Slide show: Caterham drift experience driven

30 March 2015

Caterham 7 going sideways

Caterham Drift Champion Experience
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Good: great fun, friendly instructors, seems safe
Bad: six to seven people per car, not cheap
Price: £249 for a full day
There’s not much that will get me out of bed at 5:30 in the morning, but the prospect of driving a Caterham 7 has done it. Bleary eyed and stoked with much coffee I have somehow managed to reach the Silverstone Circuit, a great many miles from my bed, half an hour before I actually needed to arrive. This is not, for me, normal.

Ahead of me lies a full day devoted to a small car comprising not much more than an engine, four wheels and a couple of seats. Cars don’t get a lot more elemental than a Seven and for that reason I’m prepared to argue that it represents a greener choice than most alternatives. Flinging one about is less profligate than driving a Ferrari in circles. At least that’s my flimsy argument and I’m sticking to it.

Also ahead of me lies an empty car-park, dotted with cones. Surprisingly it’s this broad expanse of white-lined tarmac that is today’s focus, rather than the looping ribbon of Silverstone’s grand-prix circuit. I’m here for a one-day Caterham Drift Champion Experience. For the uninitiated, drifting means driving while looking out of the side window. And that’s a task that is, in many ways, the opposite of trying to find a clean racing line.

Caterham 7 Roadsport 140

A man called Suds, our chief instructor for the day, hammers the point home in his 9am briefing. Today, there are no apexes to be clipped. The cones should be given a 2-3 metre berth. Nothing is against the clock and there are no prizes for speed. In fact we won’t be getting out of first gear. But we will be getting sideways, one way or another.

His colleague Sam helpfully demonstrates what we’re after in one of the little Caterhams. Zipping smartly out of the starting gate, she quickly has the car zooming broadside across the carpark like a wayward shopping trolley. Tyres squeal and jaws drop as she expertly rounds the cones, her scampering, yelping car so fully under control it might as well be on a dog lead.

I’m one of about 20 punters applauding apprehensively as Sam finishes her run, assessing how likely it is that we’ll look like clodhopping buffoons in comparison.

Caterham 7 blah

There are three Caterhams between us all and I’m slotted in, worryingly, at number 13 in the running. I tell Sam that this is a bad omen, which will surely be to blame if I turn out to be a flailing halfwit behind the wheel. She laughs politely. I suspect she has heard this before, along with every other excuse in the book.

The first drivers head out and I’m quickly relieved to see that my fellow guests are all over the place. There is plenty of tyre-spinning action, but not much of it in the intended direction. Many cones are sent flying.

Eventually it’s my turn. You climb onto a Caterham rather than into it: standing on the seat before supporting your weight on your arms and then sliding your legs towards the distant pedals. The seat grips tightly and I’m buckled firmly into place by Suds’ helpers.

I’m given a last-second pep-talk and then it’s my turn to demonstrate that I am not nearly as good at this as I’d hoped.

Caterham 7 Drift Champion Experience

The technique we’ve been told about sounds straightforward. Slot the metal ball of the gear lever into first and leave it there. Get up a bit of speed, brake sharply as you turn around the first cone, then stamp back on the accelerator as quickly as possible. This will unseat the back tyres. Don’t touch the clutch. Steer into the skid and flutter the throttle to keep the back end sliding as you glide gracefully past the other cones. Straighten up, then repeat the same brake-steer-accelerate combination to doughnut around a little quartet of cones and then back to the pits. Simple.

The car – a Caterham Roadsport 140 – has been set up to oblige, with softened front suspension and grippy front tyres, paired with rock-hard rear suspension and taller, firmer rubber at the back, over-inflated to twice normal pressure. All of which is designed to keep the front tyres grabbing tarmac and the back axle a bit airborne under braking. The Seven wants to slide around and it does – a bit too much.

Controlling the car’s wayward tendency is the battle. The steering wheel seems as tiny as a coin and feels either dumbbell heavy or fairy-cake light, depending on what’s going on under the front wheels. The throttle feels jerky and the brakes hard to modulate with not much pedal travel to play with. I find I’m a gifted natural at spinning wildly out of control but not so hot at doing anything else.

Climbing back out of the car, I find small groups have begun to form among those waiting for another go. We watch to see where others are going wrong, and swap commentaries on their mistakes. One bloke is far too timid, clearly. Another is using far too much throttle, and a third is not stamping nearly hard enough on the brakes.

Caterham 7 cockpit

Then we don our helmets and take our turns again and try to avoid the mistakes we’ve just been talking about, with varying degrees of success. Not a lot of what we’re doing resembles Sam’s demo.

Halfway through the morning we stop for biscuits and drinks as the cones are redeployed. Suds helpfully debriefs us, pointing out that 2-3 metres from the cones ought to mean not running over so many of them.

The rearranged cones now describe a figure of eight, which Sam slides around with the grace of a balletic swan. On my turn, I achieve the grace of an obese goose with a gammy leg struggling to take off from a frozen lake. Somehow I manage to get lost around the handful of cones and wind up heading the wrong way around the 8.

I’m starting to think I can hear contempt in Suds’ voice as he gives me a fresh dose of in-car tips before I set out to try again.

Caterham 7 Drift Experience review

We break for a buffet lunch and swap tales of our various scrapes and spins, compare the Caterhams to sundry other cars and generally chew the petrolhead fat. I avoid admitting that I mostly blog about cars with tiny engines and skinny tyres, as the talk is all at the other end of the spectrum. Everyone agrees, though, that the Caterhams are brilliant. We can all feel the cars talking to us, we just can’t necessarily interpret what they’re saying just yet.

For the afternoon, the cones are laid out in their most complex format yet. From the starting gate, we drive up through a left-right-left slalom, zip across the top of the carpark, pausing for a 360-degree doughnut. We then come back down through another slalom, through a one-and-a-half doughnut at the bottom, and head back to the pits. Done right, it takes about a minute to get from start to finish.

Spectating again, it’s obvious how much we’ve all progressed since our first hopeless attempts of the morning. There are still plenty of flying cones and unintended spins, and there seems to be a common misconception that any error can be corrected via a massive dose of extra throttle. But there are also some neatly controlled, elegant slides and convincing attempts at pirouettes in the doughnut zones.

I can feel the improvement in myself, too. I’ve learned how much throttle is too much, which has brought my wild spinning under control. I’m also getting better at the quick flick from brake to accelerator that throws the car into a 45-degree attitude. And I’m beginning to grasp how the steering and throttle combine to keep the car in that stance while still influencing the line taken around the cones. Or, as often as not, the line that goes over and through the cones.

Caterham 7 Drift Champion Experience

Halfway through the afternoon I manage to gather enough control together to execute a neat 540-degree doughnut. As the car glides cleanly around in a little circle of its own tyre-smoke I find I’m correcting the steering and prodding the throttle without really thinking about it. The revelation is both eye-opening and grin-inducing – reminiscent of that half-remembered childhood moment of learning to ride a bike. I have finally got the beginnings of the hang of it.

At the end of the afternoon, there is a competitive element. We will all get two more attempts at the big slalom course, and will be scored by Suds and Sam. There are extra points for big slides, small penalties for clipped cones, and massive penalties for spins.

The approaches taken vary quite a bit, with some people overcooking things enough to virtually disappear in a cloud of their own smoke, while others are too wary of spinning to muster up any real squeals.

When it’s my turn, I decide to be one of the more cautious types. I don’t touch any cones and don’t spin, but still manage to turn out a couple of plump and fulsome doughnuts. The fact that I am actually able to decide whether to take an aggressive or careful line, as opposed to being a passenger in an unexpected whirl, provides a good measure of how much I’ve learned.

I don’t win – I come somewhere in the middle – but I’m OK with that. I’ve had great fun, learned a new skill, and – in common with many of today’s guests – I’m seriously considering coming back for another go.

Caterham 7 Drift Experience review

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