Racing A Caterham R300

I am in a quandary. This time of year as the nights close in, clocks go back, and we start thinking about preparations for the office Christmas Party, my eye always starts to wander. It's the urge to try something a bit different and experience new things, and I don't mean a fling below the mistletoe but a new challenge for next years racing. What championships and cars are on that 'greener patch' of grass on the other side of the fence?

The 'must have' PH logos
The 'must have' PH logos
This year Caterham has started a new race series that nestles in between the Roadsport As and the mentally fast Superlight R400, creating another stepping-stone along the Caterham racing line. The new series also celebrates the return of the most popular model to come out of the little car maker in recent years, the Superlight R300.

As the end of the inaugural season for the Superlight championship approaches it was clearly time for my 2010 racing options to have a little helping direction, as I was recently offered the series 'guest car' at Snetterton. I have to admit the ex-airfield track in Norfolk is not one of my top circuits, but having driven the R300 on the road only two months ago, I wasn't going to turn down the opportunity!

Arriving on a rare sunny day in Autumn I get to meet my ride for the weekend. Most Caterhams look the same except for a few bumps and bulges depending on the power unit fitted in the long nose. The race car is no different, apart from the absence of those niceties/essentials that make them road legal: indicators, lights and a full screen. Surrounding the cockpit is a full external roll cage meaning entry and exit is done Dukes of Hazzard style if you are slim, or like me, through the gaps in the roof.

Sliding in the rain
Sliding in the rain
The car also comes with a very small screen to keep the flies from hitting the lower part of your crash helmet, and a half tonneau made of light metal. It's all in aid of creating a sleeker car through the air, but really it is about as effective as filling the holes on a breeze block. But that is not the point of Caterham racing, it is about close, competitive, or should I say, very competitive racing - and the lack of aerodynamics helps keep it all nice and close.

I strap myself in for the first practice session and after adjusting the four point harness, leg and wrist straps, it is clear I am not going to move much when this thing gets going. Trundling down the pit lane in first I hit the throttle as I exit onto the track and suddenly the power and speed of this rocket ship hits me. This is going to be entertaining.

I may have said I didn't favour Snetterton earlier but it does have an incredibly varied selection of corners that you need for a good race track. Important corners onto long straights, slow chicanes, adverse dips and two ballsy, flat-out corners. Though the R300 is super quick it also achieves that speed with a huge arm around the shoulder. If you have an ounce of car control the car will not force you into the nearest corn field, and you can look like a drift god by power-sliding out of slow, or even fast corners. It may have not been the quickest way round the track, but it certainly is the one that provides the biggest smile.

As aerodynamiic as a Caterham gets
As aerodynamiic as a Caterham gets
I eventually stop pretending I am Ari Vatanen on a race track, and settle in to get some decent times. To achieve real speed in the car you need to make sure you keep it on the edge, be that sawing at the wheel and with applications of heavy feet, or by adopting a slightly smoother style. As long as you are helping the rear slide on turn-in and drifting through the corners with about 5% slip angle it rewards you with quick times. If you are timid through the faster corners and try to keep it on a neutral footing you will find yourself understeering towards the outside of the track. Foot flat to the floor or complete lift-off will both bring the nose back towards the apex, though at 100mph through Corum it does take a bit of grit to choose the former.

With a full day of dry practice I am ready to take the championship by storm, so roll on race day.... when it's raining! Take a 175bhp 2.0-litre Duratec engine and strap it to 550kg of light weight sports car and you have wheelspin in third. Now add Snetterton rain and you have the recipe for the perfect drift day. As I start qualification I check the tyres as I am sure the mechanics have decided to coat them in teflon, and though there is the smallest aero screen in front of me I spend more time looking out the side.

It is a little bit tight out there
It is a little bit tight out there
Keeping the Caterham in a straight line as rain batters my fly covered visor is about as easy astrying to skate Torvill and Dean's Balero, though I can guarantee it is more fun. A wet qualification and race leads me to re-evaluate my skills as a racing driver, and as the other R300 drivers battle away from me I am left picking-off the spinners and finish a disappointed 9th.

Caterham meets are always double headers so with day two basked in sunhine it gave me a good chance to watch the closeness of Caterham racing and learn something from the regulars. The slipstream affect is something that gets mentioned time and time again when Caterhams are on track. Some drivers don't like it as it can act like driver catch-up on a computer game, but it certainly makes sure a leader can't get too far away from the pack. Catching the final lap of a throughly entertaining Roadsport A championship deciding race I watch the first 8 cars came out of the last chicane and preceded to bounce off each others wheel arches as they hurtle towards the finish line. The usual over-exuberant finish to a season, but I now can't wait to get out there and do the same - though with less bumping.

A rare non-slide moment
A rare non-slide moment
I strap into the R300 for the final time and head out on the green flag lap conscious of warming the Avon CR500 control tyres. Settling back at the red light I see a wall of fellow R300s in front just as the red lights extinguish and I hurtle into the first corner. The first laps of a race are usually a close affair as cars jostle for position but as lap 8 appears on the pit boards the usual start lap 'settling' is not stopping. Slipstream overtakes occur on every straight and the chance to have a little rest is a luxury left behind in Caterham racing. Snetterton may have the longest straight in UK racing but while your arms aren't for once busy manoeuvring the Caterham your brain is - constantly working out the best tactic to maximise the advantage from the aero hole created by the cars.

Heading into the last 5 minutes of racing I manage to break the tow of champion elect Jonathan Walker, and set my sights on the ex-Academy driver Matthew Draper and the podium battle. As I exit the final chicane I pick up the tow and pull out at the last second before hitting to sling-shot past. I creep gradually up alongside and even duck in the seat to try and gain another place. The photo finish shows I didn't duck enough and I miss out on the place by 0.026 seconds - it certainly is close racing!

Using all the road
Using all the road
Despite the fierce competition I am thankful there are still race championships where the drivers don't try to emulate every touring car driver's overtakes. It is a credit to Caterham that they have created such close race championships without the argy-bargy that is creeping into other formula, which is probably why the 2006 and 2007 Caterham Academy champions are part of the R300 grid, and will probably stay racing Caterhams for many years.

30 minutes of fun-filled, adrenaline-pumping, close but gentlemanly racing has left me totally smitten. It may have been a quick and torrid affair at Snetterton but I think I may be proposing in the spring, Caterham racing and me is definitely something you should buy a hat for in the new year. Now if I can only put the £25,000 car on the wedding list...

If you fancy watching a bit of Caterham racing and have Motors TV, the Snetterton races will be shown at Sat. 31.10 @ 17:30,Sun. 01.11 @ 12:00 and Wed. 04.11 @ 21:15

Comments (30) Join the discussion on the forum

  • Tazio1 29 Oct 2009

    I wondered how you got on, thanks for the recap and well done on such a close finish. I went on a learn to drift day and it was so much fun, but my day was dry frown

    Good Job PH on getting you the seat. clap

    You must put it one on the wedding list!

  • pw75 29 Oct 2009

    Glad you enjoyed racing with us pete. It's definately very competite but a whole lot of fun. See you in the spring!!

  • pistolp 29 Oct 2009

    Well done. I was racing in the A's that weekend. It is awesome fun!

  • James.S 29 Oct 2009

    See you next year Pete. smile

  • RacerMDR 29 Oct 2009

    I tested that very car from the article - it blew me away.

    I am pulling out all the stops to be on the Grid next season

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