► Ariel Atom 3.5
► Caterham 310 S
► Elemental R2
Last year, three of the CAR team decided to attempt the ultimate British racing weekend. After bombing around Brands in three of the UK’s most outrageous track-day cars, they then drove to Silverstone to watch the 2017 British Grand Prix – and took the brave decision to camp, too. In this article you’ll find out exactly what they thought of the Ariel Atom 3.5, the Elemental RP1 and the Caterham Seven 310.
Ariel Atom 3.5
We’re at Brands Hatch (which hosted its first British GP in 1966, won by Jim Clark, and its last in 1986, won by Nigel) in three very eccentric, very British sports cars. If we survive the trackday, we’ll then drive up to Silverstone with our tents and spare pants to watch Lewis win the British Grand Prix. Then it’ll be home for cucumber sandwiches in front of Countryfile.
It’s fair to say these three cars weren’t designed for camping: Ariel’s Atom 3.5, a supercharged cutaway drawing on wheels; the Elemental RP1, low of weight, high of tech and the latest product of the UK’s cottage sports car industry; and the Caterham Seven 310, the latest variant of a car old enough to remember when Stirling Moss was winning the British GP in a Vanwall (1957).
I was a little concerned when the Ariel turned up that it wasn’t the full-on 3.5R, because that has a wing and in my head that was what I was going to strap my tent to. Fortunately though, the Atom is basically a very fast shopping trolley, and trolleys are designed for carrying things, so clothes, tent, varying jackets for 70mph exposure to every weather type and a toothbrush go into the Atom’s footwell quite happily. The only issue is one of security: there isn’t any, so anything of value has to be left at home.
Fortunately there are no cliffs off the side of the GP circuit at Brands Hatch, which is just as well given that driving the Acme Atom feels a lot like being a cartoon coyote strapped into a shopping trolley with rockets attached. Were this the cartoon, the outcome would be predictable: a distant puff of smoke, a boulder falling on my head and a road runner beep-beeping.
Instead of an annoying blue bird looking on, there’s a Technicolor plethora of McLaren, Aston Martin and Ferrari GT3 and GT4 racing cars breathing down my neck as I sit in the Atom, patiently waiting for the first run of the day and trying not to look anything like as terrified as I am. It turns out track time on the full GP circuit is so hard to come by race teams tend to snap up the places. Great.
Of all the intimidating scenarios you care to dream up, let me assure you nothing compares with trying to learn a circuit you’ve never driven, in a car that would give an RAF Typhoon a run for its money (while offering no electronic driver aids), with pro racers streaking past on both sides. Where are the scrappy souped-up Astras and hopeless have-a-go Hondas of trackday lore? The risks are multitudinous and varied, and include being slow, being terrified, being crashed, being in the way, being on the wrong line and being slow, again.
Except that it’s pretty hard to be slow in the Atom, because the Atom doesn’t really do slow. Even on the straights its 600-ish bhp per tonne (310bhp from 520kg) of screaming supercharged fast-twitch muscle gives even racers a run for their money through the lower gears.
But in the bends the non-existent aero and equally non-existent help leave you utterly and mercilessly exposed to your own talent. It’s fortunate, then, that when you forget purple-sectored lap times and replace millimetric steering and throttle precision with grinny hooning, the Ariel is just as rewarding.
Nuts though it may be, the Atom’s an utter joy on the wide expanse of the Brands Hatch GP circuit, the chassis telegraphing slides early and clearly, and making them surprisingly catchable so long as the tyres are warmed. The chuggy old bingo-winged Caterham might be more forgiving for learning unfamiliar circuits, and if you’re going for pole the Elemental is probably your best bet, but for unadulterated, unfiltered joy the Atom is unbeatable.
On the road – especially the cross-country back roads we use to reach Silverstone – the Ariel occupies a similarly sweet middle ground. With its precise controls, the Atom is really enjoyable just to tootle along in. The engine reacts instantly, making the Atom surprisingly easy to drive in traffic, while the conductor’s-baton gearlever is a joy, even when the supercharger isn’t shrieking bloody ghoulish murder.
Send the long-travel throttle to the floor, though, and the Atom feels bonkers-quick as dead badgers, curbs, potholes and drain covers whoosh past a couple of feet away from your knees, the supercharger screaming in your left ear, although the longer travel suspension tends to follow larger swells in the road where the super-stiff Elemental flits over them, like a stone skipping across a pond. This can be disconcerting but you soon learn that the Atom gives you very clear messages all the time, which means you also learn to trust it.
Despite its ridiculous raw pace – and it is ridiculous – the Ariel doesn’t feel likely to head off on its own to pastures new, because the measured steering, the immensely strong brakes, the long throttle travel and the commensurate engine response are all so precise – any disaster will be entirely your own fault and, if you didn’t see it coming, well, you only have yourself to blame.
This camping idea is a joke. As far as I’m concerned the only good tent is one with a string quartet at one end and free bar at the other. But after the three hour-drive to Silverstone in the Ariel, having my arse aggressively blasted by gravel, I suspect a £20 Argos tent and a sort of stretcher/bed thing from the side of a MASH helicopter will feel like a pop-up version of The Ritz.
By Steve Moody
Engine: 1998cc 16v supercharged four-cylinder, 310bhp @ 7200, 225lb ft @ 4500rpm
Performance: 2.7 sec 0-60mph, 155mph
Weight: 820kg (dry)
Suspension: Double-wishbone front and rear
Caterham 310 S
Sharing the British Grand Prix with Silverstone on alternating years from the 1960s through to the 1980s, the full Brands Hatch Grand Prix layout veers off the little Indy circuit just before the smaller end of the kidney and strikes out into the woods like a proper European classic, cut from the same hallowed cloth as old (or new) Spa or the old Hockenheim. Out the back it’s narrow, mostly blind and very, very fast – goodness knows what it felt like for the likes of Mansell and Piquet, going wheel-to-wheel in 1000bhp+ turbocharged cars with turbo lag to make a dial-up internet connection feel responsive.
I’m making do with 155bhp in the Seven. The 310 sits bang in the middle of Caterham’s rejigged range (now with names that broadly tally with power-to-weight ratio), with 1.6 litres of remapped Ford Sigma engine.
This one’s got the optional S (for street) pack – softer, more pliant suspension, actual carpets and a windscreen – and, with a gentle understeer bias, it’s the perfect car in which to ease yourself into a daunting circuit. But before long I’m wearing a grin wider than my visor.
This is what Sevens do; what they’ve been doing for 60 years now – freaking you out at first with their minimalism and responsiveness, then helping your confidence soar inside just a couple of revelatory miles.
More than anything it’s the clarity of the Caterham’s lines of communication and the forgiving dynamics of its front-engined layout that bring the magic. Even if you’ve never caught a slide before in your life, half an hour in one of these and you’ll be opposite-locking like Alonso.
Caterham reckons the 310 is the car it would make were it able to offer only one (you could argue it does offer only one, but you get the idea). We’re not so sure. The range-topping, supercharged 620 is popular but too much for most, while the 270 and 310 just don’t have enough straight-line performance.
Opt instead for test drives in the 160, the little Suzuki-powered entry-level Seven that combines a plucky powerplant and naff-all grip to charming effect, and the 420, which uses 2.0-litre Ford power for 210bhp and 0-60mph in a pretty convincing 3.8sec.
With more laps, chinks appear in the 310S’s track armour, though the gripes are mainly ergonomic (and can be cured with time and spanners) or related to the fact that, for track use, you really want R spec, unavailable in time for this story: limited-slip diff, lighter flywheel, sport suspension and bigger brakes.
The Seven’s throttle pedal is a little sliver of a thing, hidden high up in the corner of the footwell, which can make heel-and-toe downshifts extra tricky: you have to dexterously brake
with your big toe and stretch for the gas pedal with your little toe if you’re going to rev-match effectively. And while those deeply padded S-spec leather seats feel positively luxurious on the road, they’re less supportive on track – I occasionally wonder if I might actually fall out of the car when turning left at Graham Hill, my shoulder heaving at the wobbly ‘door’.
The 310 feels spicy on the road but under-seasoned at speed-bowl Brands, so I steal a quick go in the other two, both of which pack twice the power – albeit bottled-up by Brands’ strict noise regs. The Elemental feels incredibly well-sorted and balanced, with one of the fastest gearboxes I’ve ever used, zero bodyroll and the spooky sensation of its underbody downforce painting it onto the tarmac.
The Atom’s edgier, and spills into oversteer where the other two stay true, but goodness me it’s quick – even using just fifth and sixth gears to avoid tripping the noise meters. In the Ariel I let a VW Cup racing car past into Druids, its inside rear slick dangling in fresh air, only for the Atom to reel it back in on every straight, despite shifting up so early as to cut the supercharger’s whine off mid-yelp.
Back into the Seven and, just as I’m set to continue my griping about the S specification, I nose out of the circuit gate, relieved that the Caterham’s wafer-thin aluminium bodywork and impossibly delicate-looking frame are in one piece, and have a little smile to myself.
Maybe it just says something about the extremity of the other two cars here but the Seven really is quite civilised by contrast – genuinely comfy seats, a heater, an unstallable clutch action; even doors and a roof for when it rains. And with a windscreen you don’t need to wear a helmet, so you don’t feel like one when you’re driving on the road.
There’s a (small) boot too, so my tent and sleeping bag squash in there while my bag goes in the passenger footwell. Right elbow propped on the squidgy door rest, left elbow on the padded transmission tunnel, right-hand fingertips on a wheel about as big as a camembert, and left flicking the stubby, short-throw gearlever around its gate like a practised gambler rolling a casino chip across their knuckles, eyes spinning with the front wheels’ reflection in the chrome headlight bowls, it’s easy to fall under the Seven’s spell. I want one.
If lapping Brands is to experience these cars in their element, grinding through queues on the M25 is the polar opposite. Following in the Elemental’s gearwhine-filled wake in traffic, my left leg twinges with sympathy for Ben and the RP1’s tricky clutch every time we pull away; and to follow the Atom is to be hypnotised by its rotating driveshafts. Rolling into Silverstone for the Grand Prix weekend, we’re all in need of a bit of a lie-down. Just need to pitch the tents first…
By James Taylor
Engine: 1596cc 16v four-cylinder, 152bhp @ 7000rpm, 124lb ft @ 5600rpm
£98,700 – I’ll just leave that number there for a moment. After all, with big news the best approach is just to come straight out with it, right? But before your head rolls from your shoulders with laughter and sets off across the room, doubled-up at the notion that a barely-there, road-legal track car might dare to ask nearly six figures, it’s worth considering a couple of factors.
First off, the c-word: carbonfibre. You, me and every race car engineer on the planet knows that the material is the stuff of dreams when it comes to strength and stiffness for the least possible weight, but it doesn’t come cheap. McLaren’s entry-level carbon-tubber, the 540C, is a £130k car.
Shorn of all the components that mount to it, the Elemental’s tub is a starkly beautiful thing: a perfectly formed passenger cell with unfathomably rigid front and rear bulkheads that looks fit to mount a 600bhp LMP2 engine, let alone a four-cylinder Ford EcoBoost. Run wide into a tyre wall and you fear not for your car or your life but for the tyre wall, the barrier behind it and the brick-built paddock buildings beyond that.
Then there’s the d-word: downforce. Elemental claims 400kg of the stuff for the RP1 at 150mph, and that’s about to climb to 500kg with more tweaks. Even at 60mph the aero has an effect, and by 100mph it’s producing 200kg of downforce. One peek under the rear of the car and you’re a believer. The tiny, longitudinally-mounted engine makes for an uncompromised, aero-honed underfloor and diffuser ripe for the generation of unseen forces.
Yet we still wouldn’t believe the hype if we hadn’t felt it. Brands Hatch offers the perfect opportunity for even mortals to feel its mythical push. Most cars wash wide as they go light over the crest at edge-of-the-world Paddock Hill. The magical Elemental tracks true like the elevation change has somehow been removed. Ah, so this is what all the fuss is about.
In short, then, the RP1 is mighty: so mighty you’re not intimidated when you follow a Ferrari 458 Speciale into the trackday paddock, or even when its driver parks it, climbs into a slick-shod BMW M235i race car (that his pit crew have trailered to the event) and doesn’t give his track-ready Ferrari another glance through the day.
The Elemental’s exoskeleton panels and mid-engined layout might be reminiscent of a KTM X-Bow, but inside it’s another world: the heavily reclined driving position raises your feet like an F1 pilot’s, making way for underfloor channels that jettison air out behind the front wheels. Together with that huge rear diffuser, the net result is that while the Ariel keeps you on edge and the Caterham wants to scrub wide, the Elemental just grips and goes.
We’re constrained on the straights today as the RP1 fails the noise test at notoriously strict Brands (Elemental offers a quieter silencer than the one fitted to this prototype) but it’s as quick as anything through the corners. At one point I watch a Ginetta G40 spin in front of me in slow motion through Surtees: I simply put my foot down and drive around the outside of the accident, no sweat.
A super-stiff carbon structure together with dampers set for road use also mean it’s compliant over kerbs, the brakes are absolutely astonishing, and full-throttle flat shifts using the Hewland six-speed sequential gearbox are pure bliss. Get into the groove and the RP1 is a mesmerising experience, confidence rising rather than decaying as speeds rise and lap times fall. Immersive? Involving? Like nothing else I’ve driven. I have to be physically dragged from the circuit.
Rewind 12 hours and the RP1 and I weren’t such best buds. At 6am that noisy exhaust roused my quiet south London street, and a few moments later the tricky clutch had them opening windows to see who the idiot was trying (and failing) to leave his parking space with any sort of decorum.
I’d forgotten what these sorts of cars were like on the road, too. So magical are they on a circuit that you start convincing yourself road cars are bloated and redundant. Fifty miles later you’d kill for a nice Vauxhall Astra. The Elemental has no radio, obviously. Air-conditioning is controlled not via a dial on the dash but by unzipping your jacket.
And with your vision and hearing restricted by a crash helmet, you don’t always realise your indicator is still on – I notice this when I follow Steve in the Ariel for mile after mile, frowning as his right indicator blinks away, only to look down and find mine’s merrily flashing away as well…
There’s absolutely no down-time either; no easy miles. These three demand your full attention. Depress the Atom’s looooong throttle and it’ll shriek and scare you, and if you’re to keep up in the Caterham you need to be hard on its naturally aspirated engine, gearbox and soft brakes. In traffic the Elemental’s evil, but as least its warp-speed performance is there as a reward every time the road opens out again.
The turbocharged Ford engine majors on torque rather than a screaming top end, the steering offers plenty of feedback without darting about and distracting you like it might in a Lotus and together with the chassis’ fathoms-deep reserves of talent, the Elemental is a likeably calm and measured road-going tool.
Maybe too calm. Within half an hour I want to be back on track, to experience that downforce. But if that’s your thing then £100k will easily get you any of the one-make racers that were lapping Brands with us, and you can use the spare cash for a season of racing. Or a nice hotel room at the British GP…
By Ben Pulman