How British racer Abbie Eaton became The Grand Tour’s test driver
© Andrew Soul
The GT ace on becoming the official tester for Clarkson, Hammond and May.
If you're a car fan and you hadn’t heard of British racing driver Abbie Eaton before last year, you’ve probably heard of her now. In 2017, the GT racer got the call up of a lifetime to become TV show The Grand Tour’s test driver, seeing off a host of rivals for the role – including ex-F1 racer Mark Webber…
Initially thinking that The Grand Tour opportunity was a put up by one of her friends, Eaton ended up stepping into the role on Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May’s Amazon motoring show for Season Two, replacing the divisive previous incumbent, former NASCAR racer Mike 'The American' Skinner.
With Season Two of the show now wrapped, we spoke to Abbie about life alongside Clarkson, Hammond and May – although her contract means that she couldn't spill too much about her on-set life – and see whether being on The Grand Tour has helped or hindered her racing career.
So Abbie, how did becoming the test driver on The Grand Tour come about? Were you shocked?
I initially received an email asking me to come down to the track and do some filming. If I’m honest, I thought it was a bit of a wind up when I first read the email, but it soon became apparent that it was all legit when I was en route to Swindon the next week to meet the team.
How is the show’s ‘Eboladrome’ test circuit as a track? Should Silverstone be worried?
The Eboladrome is a challenging but rewarding track – you really have to respect it, as there are many areas that can easily bite you. But do it right and it feels fantastic! The majority of the corners are blind and off-camber, meaning you enter them not knowing where the exit is – or whether there’s a deer or pheasant stood in the middle of the road waiting to greet the bonnet! We’ve had to abort a few laps because of wildlife wandering across the track.
Watch Jeremy Clarkson testing the Aston Martin Vulcan at the Eboladrome in the video below.
Have you had any edgy moments on any of your laps? Or even, dare we say it, crashes?
The track is pretty tricky, so it inevitably brings out a few mistakes while you’re getting to grips with each car – especially in the poor weather conditions we are blessed to have so often in the UK!
I had a bit of a moment in the Mercedes-AMG GT R. I was doing a couple of runs to get the tyre temperatures up before the timed lap, and on the narrow run down to Substation, there’s a crest on the left kink which caused the rear of the car to step out a little – and that’s not a place on the track where you want to be sideways! Cue heart rate increase…
There’s no run-off area – just an abundance of trees to catch you if you mess up
My favourite corner has to be the blind right-hander of the Isn’t Straight section of the track. It’s the fastest part on the track and, coupled with a crest in the middle of the corner and a solid piece of Armco on the exit, it’s a recipe for a big adrenaline hit when you’re on the limit. I’ve had a few sideways moments there at 90+ mph! There’s no run-off area at the track either – just an abundance of trees to catch you if you mess up…
Driving lots of different cars must be one the biggest perks of the job. What's the best car you’ve driven on the show – and what was the worst?
That’s a tough question! I’m lucky to drive a real selection of cars on the show, each one with its own unique personality. The Lamborghini Huracán Performante was an exceptional car to drive, as it was so suited to the track; the four-wheel drive system really allowed the 631bhp to be used fully, as traction is so important out of the slower corners of the track, whereas two-wheel drive systems lack the ability to get the traction down as well.
But my favourite car to drive was the Ford GT; the handling was fantastic and the carbon-ceramic brakes were ridiculously good. You can confidently throw the car around and the feedback you get just inspires you to push more and more. I did need some padding behind me in the seat, though, as even with the steering wheel as close as possible I still couldn't reach it properly – and I’m 5ft 10!
I’d say my least favourite car to drive was the Volkswagen up! GTI – not because it wasn’t fun to drive, because it was, but it’s more suited to nippy city driving or a really tight twisty track, which the Eboladrome is not.
What about your racing career? Has the Grand Tour role had a knock-on effect on that?
Being The Grand Tour test driver has certainly helped with raising my profile and I’ve had a few offers of drives. But I really want to make sure it’s the right racing program for me.
I’m looking towards GT3 drives in America or Europe and possibly the Dubai 12hr in January 2019. After winning my first race in the Ferrari 488 GT3 in 2017 with no testing and at a new track, it really inspired me to get a full-time seat and get fully stuck in.
Racing in Australian Supercars would push you to the absolute limit
But if I could pick my ultimate championship to race in, it would be Australian Supercars. I’ve always loved watching them, and the skills involved from the drivers to get the best out of the cars are second-to-none. Racing in something like that would push you to the absolute limit, and competing with the very best drivers would ultimately bring you on to be one of the best too.
And are you racing currently?
I am still competing in selected GT races throughout 2018 and will also do a full season in the Super Touring Car Championship in the GA6 Invitation class driving a 1983 Peter Brock replica Holden VH Commodore in Marlboro livery. It’s a pretty special car to drive, and with historic racing on the rise, I’m very excited to be involved with racing one of the only 80s Aussie touring cars in the UK.
Watch Abbie scaring her Mum in a passenger ride around Silverstone in the video below…