Great drives: Caterham drifting school
I am not a number. I am a free man.
Actually I am a number. Number Nine. When they call out my number I must perform a number of repetitive and arduous tasks. Overseeing everything is a man with a silly nickname that seems to baffle even him. But luckily I have a Caterham Seven to hand.
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I am not The Prisoner, I am one of a number of journos and bloggers being taught the finer points of drifting in the famous, ageless, open-wheel open-everything roadster. I have drifted cars before. Sometimes intentionally, sometimes less so - but I'm not brilliant at it. I understand the physics and the theory and can perform a rough-and-ready drift with a helpful car and lots of run-off space. But I have attempted anything along these lines is something as bonkers as the Seven.
With an awesome power-to-weight ratio - 150bhp and 500kg; you do the math - the Caterham Seven is a creature of pure pleasure. To drive it is perhaps as close to driving something like a Formula One car as I'll get. Lightweight, fast and manoeuvrable sums up its best attributes and it's great at all of them. Which is lucky because it's useless at virtually everything else.
Want to transport anything larger than a small M+S carrier bag? Tough. Raining? Tough. Cold? Tough. Looking for the ABS and traction and ISOFIX points? Tough. Want to check on the cricket scores? Tough. Lost? Tough. The Seven is No Frills in car form. But what that means is that it's an awesome track beast.
The Seven is older than Doctor Who and Coronation Street. When it was designed Dwight Eisenhower was in the White House. It's progenitor was, of course, Colin Chapman of Lotus and black-and-white photographs fame. The Lotus Seven hasn't been made for decades but Caterham, who built their own version, saw no reason to change a winning design. Skip forward 55 years and Caterham builds the car to the same design with a piddling 1.6-litre engine seen propelling low-spec Ford Focuses around the suburbs.
So you might expect the Seven to be a bit woolly. To think highly of its ability may be something of an indulgence - or to patronise this venerable old beast. And you'd be very very wrong.
With sticky tires on the front and hard rubber on the back the Seven is set up to be a drift machine. But it's not especially easy to get the back out in a controllable way without speed on unless you master the art of transferring weight to the front of the car and pulsing the accelerator.
Once the back has been invited to step out it's easy to spin out. You need to catch the slide and resist the temptation to opposite lock immediately. Instead you direct the car with small throttle inputs; more for a tighter turn, less if you want to straighten up.
I can manage this to some degree in many rear-wheel drive cars I've taken onto a track - and the odd car on the roads that has suddenly decided to end it all and take me with it via hedge, muddy field or yawning chasm.
And I am managing superbly in the Seven. I dash at a set of cones, brake, turn in and drift the car like an arcing pendulum around the cones then race off towards the next set. I am at one with the car, feeling how it responds to inputs and understanding where its limits are. I watch other drivers and understand totally what they're doing wrong. I have reached a state of drift nirvana.
After lunch a slalom course is laid out. This pleases me. I'm ready for a new challenge. The first laps are not great. Somehow I can't apply the lessons that were serving me so well just 60 minutes ago and I am simply driving around cones fast and wide; a vague understeer and occasional spin out the only outcome I seem able to affect.
Other people seem to be improving but I'm going backwards, literally quite often. I even recognise what I'm doing wrong - too much speed, too much aggression, too little finesse. The car and I are now separate creatures again. It doesn't understand what I want it to do and it can't translate my frustrated driving into something delicate and precise.
By the time I come to be assessed I've lost confidence, patience and motivation. All my earlier successes are forgotten and I'm just another guy driving around a track too fast and failing to drift. I have hit the tyre wall (not literally; it's a metaphor).
Like the bell curve I described previously to an admiring (or possibly bored) PR there's often a familiar pattern evident at driving days. Start shit, get better, get over-confident, distracted or ambitious, end shit. Like a self-fulfilling prophecy I have become 2011's Lewis Hamilton; impatient for success and tangling with Felipe Massa instead of immersive myself in champagne and glory.
I am not a drift king. And all I have to show for my day is a carrier bag with some promotional material and an energy drink.
The Caterham has left me physically and mentally shot. My knees bashed against the unforgiving interior; my self-esteem battered by the noncompliant car. I'm tired, hurting and emotional.
But as the Seven is being packed away - 55-years-old and still going strong - I realise what I was doing wrong. I must get back in the car; show them all I just had an off hour (OK, off
I could still be a contender if they put the cones out again; if I could fire up the rumbly engine; if only I could get the back wheels out with a quick flick I could do it...
All driving experiences end like this. What ifs and why nots and the desire to just have one - ONE - more go. Driving days should be banned they're so addictive. Do one and you won't be able to stop yourself going back. Again and again and... just one more time...