Imagine taking everything you have learned, known and assumed about cars and throwing it out of the window. That was pretty much what I was feeling during the Caterham Drive Experience that was held the other week in Sodegaura Forest Raceway. We all know the blistering capabilities any Lotus 7 derived car can provide thanks to its light weight and back to basics layout, but until you squeeze inside one of these tiny little things you won't fully comprehend what they are all about.
Justin Gardiner of Caterham Japan has been inviting me to these events for the better part of the year and every single time I've had other shoots or drives going on. The weekend before the Sodegaura event was going to happen Justin lent me a demo car to drive around for a couple of days, and to help him out during a video project he was doing for Caterham Japan. It was during that weekend that I instantly fell for the Caterham, even if I was only driving a base model. For two days straight I couldn't stop driving the darn thing, every excuse to go out for a ride was a good one and to top it off even my wife loved the car! So after "gently" driving one for a few days around Tokyo I was very excited to get a chance to really go crazy with a Caterham within the safety of a track…or in this case the paddock.
You see the aim of these events is to give people that have already shown an interest in Caterhams a real taste of what these cars are like to drive and what they are capable of doing. One area of the massive paddock had been cornered off and a gymkhana course laid out, ready for each of the participants go wild and put the Caterham and themselves to the test.
Caterham Japan have this special 1.6L Sigma powered black base model for these events which is fitted with one of the sweetest sounding exhausts I've heard on any of these cars.
Interest in Caterhams has been steadily growing in Japan thanks to Justin's efforts in getting the word out, and these type of events will achieve far better results than any sort of advertising could. Caterham Managing Director Ansar Ali was over in Japan for the event and was enjoying the enthusiasm the potential Japanese customers were showing. He was accompanied by David Ridley, the marketing manager, who gave me the complete lowdown on just how popular these cars are in the track day scene across much of Europe.
Here is Justin helping to strap down the first driver to go out during the afternoon session.
Japanese pro driver, car journalist and driving instructor Ooi Takashi of D-Rights was our teacher for the day showing us what we needed to do and helping us to fine tune our skills…
…around the three different courses that we were going to play around on. The first was a tight slalom followed by a quick spin turn around a cone, the second a much wider slalom followed by another tight turn around the final cone and then a more complicated layout where our drifting skills would be put to the test.
While everyone used the black car in the above pictures I, due to my slightly taller and wider stance, would be using this particular 1.6L model with the optional lower floor. This lowers the seat position by 45 mm, just what I needed to be able to steer properly with my hands instead of with my knees! This car was brand new and just off the boat…I actually felt guilty for abusing it!
Ooi-san would take each one of us out on a couple of runs to show us the correct way that we needed to approach the course, after which we were able to go out once again for a final go to see if we could do any better.
Caterhams feel like go karts but ham-fisted driving will obviously cause them to understeer like any other car. The idea at these courses is to tap into the infinitely communicative chassis, steering and handling and coax the best, smoothest driving line out of them around the pre-set course. As the day progressed everyone began to learn how to drive the cars on the throttle, helping steer the car with the rear wheels around the tight spin-turns and balance and control the slide to help you keep the car on-line through each turn.
Oii-san made it all looks so easy you could only laugh in admiration. This guy's car control has to be seen to be believed!
Oii-san would carefully observe each of us…
…and point out our mistakes.
The front end of "my" car.
Justin kindly took control of my camera and grabbed a few shots ever time I went out. Here I am waiting for Ooi's nod to drop the clutch and shoot off the line.
I've participated to a few gymkhana events in the past with "regular" cars, but stepping behind the wheel of a Caterham is taking things to a whole new level. The sharpness and responsiveness of pretty much everything forces you to be very alert and trust what you are feeling through your backside, as you are pretty much sitting on the rear axle! I started off terribly, messing up the line and staying way to tight around the cones. I clipped quite a few and managed to annihilate one that got stuck under the car…gomen Justin! But as I relaxed a bit and listened to Ooi's instructions I began to trust the car more, use the weight shift (without me inside the car only weighs around 530 kg!) to my advantage and gently feather the throttle to adjust my line.
This is what the front double wishbone suspension layout looks like. The damper is adjustable as is the height.
The rear is a de Dion set-up with lower A-frame and upper radius arm. After a whole day of drifting around the track this is what the rear tires of the black car looked like. Apparently they had already been through a few of these events as well as the odd track day. Talk about economical! One more point for lightness!
The famous 7 badge.
A view out onto the final gymkhana course and on towards the rest of the paddock.
When Ooi-san was out on track I felt safe, so got really close to him as he drifted around the main turn of the third and final course. The idea here was to learn how to enter the tight first gear corner without touching the brakes, throwing the car in aggressively until the weight shift towards the front would cause the rear to swing out. From then we had to hold the slide by carefully feathering the throttle…
…managing to enter the short straight tightly enough to shoot down towards the final cone and finish off with a spin turn. Sounds simple enough right?
We got one practice run to get the hang of it and then…
…Ooi-san proceeded to make us feel extremely inadequate…
…by taking each of us out and showing us how to do it properly.
For the final outing we got two practice runs and then a timed run. I almost nailed the first practice run keeping the car pretty much on line and ending with a nice drift around the cone. I spun on my following try which is where the Italian red mist descended and I ended up messing up the proper timed run and spinning once again, taking a couple of cones out along the way.
I really have to thank the guys at Caterham for putting on such a fun-packed afternoon, the most fun I've had in a car in a very long time. These darn Caterhams have really begun to mess with my mind and I dream of fire-breathing R500 models at night, the variety fitted with the sequential gearbox and that all-important low-floor option. If you ever get a chance to have a go at one of these Caterham Drive Experiences try it out as it's well worth the entry fee. There are countless events being organized in the UK and according to the Caterham USA site they will shortly be happening in the US of A too.
-Dino Dalle Carbonare