Rob’s been having fun with a Caterham. Here’s what he thought of the Slalom Experience, Silverstone.
The back of the car begins to slide left and I start to apply corrective steering. The back continues to slide round and I twirl the tiny steering wheel further. My brain throws the message through – “we’re going to spin“. The steering hits full lock. Instinct says to lift off the throttle but I know that if I do that I’ll definitely spin and I won’t be quick enough to catch it. So a very gentle lift off the throttle is just enough to stop the back becoming the front, as it were, and we accelerate towards the next gate.
It’s five days after the British Grand Prix, I’m at Silverstone and I’m driving a Caterham Roadsport SV for the first time in my life. Now, just to get it in context I’m actually in Car Park 49 just outside the main gate of the circuit, and not thraping the little Caterham round the actual circuit. Unfortunately.
However, the circuit that Suds, the lead instructor, and the team from Caterham have laid out is arguably more challenging because there’s not enough time to relax at any point while driving.
Off the start line you’re straight into a 5-cone slalom, right round a 3-cone triangle, through a 2-cone gate and then stop next to the large blue and white cone momentarily. Wind a little right lock on the steering, 3,000 showing on the rev counter, dump the clutch and see if you can donut round the cone. Then finally into a coned off garage, stopping with the nose of the car poking into a rectangle area of cones.
Penalty seconds are given for hitting cones (+ 5 seconds), not going round the blue cone (+10) and going ‘through’ the back of the garage (+10).
Apparently Caterhams are usually pretty hard to slide, so the team have put very sticky tyres on the front, and very hard tyres on the back to induce sliding. And boy did it slide. Quite a few of the eighteen men and one woman there lost it and we were all, whether driving or spectating, amazed at how fast the back spun round. It was clearly possible to spin the little car in such a small area as to still be on the same side of the blue cone as you started. However, the desire to set a respectable time round the course meant that we were trying to balance the sliding rear, the incredible acceleration and the non-ABS brakes.
Getting into the car for the first time was an education. For many years I’ve read about Sevens, how you feel like part of a highly-strung thoroughbred, linked into its nervous system. You know what the front wheels are doing, can feel any sideways movement through the seat of your pants and have to recalibrate your senses because of the incredible acceleration.
This all turns out to be true, but first impressions are of the small physical size of the car. You take hold of the roll-bar, step over the side onto the seat and then slide your feet down into the footwell. The first impression is that you seem to sit very high in the car. You can see the narrowing bonnet all the way from the base of the windscreen and the two mudguards either side at the front. The rear view mirror feels like it’s next to your left ear. Largely because it is.
You sit more-or-less on top of the rear axle and there’s only a tiny luggage space behind you. The dashboard is crammed with instruments, toggle switches and warning lights, but you don’t have time to look at any of them. The steering wheel is incredibly small and you brace yourself for heavy non-power-assisted steering. However, it comes as a pleasant surprise that it’s easy to turn.
Joy, one of the Caterham team, sticks a cushion behind you if you’re short (I needed two) and straps you into the five point harness. She then explains how to restart the car in the event of a stall (it’s the big red button) which is described as compulsory in the drivers briefing. Reverse on the two-inch tall gearstick is press-down and left. Just in case you spin.
In front of eighteen of your compatriots you start to move off. Then you press the big red button and try again.
Moving round to the start line you remind yourself that this is just a practise. No heroics required – just get to the end of the course without looking like a complete idiot. Suds is standing at the start line and gives you a couple of encouraging and informative comments. For example, whilst holding a camera; “you’re the last one out aren’t you? We always like to take a photo of the last driver just in case you don’t make it back“. And then he takes the photo. Hope my expression wasn’t too serious. You probably can’t see through the full-face crash helmet I’m wearing anyway. I console myself in the fact that the roll-bar must be higher than my head because I needed two cushions just to be able to push the clutch to the floor.
We start off, a nice chunk of revs, drop the clutch and gain speed quickly. A quarter turn of the steering to the left gets you round the first cone, then right, left, right through the slalom. The G-force feels high but the seat is so small that you’re not aware of tensing your muscles to keep yourself upright. I have my visor open so I can feel the wind in my face as the car accelerates.
You’re sitting so near the back wheels that you can’t help but be very close to the cones with the rear of the car. The fruity exhaust sound is quite loud, even through the padding of a crash helmet, and I still find it amazing that the engine is similar to the one in a Rover 216.
The triangle of cones after the slalom looks easy but is surprisingly difficult. Suds suggests that you start by going wide, come in tight to the third cone and hopefully pointing at the gate. It’s hard to get this into your head as years of conditioning say that the short line is the fastest way round. After the fifth guy has spun out trying the short line everyone begins to give it a bit more respect. On this first attempt I’m feeling the back end slide and wondering if I’ll regain a straight course before the gate. Again the sideways forces on you take your breath away, especially when you over-correct and the car slides quickly the other way.
A bit of throttle and counter-steering sees the nose of the car pointing in broadly the right direction so I squeeze the power on until stepping on the brakes to stop next to the blue cone. No ABS. After we’ve stopped sliding I remember to have a quarter turn of right on the steering, dump the clutch and try to control the resulting donut.
You might think that to do a donut you keep steering and throttle constant, but you’d be wrong. Very wrong indeed. It’s a balancing act, winding steering on and off and blipping the throttle to keep the rear wheels spinning and your line round the cone. Particularly good donuts provoked a round of applause from the Caterham team and the other drivers. Suds was able to keep the front offside wheel a consistent 12 inches from the blue cone whilst sliding the car 360 degrees. Awesome control.
The main secret seems to be to look at the cone, turning your head, all the way round the slide, then focus on the garage which is the final obstacle. You thump the throttle, trying not to leave the braking too late. After all this work you don’t want to gain ten seconds by sliding through the back of the garage.
And that’s the end of your first lap. Less than thirty seconds work and I’m breathing hard having put a lot of effort into controlling this frisky car. The briefing suggests that you take a deep breath before moving forwards through the garage and back to the start line.
Three timed laps later and I’m fourth overall.
Then the Caterham guys modify the course. They simply move the first slalom cone 10 feet to the right, the second 10 feet to the left and so on.
Suds advises to turn into each corner on the new wide slalom, blip the throttle to ‘kick the back round’ and not go too fast. On the start line I ask “do you blip the throttle before, during or after steering?” His response is, “as you turn. Well, about 1,000th of second before“. My mental faculties aren’t up to measuring the small timescale so my first attempt is not good. James, who I’ve been sitting with for most of the morning, puts in an excellent time which no-one beats until near the end.
I stop worrying about 1,000th of a second and go with my gut feel on when to blip. On my last run I manage to beat my best time by a full second – 28.90 seconds to complete the lap – and get a round of applause for my donut. Yeah! The worst lap time we saw was 52.4 seconds so I’m pretty pleased.
The morning has been brilliant. Everything went smoothly, the car was great fun to drive, the courses were challenging and the Caterham team were pleasant, fun and nice to be around.
And I was particularly pleased to place 2nd overall on combined times, a scant 0.4 of a second behind the leader. His surname was Ferrari (honest!) and he arrived at the course driving his own Caterham Seven.
This experience cost £125 and it was worth every penny. The promotional line for it was ‘Life is an Experience’ and I’m now richer by one more of them. You should try it. Have a look here.