A couple of months back I was lucky enough to drive the Caterham SP300R, a slicks and wings racer that bridges the gulf between a Caterham 7 and an F1 car. But before I was allowed to drive the SP300R on track, Caterham sent me out in a 7 to get a feel for things. Truth be told, I haven’t spent much time in a 7, and I find them a bit scary: I don’t really like chucking something so small and vulnerable and lively about on a road filled with much more substantial machinery. For me it’s a track car, but I hadn’t really spent any time on track in one either.
Anyway, I took the 7 out onto the track and I loved it; loved it so much that I wanted another go. ‘Why don’t you pop over to our Caterham Drift Experience at Silverstone,’ suggested Caterham’s motorsport manager.
Perfect! The Caterham Drift Experience is held in a large car park at the front of Silverstone. Yes, I know, you were thinking it would be on the track, but the car park thing’s a good idea: you’ve got bags of space to explore the 7’s handling, with things that only the truly ambitious can crash into. You wouldn’t learn as much on track, because you’d need to go much faster and you’d probably be scared to experiment.
The Caterham Drift Experience costs £235, and around 14 people take part, sharing two cars.
I turned up at 8am to sign on as the Caterham team were laying out a series of cones for us to drift around. There were drinks and food to snack on, and a bunch of tables and chairs arranged under an awning to give shelter from the, yes, sun.
A quick briefing laid down the rules in a friendly kind of way, and we learnt that these particular 7s had been set up to make sliding them a little easier: the front anti-roll bar had been removed, while the rear was very firm and jacked up a little. Over-inflated rear tyres would help too.
First gear would be all that would be required, we were told, and we’d be initiating our drifts simply by stabbing the accelerator – no handbrakes or clutch-kicking here, please.
We started on a simple course, and I was fairly cautious, kicking the tail out through various twists and turns but not linking it all together with any real sense of fluidity. Sounds daft, but I was trying to get my eye in and didn’t want to instantly get too ambitious, try too hard and spin out.
The 7 was feeling great, though, because it’s just so light and alert and responsive. I loved the instant throttle response and the bark of the engine and how the tiny steering wheel buzzed with feedback, helping you to feel exactly how much grip the front tyres had.
The Catherham guys gave some excellent feedback too: ‘keep raising your vision and looking at where you’re going next’; ‘don’t flap at the top of the steering wheel so much – relax and keep your hands at the bottom of the rim’. They were tips that genuinely took my driving on, things that I kind of knew but was forgetting in the heat of the moment.
It quickly became clear, however, that with two cars – well, three actually, but they rotate one out of the mix at regular intervals, ensuring the cars aren’t incessantly buzzed – and 14 people, there was also going to be a bit of standing around. I reckon I was getting a couple of minutes in the car a few times an hour.
Next up came a large figure-of-eight drift course, and I was starting to feel at home, accelerating in a straight line up to the start of the course, braking hard, then accelerating hard again just as I was turning in. Then a brief back-off as the car broke loose, before feathering the throttle and gently feeding the steering wheel to follow the course.
One you’ve mastered how to initiate a drift and catch it, the next hardest thing is mastering the transition in the figure-of-eight, the moment when you go from sliding in one direction to sliding in another. The trick is to stay aggressive on the throttle, and then, right at the point when you want to swing the other way, add even more throttle and extend the angle of your slide to the maximum. Back off at this point and the weight will transfer to the front tyres, bringing grip, while the rear end will pivot in the opposite direction. Then you need to catch the steering when you’re at the desired angle, and keep on feathering the throttle to extend the drift.
Do all this and, suddenly, first gear doesn’t feel like the letdown it did during that briefing – you’re actually going pretty quickly.
By now I was feeling confident about linking drifts together and, actually, the standard of everyone else there – some of whom had never even driven a rear-wheel drive car before – was coming on in leaps and bounds. Not one person was failing to get the 7’s tail wagging.
The final challenge was an amalgam of everything we’d learnt: essentially two slaloms on either side of the car park, which we’d link together by drifting around cone roundabouts in the middle of them. It was awesome fun and a great feeling when I pieced it altogether and linked it from start to finish, engine zinging, smoke starting to curl off the rear tyres on the longer sections.
Yes, there was perhaps too much time between our runs, but what was particularly impressive was that absolute beginners seemed to genuinely learn something and have fun, while I did too, and I’ve been trying to slide cars about for years now.
If you want to have fun while learning the car-control basics, the Caterham Drift Experience is a great starting point.