Charlie Eastwood's title dream on hold ahead of Virtual Le Mans 24 Hours

By Andy GrayBBC Sport NI
Charlie Eastwood
Charlie Eastwood races an Aston Martin for TF Sport in the World Endurance Championship

At the beginning of 2020, Charlie Eastwood was dreaming of standing on the Le Mans podium as a world champion.

That has now been put on hold due to the Covid-19 pandemic, but the Northern Irishman will still get a flavour of the 24-hour endurance race experience in the virtual world.

However, this is far more than a standard video game.

The grid for the Virtual Le Mans 24 Hour race is a 'who's who' of motorsport. From current Formula 1 drivers to past world champions, it really is a stellar line-up.

Charles Leclerc, Max Verstappen, Jenson Button, Fernando Alonso and Juan Pablo Montoya are some of the names to sign up.

Not only will Eastwood get to test himself against some of the fastest drivers on the planet, it will also be his full factory 'debut' for Aston Martin.

The Northern Irishman is an Aston Martin factory-contracted driver and races for TF Sport in the World Endurance Championship, however he has been called into the senior set-up for the first time ahead of the Virtual Le Mans after some impressive real-life performances.

"I never thought my full factory debut would be virtually," said the 24-year-old.

"It's going to be a massive event. Nearly every name under the sun is going to be taking part in it.

"My plan is to get into the real-life Pro line-up, and hopefully this is another step towards doing that."

Sim racing helps fan engagement

The Virtual Le Mans race is no casual gaming set-up. Each team contains four drivers and each car has its own engineer to make decisions on tyres and fuel.

While the June event usually sees drivers jumping in and out the cars during a changeover, instead it will be activated from the drivers' own sim set-up.

"There's so much detail going into the event from the manufacturer," added Eastwood, who added the changeovers "are quite complex".

"It could be quite easy to get wrong at 5am when you have a five-button sequence to get the changeover."

"I'm still at an early stage of my career so to be able to stay involved with the engineers and team in lockdown is really important."

Le Mans
The real-life Le Mans 24 Hour race has been moved from June to September

While the Covid-19 pandemic has witnessed a boom in sim racing and eSports, Eastwood has always been a firm believer in the benefits of sim racing.

"It's serious stuff and really good for fan engagement. You can go onto a sim and do what the professionals do, and even race against them," he said.

"If you look at golf - you can go out and buy Rory McIlroy's clubs, but you soon learn you can't hit it as well as he can.

"It's hard to understand how fast drivers can go around a track, but simulators give you the opportunity to give it a go and see how difficult it is."

What's it like to race at Le Mans?

Eastwood, who runs his own simulator set-up, adds that practicing on the sim can benefits drivers on the track.

"In the real-life car you have the feeling through your body about what the car is doing. You don't have that in the sim, so that means your technique has to be spot on," he said.

"If you go into a corner too fast you will probably spin, but in real life you feel it that little bit earlier and you can catch it."Eastwood, Alex Lynn and Harry Ticknell.

"The sim allows you to perfect your technique, and when you add in the natural feeling you get in the real car, overall that makes us faster drivers overall."

Back up to speed

In the World Endurance Championship, Eastwood and TF Sport team-mates Jonny Adam and Salih Yoluc have won three out of five GTE events but find themselves second in the standings, two points behind the leaders.

Three rounds of the championship remain, including the Six Hours of Spa and the rescheduled Le Mans race in September.

After being out of the car for three months, Eastwood was testing at the beginning of June and says he initially struggled to adjust with getting back up to speed.

"I think we're the strongest line-up, and as a trio we are better prepared than anyone," said Eastwood, who won a world karting title in the junior ranks.

"We know we can win it, so hopefully everything comes together and we can make it a reality."

Charlie Eastwood celebrates at Spa
Eastwood's biggest victory to date came at the Spa 24 Hour race in 2019

He added: "We were testing at Silverstone and when I went into Maggots and Becketts, my brain didn't know what had hit it.

"It wasn't down to the physicality, just that our brains couldn't figure out that we had g-force again because we had been doing so much sim work.

"It took about half a lap for my brain to work out that I needed to tense and move my head to deal with the forces.

"We all had the same feeling and it was so surreal. We were really rusty at the start of the session but by the end of the day we were all back on it.

Eastwood is aiming to get back on track in the middle of July, and with his fiancée Cat expecting their first child that same week, it could be a hectic schedule for the Belfast native.

"Our baby is due on the 14th, so we've got a pretty narrow window to work with ahead of racing's return," he said.

"Endurance racing is the perfect way to prepare for the baby coming. Whether the your alarm goes off at 3am or 6am, you have to be ready."

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