Cool, calm and relaxed in conversation, 38-year old Charlie Martin has spent much of her lockdown taking part in virtual racing and catching up on zoom-call interviews.
In fact, the Leicester-born racer says she is using this unusual hiatus as an opportunity to maintain her championship form by racing against some of the best sim-racers in the world in the Formula E Race at Home Challenge.
For Charlie, overcoming obstacles is nothing new. As a transgender woman competing in motorsport, she has her sights firmly set on one day racing in the biggest sports car race on the planet, the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Her journey into the big, bad world of motorsport had humble beginnings, starting with camping trips with a school friend and his dad who used to compete in club level circuit racing, hill climbs and sprints.
“I just really loved it. Not only seeing all the cars up close, but also being there in the paddock. Surrounded by everything and trying to help out and experiencing the sense of community and belonging that comes from being with a group of people sharing the same passion.
“Initially I started out in hill climbs and I never had any aspirations beyond that. So it is really probably in the last three years, towards the end of 2017, coming into 2018,when I moved from hill climbs to circuit racing and set my sights on competing at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
“I realised there was only a number of ways that this could happen and, ultimately, it involved raising the budget and getting the backing at this kind of level.
“I knew I needed to start working in the industry, to become a professional driver and put everything into making it happen.”
Charlie admits she has had to fight against the binary attitudes that are still the norm in motorsport and accepts that she will always have to work hard to prove herself as a world-class racing driver in her own right.
With the determination and drive that she has shown throughout her career to date, if she could make it to fulfil her ultimate goal of racing in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, it would prove to be transformative not only for Charlie and her transgender movement, but also for motorsport’s attitudes on LGBTQ+ rights.
There is no doubt that Charlie’s career has gone from strength to strength. After three years of the European Hillclimb Championship, in 2018 she returned to the UK for a full season of circuit racing in the Ginetta GT5 Challenge.
Last year, she took part in the Michelin Le Mans Cup with Racing Experience, achieving multiple class podiums throughout the season.
Once racing resumes, she will race with Adrenaline Motorsport in the German VLN Championship in a BMW M240i which will provide her with her first opportunity to compete in a 24 hours race at Germany’s Nurburgring.
“I feel very fortunate to be racing in Germany this year. As a nation they seem to be leading the way in terms of getting back to some sort of normality.
“And the prospect of racing racing at the Nurburgring is really exciting. Ever since I was there for a touring and driving day, I have always thought it an incredible place and knew I needed to go back and race there one day.
“The driving, it is just pretty wild so having the chance to compete in the 24 Hours of the Nurburging is incredible.
“I think it’s going to be a really valuable experience of competing in a 24 Hour race to then go forward and compete in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
“I went to a VLN race last September and got a good feel for the paddock and met some people and everything seemed to point to competing in that championship.
“It is a massive entry; something like 150 cars compete in the 25 kilometre circuit, so to go and drive there is a really, really amazing experience in terms of what you gain and learn as a driver.
“There’s also the fact that it is such a well-known circuit and the exposure and kudos that comes with that is really important in terms of promoting my story.”
During lockdown, Formula E offered her the unique opportunity to compete in the Race at Home Challenge with UNICEF in the challenge grid against some of the best sim-racers on the planet.
She has found the change from real world to virtual racing very challenging without same feeling she is used to.
With more than 150 hours on rFactor so far, the practice has been the only solution to improving her abilities in the virtual world.
“There have been moments of frustration because as somebody who races in the real world, you have an idea of what your level of car control is and when you come into the sim-racing world, you quickly find that you are at a rookie point which is a case of managing your own expectations.
“You lack a bit of spatial awareness because I am driving on a single-screen, but what I would love would be to drive on a triple-screen or even VR which would give an extra level of immersion.
“The only way to overcome that is hours and hours of practice and learning all the tricks the other drivers use.
“For instance, when they come into a hairpin bend, they will almost drift the car in as if you were doing a rally-style entry into the corner. So I have been trying to learn to put some of these techniques into play.”
Despite her struggles in the Race At Home Challenge, Charlie has enjoyed handling the characteristics of the Formula E car and hasn’t ruled out a future move to the series.
“It has been fascinating getting to grips with the handling characteristics of the Formula E car. Even down to the types of tyres and the fact that it has two types of gears and the instant torque delivery, it is a fun car to drive.
“Some people liken them to a big go-kart and there is a bit of that in the way you have to drive them in the virtual world at least.
“I would absolutely jump at the chance to have an opportunity to drive a Formula E car, because having spent so much time driving one in the virtual world, it would be fascinating to try one in the physical world.”