Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Tracks and tribulations

On a whim I decided to make a late booking for Evo's track evening at Bedford Autodrome last week. Little did I know driving round the track was only going to be half the experience.

Prepare to be shocked: I’m going to start with my verdict from the first significant trip out in the Caterham and it may come as something of a surprise. You see, it appears that the car’s natural habitat is not in fact the city, nor indeed the motorway.

In the first instance the clutch pedal – unlike its two perfectly spaced neighbours – seems like an unobtainable luxury, placed at the very edge of reach for your left foot. This is only part of the problem of course, because the effort required to actually engage it when you get there is enough to wear your leg muscles down to a quivering pulp over the course of 6 miles of roadworks. And should you escape the gridlock onto a faster stretch the buffeting from above and beside the screen causes any passing dust particles or insects to make an instant beeline for your cornea. Of course, your other senses are dulled already because ears have long since started to bleed on account of the 5,000rpm motorway cruise and your body is aching from the stiff suspension and the unpadded race seat.

In a perversely masochistic way it all sounds slightly romantic - being in a racing car for the road - and on an engaging B-road it undoubtedly would be. However, going up the M1 and then negotiating the longest, slowest stretch of road works I’ve ever seen towards Bedford and out the other side, almost forced me out of love with the new toy. But not quite.

The first foray on track came somewhat unexpectedly. Instead of running a couple of safety car laps after the session starts, like most venues do, at Bedford Autodrome the procession from the formation area (outside the actual circuit) to the pits takes the form of the sighting laps. Somehow I’d missed that part of the briefing and so I trundled off behind the other cars expecting a sedate trip, only to find myself doing what would have been a distinctly enthusiastic road pace around the circuit; seatbelt unbuckled, helmet lying on the passenger seat. As always seems to happen the first time you visit a particular track – especially in an unfamiliar car – even that felt rapid. How much quicker would I actually go during the session?

The answer turned out to be quite a lot, but not to start with. The South West circuit at Bedford Autodrome follows a fantastic course, with varied corners and a great range of straights. It is, however, almost completely featureless with no gradient change and few landmarks to position yourself, so the first few laps can be a bit shaky. Once I’d got a vague idea of where I was going it was time to up the pace a little and explore a bit more of the car’s capabilities.

At road speeds deliberate provocation is needed to make the Seven’s stubby rump step out of line and then it does so slowly and progressively. As you approach the limit of steady state cornering however, as opposed to simply practicing abject hooliganism, things start to happen a lot more quickly. It’s still easy to correct with the proverbial dab of oppo and there’s plenty of feedback, but it doesn’t offer a verbal warning, then a letter, and then finally a lazy, half-hearted transition to oversteer like the TVR did.

Still trying to find my bearings, I enlisted the help of one of MSV’s instructors. What followed was pleasingly unpatronising and enthusiastic tuition that largely consisted of him yelling what appeared to be “keep going, keep going, don’t brake yet!” over the wind noise. In between encouraging me to stop being such a big girl he showed me the correct lines, which weren’t always obvious. One such example came at the complex after the back straight where the technique was to take a lot of curb, putting two wheels clear off the tarmac and onto the surrounding concrete in places. It was rather brutal on the car and required careful positioning to avoid unsettling the balance, but boy did it work.

After that I headed back on track with a lot more confidence and rather better lines. Things were definitely starting to come together and I was also tuning in to the Caterham’s responses. Reigning in my entry speeds solved the turn-in oversteer and mid-corner understeer I’d previously experienced, replacing them with a delicate neutrality that would give way to a hint of slip on the exit. It all felt a lot more fluid and controlled, and it seemed to be paying off. In all honesty it appeared the only things that could keep up round the corners were other Sevens; even the 996 GT3 and KTM X-Bow on track seemed marginally slower in the tighter bends. It was a different matter on the straights where the Caterham’s brick-like aerodynamics took over, but it was still indicating a none-too-shabby 130mph on the back straight.

Alas, as is all too often the case things were coming to a halt just as I got the hang of it. The chequered flag fell just before 8pm and it was time to head for home. This turned out to be easier said than done as the ‘Caterham click’ starter motor issue had reared it’s ugly head again earlier on in the day and I’d been dependant on other people for push starts. Between the Evo crowd and a few other familiar faces I’d gained a pretty distinguished pit crew, but it appeared some of them actually had homes to go to. As a result I had to head off red faced and co-opt yet more unfortunate individuals to start it for the journey home, and that wasn’t the last of my troubles.

The bag tank on the Roadsport A doesn’t come with the luxury of a fuel sender, so I’d been relying on other people’s reported tank range all day. With the starter motor issue I didn’t want to head off to a fuel station and risk being stranded, but fortunately my sums said I should just get back. They were wrong. After another 45 minutes of utter misery on the A421 and A6 roadworks I headed onto the M1 only to come to a spluttering halt about 10 miles later. Bugger.

At this point it could be argued karma was about to intervene. I had a slight rant about the AA in my last post and I couldn’t help wondering if I’d grossly underestimated the readership of this blog as I sat on the side of the road waiting for over an hour in the darkness. To make matters worse, once the guy arrived with some fuel, he announced that their union had forbidden them to push start vehicles. After a certain amount of persuasion he agreed to tow start the car with a rope instead, and I was on my way.

As the cold night air tumbled over the windscreen and the engine screamed away (despite a relatively law abiding pace) the car’s touring limitations once again became apparent. However, as a track tool and a B-road toy the Seven offers performance and exhilaration to humble all but the most extreme sports cars. And, to be honest, I think I'm even starting to enjoy the masochism that dominates the rest of the proceedings.

Lead photo:Chris Rutter/Evo magazine

No comments:

Post a Comment