After years of being dogged by its ignominious F1 team, Caterham is finally a company on the move. Its latest special edition, the Seven SuperSprint sold out in just a matter of hours, the factory is operating at capacity and there are even talks of Caterham exploring the dark art of electric propulsion.
But perhaps more impressive than all of Caterham's recent road car related success is the prosperity of its racing programme. With rising entry costs, a distinct lack of media coverage, limited sponsorship opportunities and an oversaturation of championships, a number of smaller club racing championships are struggling to attract enough competitors to get out of the single digits.
Not so with Caterham. Indeed, well before Caterham's 2018 motorsport programme kicked off, the company sent out a press release reading 'Caterham Motorsport Suspends Entries For 2018 Championship Due to High Demand'. That's right. All five Caterham championships that make up the company's motorsport programme, from Academy right up to 420R, had full grids - 310R alone fielding a whopping 40 cars.
Caterham puts this success down to the 'low running costs of the Seven, strictly controlled regulations and gripping, close racing', but we reckon there's more to it than that. After competing in the 310R championship for two rounds earlier this year we couldn't help but notice there was a buzz around the paddock - the kind of buzz that comes from a bunch of mates going racing.
To find out how Caterham has fostered this community spirit, we spoke to CEO Graham Macdonald. A man who has grown to love racing as much as his customers do, through buying and competing in his own Academy car.
Manufacturers like Porsche closely align themselves to motorsport, but it seems like the employees at Caterham actually live and breathe racing. Indeed, I noticed that a number of senior management figures take part in the motorsport programme. Is that actively encouraged?
"Well, it was only a couple of years ago that I felt the company had finally got to the point where it was performing well enough that I could start looking at racing in the Academy championship myself. I thought why not? And I let my intentions be known to a few of the staff.
It was at that point where quite a few members of staff, particularly David Ridley (Chief Commercial Officer), expressed that they too wanted to go racing. So we thought we'd encourage any members of staff to go racing by offering a prize draw so that the winner gets free racing; their entry fees paid and free use of our demonstrator car. The only rule was that you had to pay for your test days and crash damage - you bend it you mend it, essentially."
So did you end up racing that year?
"No actually. In the end David actually started the project off. Then a year later we had a draw and the name picked from that hat was Ralf, our Sales Manager, who was thrilled.
I actually decided, as the boss, to step out of the draw; instead purchasing my own car and building it myself. And then this year Dan Piper my Service Manager won, which was nice as he'd always wanted to go racing.
Oh, and then of course we have Lee Bristow who started in the Academy off his own back and now we support him, too. He actually won the 310R championship last year and is going this well this year too."
Talk about employee benefits! But I take it you also use the competing members of staff to give you feedback on areas where the racing programme can be improved?
"Yeah, absolutely. When you sit in the office and run the numbers you think 'wow, motorsport is a huge expense'. And poor Simon Lambert (Chief Motorsport and Technical Officer) who runs the motorsport side of things is always defending his corner telling me 'we have to put on more hospitality - we have to have a bigger truck' - and highlighting that we make money off parts revenue.
But when Dave and I are in the paddock we get to talk to our customers and understand just how it works first hand. Even in my first year in Academy I made various recommendations and because of that we're only going to do one Sprint next year, instead of two. We used to do three! But now we're going to do one and get straight into the racing,"
So a lot of changes can come from what you hear from other racers?
"Absolutely. It's little things like 'wouldn't it be great if the races were 20 minutes not 15'. So now we've upped the length of the Academy races.
And actually that change is because the whole world has changed. Twenty years ago we had to put people through sprints because they wouldn't have ever been on track before. But now, we see people buying a second hand Academy car at least a year before they go racing and spend that time on track days with instructors because the whole mentality now is so competitive."
That's what surprised me when I was racing in the 310Rs, throughout the field everyone appeared to be of a high ability. Do you think that comes from the unique structure of the Caterham series?
"Well, we have about a 70 to 80 per cent retention rate from the Academy, so out of those 56 or so drivers we'll get around 40 cars going up to Roadsport, then the same per cent goes up to 270 and that pattern continues all the way up the ladder.
Of course you get the natural attrition of people who think they want to be a racing driver and then they realise they're not that good so they sell their car after a year and move on. So the ones that keep moving up into 270 and 310 who have done three or four years are naturally going to be competitive.
And because the 310R is as far as you can go in your Academy car - you can do Academy, Roadsport, 270 and 310 - it will last you four or more years. Which of course means all the good guys end up in 310Rs."
With that kind of structure, do you think the top categories might become a little too competitive, therefore losing that magic club racing atmosphere of mates going racing?
"We have to remember it's an amateur competition - it's club racing. And we work very hard to make it inclusive. So, whether someone is at the top, the middle or at the back, as long as they're racing against their friends, feeling they're having a good race and their family can come along and enjoy it, that's all that matters."
Now, one of the more surprising things I learned while competing in the 310R championship is that despite it being the most successful class with 40 cars on the grid, it is actually the least popular Caterham road car in terms of sales. So do you think motorsport actually helps drive sales or not?
"I don't necessarily think motorsport per se helps sell road cars. There will perhaps be the odd person who goes to Brands with his family, sees a load of Caterhams and thinks 'that's amazing' and goes and buys a road car.
Instead, what we tend to do is use the development of the racecar to feed back into the road car. Because the 310Rs are lapping at flat out revs, bouncing off the limiter and bouncing over kerbs, we know that if we have a grid that is reliable and consistent then that same engineering can go into our road cars.
Whereas Porsche or JLR will have mule cars tested all over the world in a variety of climates and over millions of miles, we simply don't have that luxury. So the fact that we can develop something and use it in motorsport helps us know it's reliable."
With the motorsport programme being so successful in the UK, do you plan on expanding into other countries?
We'd love to do it. We have a French race series already where we have 212 competitors - they have around 100 racing in Academy, Roadsport and 420s. And we have some racecars in Colombia, Turkey, Malaysia and Taiwan - small pockets.
But the difficulty is finding traction in those countries. We've got where we are in the UK after twenty years of company support. When we try to set up a race series in another territory, someone else has to manage that - we don't manage it centrally as a business - perhaps an importer.
Perhaps in the future if we have money to put a structure into place we can do that. But at the moment we have a big presence for a small company and we're focused on growing that."