- Published in The Job.
Jumping into a World Rally Championship car, even the passenger seat, requires a lot of courage. Professional drivers only ever want their car to have more power so they can race over tarmac, sand and snow at furious speeds.
For Paul Eastman, taking notes from the passenger seat during vehicle shakedowns as a student was when he decided that engineering rather than driving rally cars was what he wanted to do. Now he’s Prodrive’s head of rally engineering.
“When you sit beside a professional driver and see what they’re doing you quickly learn your own limits. There was no way that I was going to be able to do driving any justice,” he says.
But even though Eastman was honest about his limitations, his love affair with rallying didn’t dissipate. Driving is only one aspect of the sport, after all. He gained his first work placement while studying at the University of Hertfordshire in the UK. He stripped down vehicles after races for Ford Motorsport. It was the springboard to his current position at Prodrive, where he’s preparing the new Mini Countryman vehicles for their first full year in the World Rally Championship from next season.
He says: “Everyone has to be able to do everything to the whole car, while I also have to manage a team, fix priorities and keep to a budget. It isn’t easy. I didn’t have to stay until 10 o’clock designing a mud flap but who else is going to do it?”
Responsibility for Prodrive’s rally team is spread among five design engineers, and work is building-up towards next year’s championship.The Mini Countryman WRC has already competed in selected races – in Italy, Finland and Germany – as the team fine-tunes the vehicles and continues the homologation process. And the cars are pencilled-in to race in France, Spain and Great Britain.
“All the races are aimed at increasing the performance of the car. We have a long-term goal to increase grip and power and lower weight. Every day we’re thinking how are we going to reduce weight, how are we going to lower the centre of gravity, how are we going to increase power,” he says. There are daily discussions about improving performance. Eastman and his team are influenced by a variety of sources, from the daily testing that is conducted to articles in magazines. “We have to live and breathe it every day,” he says.
Most of the work is done on the track with the driver behind the wheel giving verbal feedback about the vehicle set-up. Eastman says: “The practical side is trying to produce a competitive vehicle for the driver. But the driver has no idea about minimum weights or centre of gravity. They’re very, very basic people who like to go extremely fast.
“No matter how much power engineers give a driver, how much they’ve pushed the boundaries, the driver will always come up and say they need more power.”
The amount of power that engineers can offer may be limited by the sport’s regulations, but delivering available power through specific chassis set-ups for particular rally stages is where maximum benefits can be found. “We have to tune the car very specifically for each event. We have a very controlled set of tuning items, including camber levels, ride heights, differential settings, spring and damper settings and tyre management – these are all areas that can influence performance and driveability,” says Eastman.
Reaching the balance between driveability and performance can involve nearly 300km of testing in a single day, but it’s an aspect that is worth it if the final result is a competitive vehicle: “I get real pleasure in the fact that the professional drivers are taking one of the cars that I’ve worked on and are pushing it to the limit,” he says.
Eastman’s note-taking from the passenger seat as a student may have shown him that he wasn’t destined to become a rally driver, but it gave him an insight into what drivers want, and as an engineer he can help deliver the performance they need to win races.
Education: BSc in automotive engineering from the University of Hertfordshire, UK
1995-98: Xtrac, motorsport transmissions
1998-2001: M-sport, Ford World Rally Team
2001-03: MSD, Hyundai World Rally Team, development engineer
2003-06: Suzuki Motorsport, technical director
2006-07: Honda F1, designer
2007-present: Prodrive, head of rally engineering