Why Caterham racing is dangerously addictive

Racing is addictive, pure and simple. Speak to anyone who has ever competed in motorsport and I guarantee that they won't mention the mechanical failures, the pre-race nerves or the expensive repair bills. Oh no, they'll be far too busy recalling all the near misses, the fierce rivalry and - if they were any good - the odd trip to the podium.

But how can I guarantee this, I hear you ask? Well, put simply, it's because I was that person. For two seasons back in 2011 and 2012, I was given the unique opportunity to race in the BRSCC Formula Ford championship and I can say, without a doubt, that those two years were the most memorable and rewarding of my life. I might have even mentioned it in the office a few times...

However, despite winning two championships in 2012, it wasn't all plain sailing - there was a lot of family money on the line, and with Formula Ford being the competitive championship that it is, we did experience the odd shunt here and there (some bigger than others, see picture below).

And yet, despite all the ups and downs, it didn't take me long to shut out all of the negative memories and focus solely on the good ones. An ability, as it turns out, that I clearly haven't lost, because on arrival at a rather dreich Knockhill circuit for the second round of the Caterham 310R championship, I'd somehow convinced myself that this weekend was bound to be more fruitful than the first - after all, I now knew the car, I knew the team and I knew the other competitors.

What I hadn't accounted for, however, was the sheer challenge of the circuit. Indeed, on the way to sign on, racers around me who had turned up to practice the day before (and some the day before that - did I mention it's competitive?) were already discussing the 'jumps' and the unique challenge of negotiating Knockhill's infamous sausage kerbs. Rumours were abound that two Formula Fords had already fallen foul of the latter, one cracking a steering arm and the other putting a hole in its sump. Plus a number of Caterham's were already beginning to develop gearbox issues.

It's Friday morning, remember. Racing hasn't even begun.

Mercifully, any pre-practice nerves (and there were many) quickly dissolved as soon as I headed out onto the track. With only three 15-minute sessions to learn the circuit, and with each lap taking just under a minute, there's a monumental amount of information to take in; no amount of on-board videos and practice laps on the PlayStation can quite prepare you for the undulations and severe topography of Knockhill in reverse configuration.

A lap looks something a bit like this: exiting the pits, you charge down to the Taylor's Hairpin, the uneven surface making it challenging to pick a consistent braking point. From fourth gear in the 310R, you shift down to second, turn in early and run wide on the exit of the hairpin to get the best drive down towards Clark's - a fiercely quick left hander with negative camber that runs you out close to the wall on the right. From there, you then have the shortest of straights - up to fourth then down to third in an instant - before you launch (and I do mean launch) the car through the Arnold Clark chicane. Once you've landed, there's still no respite as the left hand curb launches you once again into the air on the entry to Scotsman - a third gear left hander that is arguably the most important corner on the circuit, as it sets you up for the blind climb through Duffus Dip and back onto the undulating start finish straight. If you get it right, you can expect a lap time of around 56 seconds.

Fast forward to the end of qualifying and I'm shattered. With limited time in testing - red flags were a common occurrence - I'm still trying to get my head around both the circuit and the car, and the lap times show it. In practice we'd managed a commendable 57.1 but in the 20-minute blur that was quali, we're two-tenths down landing us 20th out of 32. Not bad, and a definite improvement over P26 at Snetterton. However, our goal for the weekend was to get into the teens. Anything less would be a bit of a disappointment.

As I line up on the grid for race one, we haven't made any changes to the set-up - we simply haven't had the time to experiment - and I don't have much of a game plan, either. I figure Mike Tyson was right when he said 'everyone has a plan 'till they get punched in the mouth', a statement, that is rather apt for describing the start of a Caterham race. After all, I didn't make it past the second corner at Snetterton.

Thankfully, this time, everything goes off without a hitch. As the lights go out on the gantry I get a reasonable start and pick up the odd place as we jostle for position down Knockhill's tight straights. Strangely, despite the large number of cars and the small circuit, the grid stretches out fairly quickly, which in turn allows us to settle into something of a rhythm. Well, until I get my braking point wrong, that is.

During the first few laps I was fortunate enough to be running in clean air, and had slowly but surely been closing in on the driver in front by being both a little bit quicker through the Arnold Clark chicane, and by braking later into Taylor's hairpin. However, on lap six, I decided to change my line into Taylor's by running up the inside of the track - a move, than in hindsight, was hastily planned and poorly executed.

For everyone watching in the stands, I must have looked like I was stretching Senna's famous quote 'if you no longer go for a gap that exists, you are no longer a racing driver' to its absolute limits. But in actuality, I had simply run onto the dirty part of the circuit and couldn't get the car stopped. For over 300 metres, I was nothing but a passenger until I came into contact with the side of number 14, Alan Gower (sorry, again Alan).

The impact was rather large. So severe in fact that it ripped the steering wheel from my hands. By the time I could get the car pointed in the right direction again I was convinced we were out of the race; I must have bent the steering arm or at least buckled a wheel, surely? But as it transpired, despite the tracking being out, the car was driveable, and not just driveable, it was capable of letting me hunt down the one of the drivers that had passed me the lap before. Strong things these Caterhams.

Once I'd caught up with the car in front, the last few laps were some of the most enjoyable I've ever experienced on track. Lacking some serious straight line speed, William Lloyd in his liberally decorated blue and green Caterham would come searing by on the straights, only for me to get him on the brakes into the following corner. It was a proper good old-fashioned tussle, and despite some of the moves being a little close at times, it was fair racing. In the end, Lloyd ended up pipping me to the line, but I couldn't be disappointed. We'd finished P18! And better yet, we'd moved forward on the grid for a Race 2 - a race that turned out to be a far less dramatic affair.

Once again, we got a good start off the line, but a fluffed gear change had me swallowed by the pack by the time we reached the first corner. Mercifully, a number of cars got caught up on the exit of the hairpin and I managed make up some places down the straight into Clark's. However, on the next lap I was struggling with selecting third gear again, costing me another opportunity to make a pass. After it happened once more on the following lap, it dawned on me that perhaps it wasn't me fluffing the changes, but that we were developing some gearbox issues.

Therefore, for the rest of the race I just focused on babying the gearbox, keeping out of trouble and enjoying what I knew would be my final race in the championship. And it certainly wasn't a hard race to enjoy. Knockhill and a Caterham 310R really are a match made in heaven. There are sections of the circuit where you have to be smooth, sections where you need to be aggressive and sections where you need to strike a balance between the two. And the 310R is more than happy to dance along to any tune.

In fact, I was astounded at just how fresh (putting aside the gearbox gremlins) our little 310R felt towards the end of the race. From the tyres and brakes that refused to falter to the suspension that managed to soak up an untold number of compressions every lap, it certainly didn't escape my attention that if we had simply fitted lights and indicators, our race car would have been more than capable of driving back to the factory unassisted.

In the end, by the time the chequered flag was unfurled, we had made our way up to P16 - bang in the middle of the pack; a decent result, and one that had both myself and the team beaming from ear to ear. After all, to enter one of the most competitive club championships in the UK, in a borrowed car, and not finish last is reason enough to celebrate.

And yet, it didn't take too long for myself and mechanic Craig to start discussing where we could make improvements: indeed, the tyres could be scrubbed in a little more, the gearbox certainly needed a refresh and we could have done with some more time on track to fine tune the set up. The fact that this was our last race of the season did nothing to stop us from planning for that next non-existent event.

And that, I suppose, is why this pastime is just so utterly addictive. It gets under your skin and always leaves you wanting to come back for more. Because no matter how much you practice, there's always room for improvement, there's always another position to gain, there's always another line to try, and another championship to win. And when it all pays off, the highs most certainly outweigh the lows.


Neil Winn

[Images: Snappy Racers; find out more about Caterham Motorsport here]

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Comments (4) Join the discussion on the forum

  • HardMiles 26 May 2018

    Looks mega fun & im very jealous. What an awesome way to spend a weekend!

  • Blackpuddin 26 May 2018

    Great story Neil - but what the hell happened to the car in front at 7:15 in the first vid? It just disappears!

  • Dafuq 26 May 2018

    Blackpuddin said:
    Great story Neil - but what the hell happened to the car in front at 7:15 in the first vid? It just disappears!
    Lol, that's spooky.

  • James-18yd2 31 May 2018

    What sort of money does it cost to run a season? Thinking car, any mods required to meet spec?, racing license, transport to/ from venue. Seems a really fun time. Maybe more fun with this on track, than a 911 on the road?!

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