Charlie Eastwood: Belfast driver says Spa 24 Hour win was the 'maddest experience'

The #97 Aston mMrtin makes history at Spa
The win was TF Sport's maiden 24 hour victory and Aston Martin's first-ever win in any class at the Spa 24 Hours

Imagine driving at night. Now add some heavy rain, slick tyres, 71 other cars and one of the most historic race tracks in the world. All at 170mph.

The Spa 24 Hours is the highest-profile GT race in the world, with Belfast's Charlie Eastwood making history at the annual endurance event.

Eastwood helped bring home the Pro-Am class victory for TF Sport, finishing 22nd overall on a record grid, which was all the more impressive as the team started the race from the pit lane in their spare car.

The class win was first-ever 24 hour victory for TF Sport and a first-ever Spa 24 Hour victory in any class for Aston Martin.

"It's an honour to be part of Aston Martin's first Spa 24 Hour win in any class, and I also think I'm the first Northern Irishman to come out on top in any class in the race too, which is a nice accolade," said Eastwood.

As if the challenge of a 24-hour race wasn't enough, TF Sport's victory bid got off to the worst possible start.

Nicki Thiim, Salih Yoluç Charlie Eastwood and Ahmad Al Harthy celebrate their success
Eastwood, along with Salih Yoluc and Ahmad Al Harthy, lead the Blancpain GT Endurance standings after their win in Belgium

Team-mate Salih Yoluc crashed the Vantage in practice, writing the car off and forcing the team into a complete re-build ahead of qualifying.

"The crash happened at two o'clock and qualifying was at 8pm, so it was a miracle from the team," said Eastwood.

"They brought in a brand new car, put a new engine in it, brand new suspension, all the electronic systems. I'm still not sure how they managed it.

"We knew we would be forced to start from the pitlane regardless, but we needed to take part in night qualifying or we would have faced a massive penalty.

"To go out at the hardest GT race in the world and try to perform from that was some task, but we put in a good shift to make it happen and we used it as a shakedown for the race.

Rain dance

Buried in the Belgian forests in the Ardennes, Spa-Francorchamps is a notoriously difficult circuit at the best of times, but throw in some wet weather and you have one of the toughest circuits in the world.

"We needed something different if we were going to make our way through the pack," said Eastwood.

"We had every bit of weather that you can think of and we just kept building stint after stint in the race.

"We were leading the class after 12 hours and from that point onwards it was close to being as perfect a race as you can have.

"In the middle of the night I had a two-hour stint in the wet on slicks, which as you can imagine was pretty tricky but pretty fun.

"We gained a lot of time by staying out while a lot of the cars in front jumped into the pits for wet tyres, so that gamble paid off.

Andrew Watson signs autographs
Eastwood's fellow Northern Irishman Andrew Watson failed to finish the event as his Aston Martin retired inside the opening hour

"We had a few twitchy moments, but as it dried we were able to take massive chunks of time out of the leaders.

"We were making good progress but then there was another twist when the red flag came out on Sunday morning.

"I've never seen rain like it. Cars were aquaplaning off under the safety car so the decision was made to stop the race for a couple of hours and, when we got going again, it was just about bringing the car home.

"We just maximised absolutely everything, the car was absolutely faultless and we actually ended up making the fewest number of pit stops out of all 72 cars.

"From what was such a difficult start to the week it was absolutely amazing to win the race and that feeling when the car crossed the line was unforgettable.

'No longer the bridesmaid'

Charlie Eastwood after the Spa 24 hour victory
Eastwood was an official Porsche junior driver for two years before making the switch to endurance racing

"I think I've had 10 podiums with TF Sport but never had a win until now," said the 23-year-old. "So to do it at as big a race as the Spa 24 Hours was a very special feeling indeed.

"It had got to the point of wondering if it was ever going to come, but we're no longer the bridesmaids and the whole team are absolutely buzzing, especially in the manner of how we achieved it.

"It's probably the most impressive trophy I've ever won. I could barely lift it when they handed it to us on the podium. It's now pride of place in the living room beside my TV.

"I ended up doing the seven-hour drive home as well from Spa. I was going to put the trophy in the back seat and take a photo with the seatbelt on, but it was that big it didn't fit.

"So it had to lie flat in the boot with all my luggage emptied around it to make sure it was nice and snug.

"When you've just done 170mph with 70-odd cars trying to bang into your door, the drive home seems a bit more sedate in comparison, but even that extra journey couldn't wipe the smile off my face."

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