300bhp, 545kg and one huge thrill

 

 

 

SITTING in a pit garage at Europe’s fastest racing circuit, waiting for your turn in a supercharged Caterham racing car with 500bhp per tonne is one thing.

It’s another kettle of cod entirely to find out that the SP/300.R racer you’re climbing into is one of just two currently in existence, that the tyres are shot after a morning’s hard driving and that you’re going out straight after lunch and those tyres are also stone cold. No pressure.

Caterham had pulled a few journalists together to showcase the SP/300.R at Rockingham in Northamptonshire. Its outer loop with banked corners and unforgiving concrete walls forms the fastest circuit anywhere between Florida and Turkey – but fortunately we weren’t doing that one.

Instead I was due to fling the 545kg, 170mph and really rather pretty two-seat racer along the tight, technical International Supersports circuit that winds amongst the middle of the site; a track used by the British Touring Car Championship a few years ago.

It’s a loop that, although endowed with only a few chances to really open the 300bhp Ford 2.0-litre engine up for more than a brief burst, is great for showing off the car’s aerodynamics package.

Developed by specialist car racing experts Lola Cars, who also designed the SP/300.R’s chassis, composite front and rear spoilers develop enough downforce over the car’s curvaceous body to allow desperately silly cornering speeds with the kind of lateral g-force that you just can’t achieve on the road. Until you hit something, at least.

Caterham’s marketing manager James Drake was at the event and shed some light on Lola’s hand in the SP. “Effectively the partnership with Lola is the chassis design and then the aerodynamic work.

“We could have gone by ourselves and done it but in 10 years’ time we’d probably still be working out the best bits and bobs for it, so you just get a massive leg-up working with someone like Lola, who’ve got the experience with that sort of car. It’s allowed us to do things that other manufacturers can’t do.”

Caterham will be launching a one-make racing series next year with the SP/300.R, and that was always the plan. Strictly speaking, the SP wouldn’t be allowed to compete in any existing race series – it doesn’t follow any of the rules. Instead, it acts as the missing rung on Caterham’s impressive in-house motorsport ‘ladder’ that stretches from grass roots level right up to Formula 1 with, as of 2013, no gaps.

This is a good few rungs up from the bottom though. The performance from the 300bhp Duratec engine is ballistic. After the process of being strapped in and briefed on the controls has flown by in the merest of mere moments, it all comes down to you and the car.

It happens something like this. Helmet on; sweaty palms into gloves. Negotiate a way out of the garage with hilariously little steering lock, leave the pit lane, plant your right foot, watch the steering wheel LEDs move into the blue, swear very loudly, change up with a flick of the right-hand paddle, swear again, mash the brake pedal into the floor, flick the left paddle, reattach your ears since they appear to have been pulled off the sides of your head, turn into the first corner and start again.

What an experience! Visceral isn’t the word. VISCERAL is more like it. Once you build the confidence to start attacking the corners at speed you can feel the aero package keeping you planted at velocities that would see normal cars spinning off into the tyres. Even a set of initial sighting laps in Caterham’s excellent Seven Supersport can’t compare.

Those astonishing AP Racing brakes dare you to keep your foot on the throttle for an instant longer on the next lap, and the pinpoint steering gives you the poise you need to perfect your lines, even on tyres that passed their best about 15 laps ago. This is true what-do-you-mean-I-should-have-come-in-three-laps-ago stuff.

It feels good for every bit of its claimed 2.8-second 0-60mph time, and you get the feeling that with a great driver who properly understands setup behind the wheel this would be a seriously potent track weapon.

James explained the core of what the SP is about. “One of the key areas that we operate in is racing. We’re one of the biggest race organisers in Europe and we specialise in one-make racing.

“But we tend to lose quite a lot of drivers off the top of our ladder. We have this well-established motorsport ladder starting with the academy and you get all the way up to the [Seven] R300s and inevitably [drivers] get a hunger for more speed, more competition and something a bit different, and frankly we lose customers.

“The SP/300.R gives us another rung on the ladder; a much faster and more serious rung; a bigger challenge and certainly a big step up.”

The company hopes to maximise the amount of SPs they can sell by making the car usable and just about user-friendly enough to be able to take it to track days as well. The track day market globally is buoyant at the moment and there are plenty of folks out there looking for a track day tool that’s ultra-fast, exclusive, great-looking and exotic.

The SP is all of the above and more. Only 25 will be built per year, priced at £67,500 plus local taxes. That’s well over £80,000 on these shores. Spares like tyres are common to Formula 3, though, so are relatively easy to come by, and the challenge is big enough to keep even top-level enthusiast drivers interested. It’s a brilliant move by Caterham dynamically, and time will tell just how successful it will be commercially.