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Thursday 11th October 2012


RACING WITH CATERHAM: PART ONE

PistonHeads goes racing with Caterham and gets a lesson in the school of hard knocks


Racing is a dream for many but one realised for over 900 drivers who've progressed through Caterham's Academy series, our own Riggers among them. There are, of course, many ways into the world of grassroots motorsport but Caterham has really nailed the formula, offering a relatively affordable route in, packed grids and a championship structure that encourages real community spirit.

Bright and early and keen as mustard...
Bright and early and keen as mustard...
Having ragged a Caterham around the Alps it was with the same car at Brands Hatch that I met Caterham boss Graham Macdonald, business manager Dave Ridley and racing boss Simon Lambert. And someone rashly said, "you should come and do a race some time..."

Have a go hero
A couple of months later I rock up at Snetterton in the PH Evoque on a late summer morning to find a paddock heaving with Caterhams and accommodation ranging from flash motorhomes to more basic two-man tents pitched beside the track. It's busy, even this early in the morning, the air thick with the clang of spanners and cheery hellos. The fact that many of the drivers start together in Academy, progress through ARDS, test days, sprints and finally racing clearly forms lasting bonds.

PH's Roadsport emerges from the truck...
PH's Roadsport emerges from the truck...
Roadsport is one up from Academy, grippier Avon CR500 tyres replacing the CR322s of Academy the most obvious upgrade. Tracksport, previously known as Supersport, is the next level, lights and screens coming off and wider track front suspension increasing cornering grip. Finally there's Supersport with more tuning permitted, the fact all championships are based around the same 1.6 Sigma-engined Seven making step-by-step progression an attainable target for anyone willing to commit. It's a bigger step to the 2.0-litre R300s but plenty do it, freeing up secondhand cars for those looking for an affordable route in.

Be my guest...
I'll be guesting in the Roadsport championship, meaning testing today, qualifying and a race on Saturday and a second race on Sunday. I'm ready for the fact it's going to be tough. But at this stage I really have no idea quite how tough...

Roadsport is the next step from Academy
Roadsport is the next step from Academy
Simon introduces me to Jenny Grace, whom I instantly recognise as the kind of person stuff depends on. Administering five packed grids and nearly 200 registered drivers would be a test of anyone's patience and organisational skills but Jenny's on top of it and quickly whisks me off to the Roadsport paddock to meet some of the folk I'll be racing. Brad Smith is one to watch, I'm told, and proves as much over the weekend. 'Well old' Frank proudly tells me he's the most senior man on the grid, adjacent Adrian Hume and Humphrey Bucknell offering friendly hellos. Then off to the garages to meet Mark and Brett from Caterham, who'll be looking after my car. Everyone we pass proffers a "Hi Jen!" as we rush through the paddock, easy banter flowing.

First taste of how spicy things are going to be on track comes with the sessioned Friday practise. I'm expecting a reasonably relaxed opportunity to ease into the car and track. Bit like a track day I think.

Dan heads out for the practise session...
Dan heads out for the practise session...
Actually not.

Unleash hell!
Mixed in with the Academy cars we file out in a long snake and all hell breaks loose. It's like we're already racing, corners approached two or three abreast, people shooting by left and right, Caterhams all over the place. Bloody hell!

It's further confused by the fact the Academy cars run the larger, less grippy tyres. Meaning they're slower round the corners but have the legs on Snetterton's long straights. So a Roadsport driver can harry an Academy into and around a corner, only to find himself out-geared up the straight.

I've no idea of what my lap times might be but catch drift that the fast boys are in the 1:27s. Frank's in the low 30s but not breaking out of them so I've got some idea of the pace. Asking about it seems most folk have vBox camera and telemetry in their cars, Adrian Hume kindly lending me a spare lap timer.

When they say 'getting to grips with it...'
When they say 'getting to grips with it...'
Speed: more needed
Next session I get some indication of my speed and it's not good. 30s and 31s flash up and, eventually, a 29.999. I've got good cornering speed - more than a few of the other drivers especially through the faster corners - but I'm losing out on the tighter stuff like the Montreal chicane and Murrays. Both critical because they lead into long straights.

Hunting for time in a Caterham is a lesson in dynamics and hard fought tenths. Even the straight bits of Snetterton present challenges - how can I shorten it, does that slight headwind mean the difference between braking and a slight lift for Riches (yes), how close do I need to be to the car in front to get a tow (very), does the slightly adverse camber on the outside of Coram mean hugging the inside kerb is actually quicker? And all the while every tiny lift, every millisecond longer you stay on the brakes on turn-in, every tiny movement to the wheel or throttle provokes an instant response. And, boy, if you run wide on the exit to Murrays and ground out on the kerb you - literally - feel it thump you in the base of your spine. It's intense, demanding of every ounce of skill and bravery and utterly, utterly addictive. I know I've got work to do but I leave Snetterton fully fired up and very excited about what's to come...

 


Part two to follow - stay tuned!







   

Additional photography: Rick Wilson/Caterham

Author: Dan Trent
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