'Caterham Motorsport Suspends Entries For 2018 Championship Due to High Demand' reads the press release that has just landed in my mailbox. If true, it's a remarkable achievement; not that I would ever accuse Caterham of bending the truth, of course. But after three years competing at club level, I've learned that it pays to be a little bit sceptical when it comes to grassroots motorsport.
You see, not a day goes by where I don't receive an email from a championship organiser espousing the virtues of a particular racing category. Be it something niche like the HSCC's Historic Touring Car Championship, or 'premier' like the BRSCC's TCR championship, each likes to claim that they are either 'rapidly expanding' or offering 'packed grids'.
Unfortunately, the reality is often quite different. With rising entry costs, a distinct lack of media coverage and an oversaturation of championships, a number of smaller classes struggle to attract enough competitors to get out of the single digits. Indeed, at the first round of the 2018 Radical SR1 Cup, only nine cars took to the grid; great if you want a guaranteed top 10, not so much if you want competitive racing.
So how, you might ask, has Caterham managed to thrive while others have faltered? Well, it would appear that Caterham struck gold when it devised its 'Academy' back in 1995. Designed exclusively for drivers who have had no previous race experience, the Academy is an all-inclusive package that takes you right from earning your National B racing licence to taking part in your first proper race. And with the entire package costing just over £20,000 - still not cheap, granted, but relatively affordable in racing terms - it's perhaps not all that surprising that grids are at capacity for the twelfth year in a row.
Indeed, it's perhaps more of a surprise that over a whopping ninety per cent of drivers from Academy move up to the Roadsport championship. And that trend continues up the ladder, with another ninety per cent moving up to Seven 270R, then on to Supersport and finally on to the rather more focused Seven 310R - the latter championship featuring a packed grid of forty cars. Yes, you read that correctly. Forty.
To see what all the fuss was about, we thought it'd be a good idea to ask Caterham if we could have a place on the grid - preferably in the Roadsport or perhaps the 270R championship. After all, I'd never driven a Caterham on track, and had yet to experience Snetterton or Knockhill (the first two events of the season).
So when Caterham got back to us, with the news that the 'guest' car was in fact a 310R, you can imagine my reaction. It was - how do I put this? - an emotional stew of excitement, anticipation and fear. My first race in six years would be on a packed grid with thirty-nine other drivers, the majority of whom had competed in Caterhams for a minimum of four years. Gulp.
Thankfully, my nerves were quelled somewhat on arrival at Snetterton Circuit a few weeks later. Clapping eyes on 'my' 310R, I was relieved to find that despite a hefty roll cage and heavily cambered front wheels, the race car looked and felt to all intents and purposes, the same as our previous long termer. All the road going buttons remain in situ and even the thin fiberglass seat is the same as the road car. It's remarkable how a familiar environment can help put you at ease.
Under the bonnet, the 1.6-litre Ford Sigma engine is also more or less unchanged from the road car. Therefore, compared to the 'lesser' 270R, it gets more aggressive camshafts and a new intake system, both of which help realise another 18hp - increasing overall output from 135hp to 153hp. A standard-fit limited-slip differential also helps to improve traction and throttle adjustability. It's a beautifully balanced set-up, and one that inspires confidence from the moment you turn a wheel.
This is something I'm duly grateful for when it comes to practice. Because instead of having either wet or dry conditions, in typical April fashion, we have a truly testing mix of both. One minute I'm quite happily leaning on the tyres on the exit of Riches (a dry fourth gear corner), and the next I'm throwing lock at a massive slide because I failed to spot the damp patch on the entry to Montreal (a 30mph hairpin).
It's a hugely thrilling but at times scary experience. In fact, you probably learn more about low-speed, zero-grip car control in one wet 20-minute session than you would driving for 20 years on the road.
But as we all know, while going sideways may well be fun, it's not exactly fast. Something I discover rather quickly, as driver after driver gets a run on me down the flat out Bentley Straight. I try to tidy things up on each consecutive lap, but try as I might, the 310R is all too happy to fall into big lazy slides on the exit of high-speed corners; something you can probably get away with at Brands Hatch Indy, but not so much at Snetterton, where each corner leads onto a long fast straight.
To my surprise, on return to the paddock, the team look pleased. My times would have put me towards the back of the grid, yes, but as David Ridley (COO of Caterham and 270R front-runner) helpfully reminds me, "if you've never raced a Caterham before and you finish anywhere near the mid-pack in a 310R race then you'll have done exceptionally well".
He's correct, of course. By rights I should finish last. But I haven't quite lost that competitive streak I had when I used to race in Formula Ford, and I know deep down that 40th place really won't do.
Fast-forward to the end of qualifying - a 20 minute session that passes by in a blur of adrenalin and clumsily caught slides - and I'm still trying to get my head around the car and the circuit. As the team predicted, I've qualified towards the back in 36th place. It's not exactly where I wanted to be, but at least I'm not last. And with forty cars on the grid, I should be guaranteed a decent battle.
In the first race, I don't get past the second corner. After making an acceptable start and passing a few cars into the first bend, I feel surprisingly settled being right in the throng of it. So much so, that I decide a bit of late breaking into the hairpin would help me gain a few easy places. Which it did, for all but the briefest of moments.
Just as I make the apex and start to squeeze on the throttle, I'm presented with a racer's worst nightmare: a wall of cars slowing to avoid someone spinning ahead. With nowhere to go I slam in to the back of the car in front, and then, like dominoes, I get hit from the rear. This Caterham accordion goes on for what feels like an eternity, but as the below video shows, it was only a matter of seconds. Either way, a bent steering arm and coolant spraying out of the bust radiator meant it was game over for us. In the end a total of 10 cars are out of the running.
I get back to the pits feeling a little dejected. The car looks fit for the scrapper's, with the front end hanging off and the rear basket caved in, in my head I'm already packing up and calling it a day. There's no way the car will be fit to race tomorrow.
Craig, my mechanic (and eternal optimist) sees things somewhat differently. After bounding over to check that I'm all right, he quickly turns his attention to the mangled wreck that was, just moments before, 'his' beloved 310R. 'Ah, we'll get this over to the scrutineers, and if they give us the go ahead, it should be an easy enough job to get you back out there'. Even Simon Lambert, Caterham's chief motorsport and technical officer comes over to let me know the car only suffered 'minor damage'.
And in that brief moment I get a real insight into why this championship is just so beloved by its competitors. Even at this particularly low point, various mechanics, staff and other racers all wanted to know how they could help. Even 310R championship front-runner Lee Bristow kindly lent me his own GoPro camera mount when I discovered mine was out of action. What a gent.
The next morning, I turn up to the track feeling a bit more optimistic, even though I've just received the news that I've been put back to last place on the grid (because technically, I was the first to retire). Now, in hindsight, I'm surprised this didn't get me down in the dumps, but like a comedian fluffing his opening line, I reasoned that the weekend couldn't possibly get any worse in terms of results, so I better just get on with it. After all, I'm simply a journalist, so if I make any forward progress I'll have exceeded expectations.
Race two comes around before I know it. Earplugs in, helmet on, belts and HANS device pinning me into my seat, I feel immediately cut off from the outside world. It's a strange sensation, but one that helps you focus on what really matters - in this case, getting a good start. After all, I've got no one to worry about behind me - all I have to do is navigate through the cars in front. Well, that's the plan.
As the lights on the start gantry flash on one by one I select first gear, hold the revs at around four-thousand and quickly release the clutch as the lights go out. This is it. My only opportunity to get a decent result. The opening lap is a blur of daring overtakes, high-speed slides and the occasional bit of light contact. As I come round I have virtually no time to look at my pit board to work out my position. But then again, we're all swapping places at such a fast rate that my current running position feels almost irrelevant.
As it turns out, I've made up 10 positions on the first lap. Not bad going, and it lets me latch on to some of the quicker cars in front. Somehow I manage to overtake at least one car every three laps, and before I know it I'm running in 24th as the race reaches the halfway point. Now, at this moment in proceedings I'd hoped the pack would have spread out and I could either make up some more places, or at least consolidate my own. But with the grid so tightly packed, there's no real chance to catch a break.
Down into Brundle at the end of the Bentley Straight and we're frequently three to four cars wide. And with all of the 310Rs producing almost identical power outputs, it becomes a battle to see who will be the last of the late brakers. It's a game I'm fairly comfortable playing, but with everyone going wheel to wheel it's almost impossible not to get pushed out now and again. Indeed, in the dying laps of the race I lose track of how many times I dive past the car in front, only for them to repass on the run to the next corner. It's endlessly entertaining, but also bloody hard work.
In the end the race is stopped a couple of laps premature, due to one of the racers ahead spinning out on the exit of Brundle. As I trundle into pit lane I'm still a little unsure of where I've ended up, until I see my pit board (borrowed from some kind Scottish 420R racer called Sir Chris Hoy) being held up by the team. P26. I'm chuffed. In fact, I've never been so happy with such a lowly finishing position.
As soon as I'm out of the car, I've forgotten all about qualifying and the disaster that was race one. Mechanic Craig is already devising a plan to get me out on another test day so that we can tweak settings, and before I know it Simon Lambert is in the assembly area asking if I will be attending the second round at Knockhill.
There's only one response I can give: 'of course I am'. And that, in short, is why racing a Caterham is just so deliciously addictive. Close racing throughout the field, an enthusiastic team and that never-ending quest to shave tenths (or in my case seconds) from your lap time. It's little wonder that the championship is already on track to be even bigger and better next year.
As for us, we'll be back for Knockhill. Can we go better than 26th? I'm sceptical, but we'll be there to find out.
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