Women's Sport: How Abbie Eaton is taking on the W Series' virtual switch

From socialising to working, we have all taken our lives online in unexpected ways due to the coronavirus pandemic and the women’s only racing series the W Series is no exception. Despite the cancellation of the 2020 season, racing is not off the table, it has just entered the virtual realm.

Last Thursday evening the W Series racers competed in the W Series Esports League for the first time from the comfort and safety of their homes. Using simulators they completed three races around a virtual Autodromo Nazionale di Monza in cars closely designed to imitate the Formula 3 race cars that competitors would drive in a normal W Series race.

After the first event Dutch driver Beitske Visser is top of the league, but with ten more meets comprising of three races each, there is still all to play for – something that British driver Abbie Eaton is hoping to capitalise on as she becomes accustomed to this new virtual normal.

Eaton, who was the test driver for the second and third series of driving TV show The Grand Tour, was due to be making her W Series debut this year. Not only is she new to the W Series, but she is also pretty new to esports, only purchasing a sim at the start of the year to use as part of her training.

She talks to GiveMeSport Women on the phone the morning after the race at Monza that saw Eaton place 14th in the table out of 21 drivers. She reflects: “It was a little bit chaotic for the first round but virtual races held at Monza usually are that way, it's just how the track is.

“It's a really long straight that leads into a first gear corner, so it's very easy to get caught up in other people's troubles which I managed to do a couple of times. Other than that, it was great fun and it was great to be racing with the girls again.”

To prepare Eaton completed some practice sessions the week before and has tried to maximise her time training on the sim, but she explains that it cannot be all-consuming: “Sometimes it's not easy to sit on the simulator all day. We've got other things that we need to get done as well, so it's a bit of a juggling act.”

For example, although Eaton hasn’t done any test driving since the coronavirus pandemic set in, driving has still played a role in her life under lockdown. She has been working as a delivery driver and her night-time journeys up to Scotland two to three times a week have given her a sense of freedom. She reflects: “I have been lucky enough to not be confined to the house.”

In terms of getting back to driving on a racetrack, Eaton hopes it will happen later on this year. In the meantime, the W Series Esports League is a welcome distraction and she is positive about how the virtual racing can play into her preparation for next year’s racing series.

She explains: “I think setting up the esport championship is good. It gives the girls something to focus on and it gives me a bit of an idea of who I'm up against next year and their weaknesses and their strengths and so on.”

Unsurprisingly, Eaton misses being on the track. “The sooner I'm back in an actual race car, the better,” she says, but there are parallels between what she misses about physical racing and the experience of racing online.

“It's the adrenaline that you miss, the highs that you get from it and the focusing of the mind if you like. But the W Series esports championship does do that as well – you're having to concentrate for 20 minutes at a time.”

That said, the differences are also vast. In particular, Eaton says, you cannot see what is going on around you in the same way: “You haven't got your peripheral vision, so it's very easy to have contact with someone else. You have to concentrate even harder to make sure that you complete the race.”

Sight is not the only sense impacted. You are not able to feel how the car is moving or reacting to your driving as you would normally on a track. Eaton explains: “In real life, you feel everything through your backside basically and you feel the G forces and you feel the acceleration and you know when you go through a corner if the car is on the edge or not because you can feel when it's a bit nervous and when it's quite comfortable.

“Whereas in virtual racing, it's all done visually really. You've got to look for visual cues.” Eaton adds that she is still getting to grips with it.

Racing online also eliminates the danger of the track. This means the esport requires a different mental approach and forms of concentration: “On a sim you know you're going to a corner and it doesn't demand off you because your brain is like: ‘I'm just sat in my lounge.' I know if something goes wrong, I'm not gonna die. You almost have to gee yourself up and force yourself to really get into it.”

Although her mind wanders more easily in virtual racing, Eaton says it does still become engrossing. She adds: “There are times where you do definitely get into it. The first lap and the race start are very good examples of that because you've got to be so focused and so precise.”

When it comes to gearing up for races, one thing stays the same for Eaton whether online or on the track – before a race she likes quietness to get into the zone. Achieving this, however, differs. Rather than taking herself away from people, now she mutes a group chat during qualification.

For the main races, Eaton turns the chat with her fellow racers back on. She says: “It's very funny. If we're alongside someone and we can see there's someone there and if they're coming across we're like: ‘We’re there, we’re there! Hold your line!’ Because you don't want to take each other out and everyone wants to finish. It's good fun.”

Her fellow drivers might be competitors, but having a group of people who understand intimately the disappointment of a cancelled series means Eaton has found a support network in an unlikely place. She says: “I’m probably feeling strange about it all because it's the first championship that I'm going to race in where I'm almost racing against a load of friends. So that will be interesting to see how next year goes and if I can just switch off.”

She quickly reflects: “I'm sure I can. I'm probably going to be quite ruthless and be able to switch off and do the job that I need to do.”

Eaton is determined to use the W Series postponement to her advantage. She says: “To start with I had a couple of days where it was a bit of hard news to swallow but I'm looking at it now that I've got a year really to prepare and get even better and stronger and fitter and faster. It's just lit a fire underneath me and we'll see what we can do.”

While we wait for the return of physical racing, we can all enjoy getting to know a new form of the sport. Here's hoping that this week we get to listen in on the racers' chat during this week's race around the Circuit of the Americas.