DRIVEN: CATERHAM SP/300.R
It's astonishingly quick, but does it still feel like a Caterham? Riggers finds out
It's all pretty intimidating and, added to my preconceptions about the snappiness of mid-engined lightweights with large amounts of aero grip, has me genuinely apprehensive at the prospect of guiding it around a track that features an unforgiving concrete wall at the edge of its fastest turn. Especially considering Caterham has only two of these things to play with at the moment, and it'll only be building 25 a year even when production is in full swing.
The thing is, though, as soon as you look past the racing car bravado, you begin to get an inkling that the SP300 might not be quite as scary as it seems. There are little clues to this even before you move off: for all its race-tech looks, the cabin is actually a masterpiece of simplicity, with only a starter toggle and a basic brake bias knob to add to the compulsory kill-switch and fire extinguisher lever. Even the steering wheel knobs, Caterham coyly admits, are there more for the look of the thing - the right-hand of the two used for nothing more complex than adjusting the brightness on the digital readouts for water temperature and oil pressure.
The fit and finish of the SP300 is another indication that this is no highly strung diva, designed to last just long enough to finish a race. Even though this is a development hack, there is a level of build quality to the car that suggests it might last longer than the run into parc ferme before it needs fettling. OK, so it's not going to pass muster with the quality control guys at McLaren, but it feels solid enough to make the claims of low-maintenance that Caterham makes for it - you'll get an entire season of racing or track days before the engine will need a rebuild, they say - sound entirely believable.
Faster than a speeding bullet?
It's also oh-my-word quick. this is a car that will hit 60mph from rest in 2.88 seconds, top 180mph, produce 450kg of downforce at 155mph and can lap the Brands Hatch Indy circuit in 44 seconds. Four seconds faster than a BTCC car. Statistics will tell you only half the story, however. Numbers and figures simply cannot prepare you for the way this thing goes, turns, and grips. Especially when you're going fast enough for that aero package to start dialling up the downforce. You end up feeling as though you'd be spat out of the cockpit if it weren't for the determined grip of the four-point harness. I'm not exactly the picture of fitness, but I don't mind admitting that, after just 10 laps or so, I was thoroughly knackered.
Take a look at the video below, and you'll see that I made more than the odd ill-advised braking/turning decision during my time in the car and yet - despite being on the lock stops in the wrong direction at one point - the SP300 forgave my incompetence every time.
It's not all about pace
"We could have made the car faster," says Caterham motorsport manager Simon Lambert, "but it would have been too intimidating. It was much more important to us for it to feel like a Caterham. We want it to move around, for you to be able to play with lift-off and power oversteer. But you can't get that from this sort of car by fine-tuning - you have to design it in."
The result, reckons Caterham, is a sports prototype track car whose watchword is progressiveness, smoothing the transmission between going and stopping, between grip and no grip. If my kack-handed wheel-twirlings are anything to go by, they've scored a direct hit on that count.
Caterham usabililty and modern racing car pace is an extremely alluring combination. A price of around £80,000 might seem a lot, but if you intend to use it as a track car, compare it to a lightly used Porsche 911 GT3 RS, and how much slower the Stuttgart machine would seem. Suddenly the SP300 begins to make a lot of sense...
Engine: 2,000cc four-cylinder, supercharged
Transmission: 6-speed sequential manual, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 305@7,500rpm (335 with 'push-to-pass' enabled)
Torque (lb ft): 214@7,500rpm
0-62mph: 2.88 sec
Top speed: 180mph
(Apologies for the camera wobble...)