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Ring Reviews

Onboard Caterham R300 Superlight Nurburgring


Just to recap from the last episode of this somewhat confuzzled tale, I'm at the Nurburgring Nordschleife car park on a very busy Sunday afternoon.

My car for the day is the beautiful Caterham R300 Superlight loaned by Kurt Hoffman, who you might know for his Caterham Drift Days here at the Nurburgring. The car is now bristling with cameras of various sizes and qualities because the Discovery Channel's Daily Planet show have took the somewhat left-field decision to follow me for the day as I test a car on the 'Ring.

So I squeeze myself, and I do mean *squeeze*, into the fixed plastic bucket in the narrower-than-a-CSR175 chassis. There's no padding in this seat, but luckily I brought my own <cough>. I consider myself portly with a 38" waist band... one more size up and I'm pretty sure I wouldn't be comfortable. Two more sizes up and you'd need a crowbar and a tub of butter.

The pedals also don't tolerate people outside of the 'norm' - my size 9.5 everyday 'driving' shoes are way too big. Even wearing my racing 'pixie' boots, I can barely operate a single pedal independently.

But when you're in, oh boy are you IN. You're part of the car. You're like a fighterpilot strapped into a machine, a machine with purpose. The tiny steering wheel is more than enough for the delicate input you need to give. The six-speed box is with in perfect poking distance from the wheel.

I'll be honest, my heart is beating a little bit faster just looking at the world from this laid-back position. The bright red rollcage frames the scene beautifully. The clocks and shift lights are plain, but functionally gorgeous. 

The car park is packed. Heaving. It's an automotive petri-dish on a hot summer's day, teeming with activity. The camera crew are all over the crowd, the cars, the atmosphere. I'm sure when the episode airs it's going to look awesome. But back to the car for a moment...

I've been driving cars or riding bikes for review around the 'Ring for more years than I care to remember. And 99% of the time I do it on the much quieter weekday evenings. In fact, most of my laps here at the 'Ring have been on 'quiet' days - the nature of my job at the nurburgring car rental company means on busy days I can't drive myself.

And I'm not thrilled about how busy it is - the Caterham is a quick car that depends on fierce acceleration and high cornering speeds to achieve its laptimes. With this much traffic, it'll be tough to see the R300's potential...

With a squeak from the racing clutch and a judder from the aggressive LSD axle, I'm out on to the Nordschleife. I needn't have worried. Driving a car this fast in a busy public session on the Nurburgring Nordschleife is a weird experience, but not scary. Maybe it should be scary, but I'm having too much fun to remember what fear is. The R300 is a fast-forward car in a slow-motion world. Other cars wallow ponderously around the circuit while the R300 just darts in and out like a tiny tropical fish.

Of course every now and again, this tiny black raider could get barged out of the way by one of the slow movers, and I do my best to remember this as I aim for gaps that seem to be underneath other car's wing mirrors.

The gearing's too short for the amazing motor. This is the same motor that I was despising in the CSR175, but here with a heat-baffling plastic manifold and a free-breathing race exhaust it's a rev-happy beast with a dollop of torque that the old K-series can only dream of. The six-speed box is a pleasure to drive too, though it never sees anything less than fourth gear for the briefest of moments...

A Verdict. Of sorts.

I will now attempt to summarise my experience of Caterhams on the Nordschleife this summer.

Lapping: Driving laps in the Caterham is a pleasure. It's the essence of sportscar driving distilled into a concentrated shot which delivers pure adrenaline and enjoyment every time you drive. The brakes, the power, the steering - all are without artifice or padding. They are direct. If you're the sort of driver who knows that secretly the computer is saving your arse three times every lap, you'll need to slow down in the Caterham and start learning again. This car will make a good driver better, a great driver awesome and a poor driver very embarrassed. No ABS means you can lock the powerful brakes pretty easily, this solid rear-axle is surely the best version of this archaic solution - but it still means you need lightning fast reactions to save a slide. And the slides can come easily enough with this much acceleration and so many cambers, cross-falls and kerbs...

Costs: After spending time with a Seven, you wonder; what is the point of driving a bigger heavier car? Surely everything over half-a-tonne just slows you down and costs you more money? 13" tyres on the R300 are amongst the cheapest sticky rubber you can buy. Fierce brake pads last forever and a day. Even the gas bills bring a smile to your face. At full pace I was using €7 of gas per lap. In a modified Evo or M3 doing the same laptime I'd be spending €15 to €25 per lap. A lot of people argue the initial purchase price of a Caterham is too much for too little, but look at the residual prices. Look at how much you'd spend on a Porsche that could do the same laptime...

Danger: Dear internet blog reader, everybody's perception of risk is different. I'm just at the point where I can accept that riding a superbike around the ring is a little bit too dangerous for me. Some people happily do that all year. But others wouldn't drive around here wearing body armour and driving a roll-caged Volvo. So when I say that a Caterham exhilirates me each and every time I lap, then you might want to dial that phrase up or down, depending on your own perception of danger. I had one passenger who demanded to be let out half-way, and another who wouldn't even leave the car park. I think the perception of risk is higher in a Caterham, that's for sure. You're exposed to the world and its foul dangers, but the adrenaline is sweeter. The R300 I'm driving here has six-point harnesses and a superb rollcage - it's an FIA-approved race car with all the safety thereof.

Overall: The Caterham seven experience is either something that's going to rock your world, or it's something you're probably not even going to consider. Whatever side you're on, I'd recommend everybody to go out and find a way to test drive a seven of any description before you knock them.


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