough,” says Eastwood (who took the chequered flag in the race) with trademark understatement.

“A lot has to go right for you to get a win.

“There are guys who have done it for years upon years and they’ve never been able to get a win. “That was my third time doing it and the big thing is balancing the mental drain with your physical fatigue. You might try and get 20 minutes sleep here and there but realistically you are up for about 30-odd hours by the time you do all the start process and everything.”

Top speeds are reached on the straight but races are won on the corners. Compared to their Formula One counterparts, the aero-dynamics on Grand Touring (GT) cars slows them down in the straight but they’re able to carry ferocious speed through the corners.

"The cars are very, very raw,” explains Eastwood.

“There are no internals, it’s really just your seat and the suspension is rock-solid so there is a lot of vibration. So an endurance race isn’t like driving down the motorway and getting a bit sleepy… The adrenalin takes over with the speed and the vibration of everything.

“You are there from the morning right through and with having no sleep for 24 hours to driving at 200 miles-an-hour… You get pretty over-loaded quite quickly. It is a really tough race but it’s so unique as well, there’s no other race like it in the world. It’s a great experience and great to win it.”

So, after the trophy presentation and all the champagne gets sprayed at the track, what comes next? A glamorous after-party with a famous DJ at some French mansion packed with dancing celebs, sponsors and high rollers? Not really, it’s more like, you know, time to get the head down, thanks. Night, night…

“You go and win it and everyone goes: ‘Yeah, let’s go celebrate…’ but come 10 o’clock that night everybody is asleep!” Charlie explains.

“You always think it’s going to be this great party but the whole team is zonked because they don’t close their eyes once either. The engineers sit in front of their computer screens typing in the data and the mechanics are doing a pit stop every hour as well. Those guys don’t have a minute.

“You always think the party is going to be good but it usually ends up in a bit of an anti-climax because everybody is so tired.”

So where did it all begin for Eastwood, a down-to-earth 25-year-old who became a father last summer and remains relatively unknown despite his global success? He started, like almost all drivers do, racing karts. He began when he was eight and was tearing around local circuits like Nutts Corner and Kirkistown and leaving competitors chasing his exhaust fumes for a few years until his uncommon talent meant he quickly stepped up to national level and then the British Championship.

“I was always fairly sensible to be honest – I had a lot of my fun on a racetrack and I had a pretty normal life away from karting,” he explains.

“It was quite a natural progression. You start local and then you go to the national championships and then international as you work up.

“My older brothers (Raymie and Johnny) and my dad (John) had all done some karting so I was always around the race tracks and it was fairly inevitable that I was going to have a go at it and I worked my way up through the ranks.

He was European champion and then, in 2012, aged just 17, he won the Rotax World Championship (one of the youngest drivers ever to win the senior category) and that really opened the door to a career in motorsport.

“That was good,” he says (there’s that trademark understatement again).

“It ticked the box ‘world championship’ and I went into cars from there.”

When most of us think of motorsport, our mind conjures up the staccato sound of BBC commentator Murray Walker and images of James Hunt, Nigel Mansell, Eddie Irvine or Lewis Hamilton in a Formula One car hurtling around Monza or Monaco in a Grand Prix.

Former Ferrari diver Eddie Irvine once said that his path to Formula One was like “rolling 100 sixes in-a-row” and Eastwood agrees. He admits that his early dreams were of following in Irvine’s footsteps and he did some single-seater Formula racing with the goal of breaking into the sport before he chose to go down another path.

Imagine a Y shape. Everyone starts with karting and Eastwood raced against current F1 drivers like Max Verstappen, George Russell and Charles Leclerc. But the time came when he had to make a choice he opted to go into Grand Touring (GT) and endurance racing.

“In motorsport you need a lot of contacts and funding and there is just a lot more opportunity in the GT side of things and that’s what was going to suit me best really,” he explains.

Porsche offer a two-year scholarship programme and Eastwood decided to apply. He filled a form in online and sent his CV to the German car giants and was delighted to get through to the interview stage along with another 50 or 60 hopefuls.

That list was cut down to 12 and of that dozen, four were selected to get behind the wheel and show what they could do in a car. After that there were fitness and media assessments and Porsche picked one driver at the end of it.

No prizes for guessing who came out on top…

“Thankfully that was myself,” says Charlie.

“And it was a great two years, they’re a great brand to work for.”

In the second year of his scholarship with Porsche (2017) he won the prestigious Carrera Cup of Great Britain which immediately put him on the radar of racing teams who were on the look-out for new talent.

“If you win the Carrera Cup it puts you on a good ladder for all the other manufacturers because they know what has gone into winning that,” he explains.

And so it wasn’t long before Aston Martin Racing got in touch to offer him a deal and he gradually switched his focus from sprint racing (races which last 20 or 30 minutes) to endurance racing which runs from four hours up to 24.

“I went into that in an Aston Martin GTE and worked my way up the ranks with them and got a factory contract in my second year at the tail-end of 2019,” he explains.

In his first season as a factory-contracted driver the team captured “the big one” by winning the 24 hours of Le Mans which Eastwood unsurprisingly says was on his “bucket list”.

However, there was disappointment when his team narrowly missed out on winning the World Endurance Championship. Wins in Fuji (Japan), Shanghai (China), Austin (Texas) and at Les Mans meant that, despite engine problems and retirement in the fourth round of the season in Bahrain, Eastwood’s TF Sport team led the way going into the eighth and final race. Unfortunately finishing in eighth meant that Eastwood and co. had to settle for second in the standings.

He was bitterly disappointed but is determined to put that right this year and 2021 began for him and his team with seventh at the 24-hours of Daytona in Florida at the end of January.

“It’s another really iconic race,” says Eastwood.

“It’s very different to Les Mans – it’s much more raw and a lot of the rules in America are different from Europe. It’s a very different race in terms of strategy but it’s great to say that I’ve done it.”

These days he divides his time between Dubai and London and racing around the globe but it’s not all glitz and glamour for a young man with a young family. His schedule is hectic - he left for Daytona in the middle of January and had two days at home over the next three months.

“I was away for nine weeks’ straight and then home for a couple of days and away again so you are constantly living out of a suitcase,” he says.

“You try and switch off between races and get a bit of family time but you’re on the road quite often.

“I’m not complaining though,” he adds.

“You get to travel all around the world which is amazing. Yes, you then live out of a suitcase for most of the year but it’s great, I couldn’t wish to be doing anything else for my job, that’s for sure. I’m in a very fortunate position because there are a lot of unknowns in motorsport and the percentage of people who actually make a career out of it is very small.

“Since I’ve started my biggest has been just trying to win every championship that I went into. As I progressed through karts I wanted to go all the way to the world championships and then with Porsche, winning the Carrera Cup, then with Aston and winning Les Mans.

“The goal is always to keep winning but so much has to go right as well, so much is about right place/right time. My dream was Formula One which is very unrealistic because there is so much funding and backing needed to get to that level and luckily I got out of it quite early with the Porsche scholarship.

“That was the best thing that really could have happened because it is now my profession and the guys that I was racing against are still trying to find these massive sponsorship programmes for Formula One that are few and far between really.”

The Carryduff racer has never had a serious crash and hopefully he never will. Up to now he’s had the Midas touch. Thanks to his hard work, tireless dedication and skill, success has followed success and he wants that to continue. Every season he will aim higher.

“The World Championship is my goal and in the short term the European Les Mans Series, so I’m trying to get geared up for that,” he says.

“Hopefully we can continue the success we had last year in the GT cars as well but the World Championship is still hanging over me. I want to be known as one of the best drivers in the world and I’ll just keep chipping away, I’ve still got lots to learn and hopefully I’ll have a good career ahead of me.”

Foot to the floor all the way to the finish…

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