1 year, 1 month and 27 days ago.
That is when this story begins. One Sunday afternoon when I drove to Gatwick to view the ex-Academy car Caterham South had in stock. The Academy is the starting rung on the Caterham motor sport ladder. Take 56 novice drivers, give them a race licence and pit them together over 7 rounds to crown a champion. A ban on ‘past race licences’ and tightly controlled regulations helps ensure a level playing field and close competition throughout the grid.
At 6’4″, I was concerned the standard car would be too small. My previous experiences had been in the larger SV version and this was comfortable but not exactly roomy. I was also worried the 125bhp Academy car would feel tame compared to the 210bhp R400. With that in mind, I bombarded Charlie Fraser with lots of questions that afternoon:
- Is the competition really that close? Yes, qualification times from previous races give an indication of how close it is. A couple of seconds typically separate the top 10.
- Will I fit in the car well enough to drive it? Yes. I will need to wear race boots and it is a tight fit, but definitely do-able. The roll bar height shouldn’t be a problem and replacing the seat with a foam one will help.
- Does the car feel fast enough? Yes, it felt good on the brief test drive. Even the lower powered cars give so much feedback that the drive is engaging. Sure, there isn’t much at the top end, but the corner speed should make up for that. The other 27 cars on the grid should also keep me occupied!
- Are the spec tyres that bad? Yes, pretty much. Caterham deliberately chose so that drivers get used to racing at the edge of grip. Low grip tyres break traction relatively easily so there is more chance to catch and control the slide. In comparison with sticky slicks, the speeds would be much higher and the breaking point ‘snappier’. This gives less chance to react and learn what the breaking point feels like.
- Can you really build it yourself? Yes, the grid is typically a mixture of both options, and each has its pros/cons. Self-builders will suspect their car hasn’t been set-up quite as well as a factory build. Factory builders are not as familiar with the car should any issues crop up at the track (Caterham do provide track support though).
- Am I too late for 2017? Yes, at this point I would be one of the first for 2018 (not the first – there are some even more keen than me!). This does have an advantage for self-build as you get a bit more time to complete the build before the first test session.
Charlie did a good job, and I came away from the afternoon buzzing. The only remaining question was the man-maths necessary to convince myself this was a viable option. Rather predictably that didn’t take long, and within a week I had signed up for the 2018 season and paid the deposit securing myself a place in the 2nd week of build.
That was 1 year, 1 month and 27 days ago and now my kit is confirmed for delivery on 15th November. Eeek, this is where it all begins!