Under the Visor: Abbie Eaton

There is no doubt that Abbie Eaton is an accomplished driver in her own right, best known as the test driver for series two and three of The Grand Tour, co-starring with Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond. But she believes that it was watching her racing driver father compete that really shaped her dreams as a young girl.

“I spent my childhood going around the different UK tracks,” she says. “My dad, Paul, was racing karts when I was born, but after a big crash at Pembrey he made the decision to do something a bit safer and moved on to cars. I was the reason he made that transition.

“I grew up watching him. My dad was, and still is, a hero to me. I always remember him coming home, looking sweaty in overalls, and clutching big trophies. I thought he could do anything – that he was invincible.”

It might have seemed inevitable that Eaton would follow in her father’s footsteps, but it would be a full decade – and a year of pestering on Abbie’s part – before he let his beloved daughter take to the wheel of a kart.

Abbie, now 28, recalls: “I was 10 when I had my first go on a circuit. It was a freezing cold day in January, sleeting, and I had to keep wiping the sludge off my visor. I remember coming back to our little van, shaking. We all sat huddled together and I looked up at my parents and just begged, ‘Can I go again?’ I’m sure my mum was thinking, ‘What the hell have we done?’ I think she hoped I’d be a bit more girly when I was little, but after several failed attempts to put me in a dress she realised that wasn’t me and she’s been supportive ever since.

“Once we started it was just a case of Dad putting me in a car and saying, ‘Go!’ It took me two days to do one lap without spinning. I wasn’t scared so I kept going into the corners too fast. He said he’d rather I was fast and that he’d have to rein me in, as opposed to having to gee me up.”

Abbie’s trackside childhood sounds blissful for the most part.

“Dad and his competitors would race, and the kids would just be allowed to go and play. We’d be doing tricks on our bikes, falling over, hurting ourselves, getting back up, and every now and again biking across the paddock to see our dads race.”

But she was also exposed to the dangerous side of racing at a young age, in a dark moment that has remained etched on her consciousness. “Dad managed to crash a car into a lake. Thankfully it landed the right way up and he got out. I remember being in the paddock and someone shouting, ‘Your dad’s crashed into the lake.’ I was only seven,” she recalls, “but I went up to the cordon around the lake and pushed a marshal out of the way. I ran up to my dad and put my arms around him. He looked down at me and just said, ‘It’s alright, sausage’, his nickname for me. On reflection, he could have died in that crash. It should have put me off racing for life, but it didn’t.”

Far from it, for Abbie went on to build an impressive career, winning her class during her first year of adult touring car racing when she was just 17. Entirely self-funded by her family, despite their being far from privileged, she went on to compete in the Mazda MX-5 Cup. Her dad built the cars and her mum managed the catering. In 2014 she won the SuperCup. In 2016 she enjoyed a successful season in the British GT championship, finishing second in class, but funding constraints meant she then ground to a halt.

As a girl born in Yorkshire without a silver spoon, Abbie has needed to cultivate both resilience and determination throughout her career. Again, she believes her father helped to instil such values in his modestly ambitious offspring. “Over the years, I’ve developed my own style,” she says. “My dad tried to help when I was younger, but I’m quite a fierce character so I find it hard to take advice from someone who’s too close. But I’ve remembered all the most profound things he taught me, like ‘do finish first you have to finish’, ‘don’t dig yourself any holes to fall into’, and ‘don’t talk the talk if you can’t walk the walk’. It’s not so much his driving style I’ve inherited – it’s more his values. I always try to under-promise and over-deliver.

“The MX-5 SuperCup will always be unforgettable for me. It was the last year I did anything in a family-run team. Dad built the car and did the set-up, and Mum was there supporting with bacon sarnies in the morning. It was a really tough year. Though my career has been quite long, I’ve only ever done the odd full season, and 2014 was the first full season I’d done in five or six years. We started well but three-quarters of the way through there was an incident in which someone hit me off track on purpose – there were so many highs and lows.

“We went into the last round at Donington Park and I was leading the championship by 17 points, so I was on an up. All I needed to do was finish the two races and I’d pretty much seal it. A top-four or top-five finish would have done the job. But going into race one I had power steering failure, which was killing the engine. I knew that pulling in would mean the end of my race so I thought, ‘I’ll just keep going for as long as I can and hope it lasts.’

“The car got slower and slower – eventually giving up – so I pulled into the pits absolutely raging, because I felt I’d lost the championship. In fact it turned out I hadn’t lost it at all, but the problem was we didn’t have a spare engine, not coming from a moneyed background. In my head it was clear that I wouldn’t be able to race the next day. But Dad said, ‘Let me see if I can get an engine.’ I remember having an internal battle because I didn’t want him to have the pressure of finding £1500 to cover the costs. It was a lot of money for us.

“There was a salvage yard down the road which had an engine and Dad wouldn’t take no for an answer, so he spent all night swapping it into my smashed-up car. Day two arrived and we didn’t even know if the engine was any good. When you don’t finish the first race you start the next one where you finished, so I was last and had to try to get up to the top four. Going into that race I just thought, ‘Enjoy it.’ I set off like a rat up a drainpipe, passing loads of people – it was the best race of my life. I’d got up to just behind the guy in second place when someone spun me around and hit me off.

“I went mental. All the pressure from the year came out. I was screaming at the top of my lungs in the car, punching the wheel and the centre column. My hands were black afterwards. It felt so cruel to have the race taken away from me. I came into the pits and burst into tears.

“But then I discovered I had picked up points for 6th place, and the guy who was second in the championship came second in the race but he needed to finish one more position up to be drawn on points with me. We had the same number of wins but he had one more second place. However, I got the fastest lap which gave me one more point, so in the end I won the championship by a single point. It took us all months to recover, but it was such a rewarding experience. The whole team had earned it. I knew if I could get through that I could get through anything.”

And so Abbie, who currently lives in Northamptonshire, brings the same mental steeliness to W Series. She was initially sceptical about competing in a female-only competition, but insists her greater concern is about financial inequality in a sport known largely for its super-wealthy drivers. “I’ve never had an issue with being female,” she says, “it’s more about money. A lot of the girls have had some pretty intense testing plans and some have even been able to race abroad all winter. If my family had the money, I’d have been doing that kind of testing. Earlier in my career I felt bitter about having a financial disadvantage. It’s still frustrating, but ultimately I can’t control it so I’ve made peace with it now. I can put my heart and soul into finding the money and sponsorship to make it happen, but beyond that there’s nothing more I can do.

“I’m determined and I’m quick – I just need bum-in-seat practice time – so I’m very grateful for the opportunity W Series is giving me. I’m focused on giving it my all – I think most of the girls are. Being in a male-dominated sport, you have to be hungrier and more aggressive on track to get what you want. You have to prove you’re not going to get messed about. I think that’s why racing in a female championship is going to be harder than in a mixed one. Our collective determination is so much more potent.”

The intensity of Abbie’s ambition means time away from the track is limited, lockdown aside, but she tries to spend it wisely. “The time I do get I like to spend time with my Miniature Schnauzer, Molly, and go for long walks. I also try to do fun things that are still physical, like mountain biking. But a typical week for me still involves three days of personal training, and two days of cardio. I have to take fitness very seriously.”

Abbie came out as a lesbian when she was 17 and appears comfortable with who she is in every sense. “Ultimately,” she says, “I hope that W Series will help me reach my dream of becoming a full-time factory driver for a manufacturer. But for the next couple of years I’m going to focus on myself in racing, and I’m excited to do that.”