Updated: September 17, 2016
Time to go a-race trackin'. Our next destination is Donington Park, a 3.2-4.0 km long MotoGP and BTCC racing circuit in the middle of England, close to a bunch of castles, roads, airports, and other monumentia what make the British proud. Indeed, after having driven a Renault Clio Cup round Grobnik, Croatia and briefly stinted in a Megane RS 265 at Spa-Francorchamps in wet and fun conditions, we shall now step into a spartan two-seater open cockpit of one Caterham R300.
There is also a roadtrip element to this journey, which thou shalt read in a separate article. Hither, we shall mostly focus on what happened at the circuit. Cold weather, moisture, fog. Not quite the best friends forever of anyone keen on speed, especially when you need to strap yourself into a roofless 50s-tech roadster, still, it ought to be exciting. Hopefully. Maybe. Follow me.
Glance back if you will, and the odyssey starts at Goodwood, some 320 km away from the Park, via London. Two cars, two completely different experiences, a bunch of friends including the likes of Type-R, an ECU-tuned Megane dCi, BMW 330d, and a night overlay in a hotel with two taps, how so very 19th century. But then, come the morning, the eager participants were lining up for their wrist bands, with the sun obscured by fog.
Donington Park is the oldest park circuit in England, with more than 100 years of history behind it, including being temporarily requisitioned as a military deport during World War II. The racing career was resumed in 1971, and later included the extension of the National Circuit, which was considered too short at only 3.2 km, to 4.0 km, through the addition of the Melbourne Loop. The GP circuit was the one I got to drive.
Comparing one circuit to another is difficult, but it feels less majestic than Spa, less brutal than Grobnik, and yet somehow more primitive and elemental. You do get the sense that the track has a lot of mileage, and that it doesn't welcome amateurs. To make it all the more interesting, the track was fully booked for the day, including half a dozen Caterhams in various guises, a few Minis, a lone Aventador that was asked to adjust the noise of its exhaust below the allowed limit, a mental Bat-mobile like Noble, and several other less eye-catching cars. Still, it was a respectable audience, and the British take their racing seriously, because they can't really enjoy the driving on their prehistoric-era roads.
The vehicle de jour for myself and my friends was a Caterham Superlight R300, powered by a 150HP 1.6-liter Ford Sigma engine. It doesn't sound like much, but when placed into a chassis that weighs only 500 kg, give or take a few stone, see what I did there, you get a motorbike power-to-weight ratio of 300 horsepower per tonne, hence the actual model numbering.
It is a primitive little thing, well suited for the primitive track. Ugly as an orphaned duckling, with a plasticky chassis, and zero driving aids. Everything is analogue, save for the brakes, but you don't get any traction control, ABS, or anything alike. You communicate with the world through three tiny, closely spaced pedals and a small-diameter circle of an unpowered steering wheel designed to help you navigate left and right.
You sit at the very bottom of the car, the driver is located on the wrong (right) side, and you have a six-speed lever on your left, with gears notched together with hair-fine alignment. To make things more challenging, the circuit organizers highlighted some rather interesting rules. If you rev above 7,200 rpm, which can easily happen if you slot in the wrong gear, and they are all clustered less than a thumb's width from one another, you will be fined a hundred British pounds. If you lose control and slide into a gravel trap, you will be fined another 100 per mistake, for a total of three, after which you would be blacklisted for the day, and asked to watch the remainder of the event lamenting the loss of your top dollar. Or pound.
To this end, we were asked to actually start driving in fifth, which seems to be good enough for anything between slow crawl and lightning-fast acceleration, get comfortable with the circuit layout, and then progressively work through the gears, keenly aware of the price of each misdialed cog.
The open design of the car also adds its challenges. Cold and wind and noise. We had the helmet-to-helmet comms with our instructor and/or the co-pilot, and we agreed on simple hand signals that would help us get around safely. At Donington, unlike Spa, overtaking is only allowed on the left side, so if you want to let others pass you, you need to move to the right. No indicators, so you use your precious arms to announce your intentions to other participants.
I tried to attach my GoPro camera to the car's tubular frame, but I didn't have the right fixtures, and even with a bunch of improvised tricks with a hundred zip ties, I still failed to get a good angle of the car. I was forced to abandon the video side of the event, and focus on stills, using both my own equipment from behind the fence of the pit stop and the aid of a professional photographer, hiding somewhere along the track. Since Caterham does not have a real interior, we were asked not use our phones or cameras while inside the car, which meant even fewer digital memorabilia. Anyhow, with a full Finnish-design winter jacket, balaclava, XXL helmet for my huge neolithic head, and driving mittens, I readied myself for action.
And then we were asked to wait. There was a fog covering the track, thick enough to obscure one observation tower from another. This prevented the marshals from flagging dangers, and when you're blasting 200 km/h down the track, this could prove to be tricky. So the whole bunch of us was forced to just wait, and this mean looking forlornly at the cars, talking macho nonsense, jogging about to warm ourselves, drinking bitter tea, nibbling on tasteless biscuits, and walking up and down the pit spots, watching everyone else endure the same misery.
Then, close to noon, the sky cleared, and we blasted off. I was surprised by the aggressiveness of other participants. At Spa, everyone was polite and composed. Donington was blistering with frustration and dangerous driving, possibly compounded by a late start and the fact you can't really bring your driving skills to bear anywhere on the road in the UK. There was a decided gap between first-timers and veterans, and the latter gave little to no consideration to people only learning the track. Despite the clearly stated rules asking for no overtakes in corners, the safety was ignored by most for the sake of some extra time shaved off each lap - another no-no. As it turns out, you are not allowed to time yourself, and if you do, you're invalidating your insurance and participation.
The instructor was also judging on the aggressive side of things. While this was fine for some, we had a lady amongst us, the only one at the track, and rather than being given some credit for even wanting to do this whole racing thing, and sit down in a roaring, ice-cold Caterham like the rest of us, the instructor was unhappy by her lack of GP skill, the whole purpose of which he was supposed to help hone, with patience and confidence.
Things improved when he moved off to other participants, and I took control of co-piloting, trying to remember the good things that Gabriele taught me at Spa, the wide racing line, and the quirky Italian jibes. The lady got much better and smoother with her driving, and I was immensely pleased that my hand signals were clear and precise enough to follow. I was actually being helpful!
The fog settled again ...
I had spent less than half an hour in the Caterham, and only gotten used to its dynamics. How did I feel? Well, kind of surprised. I did not expect the engine to be so flexible, but flexible it is, and the acceleration is really good. The car is very light, go-cart style, and it will go where you point, with only a little bit of backend shimmying if you overstep it. The steering is light but precise. The pedals are button-like, but way way too close apart not to think about your actions rather than focus on the driving. The engine noise is a bit motorbike rattly, but pleasing in a way. All in all, it drives in a sprightly, no-inertia manner, but the overload of noise, bad visibility and danger simply ruin the pleasure of the experience.
Alas, there was no more fun to be had for the rest of the day. To make things worse, the fog was lingering only above the track and the nearby airport. Just a few km away, the M1 motorway was washed in clear sun. Going back was the only sensible option, a huge loss of time, money and karma for a track day, followed by four slow hours of traffic jams back to London (and beyond). I felt trapped, unable to escape the stifling congestion, maddened by the passive aggressive driving style, furious that such lousy, incompetent driving culture is allowed in Europe.
I was also quite displeased by the park, the event crew, the car itself, the track, other participants, the lack of courtesy and etiquette, the fog, everything. I did not expect other boy racers to drive so dangerously, no matter how good and confident they might think they are. I did not expect a professional instructor to push the limits so hard that I felt uncomfortable with his suggestions. Even if he does know the car and its limits, he does NOT know mine. I prefer the slow, incremental progress approach the RSR folks had, which makes you closely observe your actions and carefully improve your driving. If you fear the machinery in your hands, you're missing something.
In that regard, Caterham may have its pointless national pride, and it might be a brutal driver's tool, but it is not a fun vehicle. The purpose of a track day is to help one improve their skill, but most of all, enjoy themselves. If you need to worry about each and every gear change, or how high your rev counter might go nullifies the basic premise of simple, innocent enjoyment. On top of that, the open design is simply rubbish. Rain, snow, sleet, or wind are there with you, and you can end up soaked to the bone. There's no need for this spartan suffering.
Will I ever go back to Donington? I don't know. The track itself is fun. But I will mostly likely never do that in a Caterham. I will go with something more sensible, more modern. I'd also like to try Silverstone first, if and when my UK driving stints occur. The sense of childish excitement and pure euphoria I had after visiting Spa is nowhere to be had. It even comes down to little things like food at the track restaurant (brasserie) and going back home, well, to the hotel. In our Germany-Belgium eurotrip, we steamed at a steady 180 km/h the moment we crossed the Belgian border, all the way to Dusseldorf. Going from Darby to London, I barely scratched 70 km/h trapped in that one long, sustained traffic jam torture.
In a way, it's my fault. I should have listened to my instincts. I wasn't keen on Caterham, and I should have known that 50s technology cannot satisfy a modern man. Yes, if you want to pretend to be one with the nature, or think you're a steering wheel hero, and the audiences are cheering you. But seriously, unless you're a pro, there's no reason to drive super-powered bath tubs on wheels. Or share a track with risk-happy, frustration-loaded speed junkies that forgot the first rule of sportsmanship - courtesy to the fellow man.