Mirror racer enjoys hat-trick of firsts on track for first time in Caterham car

Three months into the Caterham race academy and it has been four weeks of firsts – driving my car, going on track and getting a racing licence.

It is all starting to feel a bit real now and watching previous year’s contender’s races on YouTube is doing little to settle the nerves.

For those following this series, this is part three of Mirror Motoring’s journey to becoming a racing driver with  the Caterham Academy course for novices .

In the first installment we gave an overview of what the idea behind it and an outline of what lies ahead

Last month covered buying all the race kit and revising for the racing exam.

Now a lot of that practical stuff is out of the way it is time for some of the fun stuff – getting behind the wheel on the track and on the road.

Mirror writer Nigel Atkins says ‘it is all starting to feel a bit real now’

First up was a trip to Castle Combe race track, near Chippenham, Wiltshire, for a practical test, a medical and a written exam.

It was part of the ARDS (Association of Racing Driver Schools) day which is a must attend and pass for those on the first step of the racing ladder.

We started off with a session on a skid pan in an old BMW 3 series.

While it was great fun trying to negotiate the figure of eight course without spinning out, there were useful skills to learn to take on to the race track.

Atkins (left) looked nervous as he met his competition for the first time

The first is how to control oversteer and understeer skids and how to get the car back under control.

Although ‘getting the back out’ looks good it is not the fastest way around a corner.

There is also the safety element to being able to stop it spinning or catching it if it does.

As our Caterhams have no ABS breaking system we were talked through cadence braking as the most effective way to stop in the shortest distance.

It involves pushing repeatedly and firmly on the brakes to stop them locking up.

Another element is that if the front wheels are locked and skidding then the car will always go in a straight line.

So if you want to steer round an obstacle you need to come off the brakes and turn the wheel as the last moment.

Atkins learned the ropes in a car more normally seen on the road than on the race track

It takes some getting used to but after a few goes on the pan, confidence was built as you proved to yourself it works.

Next it was on to the proper 1.85m circuit in a Ford Fiesta.

A briefing pointed out the corners, such as the Esses and Hammerdown, along with the turn in points, apexes and the racing line.

After a few sighting laps in the passenger seat with an instructor it was time to swap seats.

This was a test we had to pass and we were warned that if we went off the track or spun, it was an automatic fail and we would have to come back another day.

It was a challenge to prove you could safely negotiate the track at a decent speed, keep an eye out for other cars while making sure you were in the right gear and taking the lines.

But at the end of the day all of us were given a pass.

Nigel started off with a session on a skid pan in an old BMW 3 series

There’s a LOT of information to take on board

The last part of the day was a written test on the rules and regulations of track racing, with the most important being a thorough knowledge of the flags.

Our second meet-up of the month took us back down to Caterham HQ near Gatwick Airport, to learn how to set up our cars and maintain them through the season.

For all those who ever wondered what toe in, camber, rake, castor, damper settings and a flat floor set-up involves, then everything is explained.

It is the sort of stuff many have heard the pros talk about but have never really had more than a cursory understanding of.

Atkins got to sit in his Caterham for the first time last month

Nigel’s car is ready to roll

Some tolerances are laid down in the regulations but others you can choose to alter as much as you like to suit your driving style.

Like your car to over steer a bit more in the corners? Then alter the dampers to make the rear a bit higher.

Want your car to turn in a bit quicker but it will be a bit hard to steer in a straight line?

Push the toe out of the front wheels out a bit more.

We are told much will be trial and error depending on the track we are on, the weather and our personal preference.

Two drivers can have their cars set up totally differently but still be almost identically fast around a track apparently.

It is not the sort of stuff you would get to play with on a road car, but the basic construction of a Caterham means it is a tinkerer’s delight.

Nigel Atkins
There’s no question who is at the wheel of this chariot

It will be taken to races on the back of a trailer as it’s not road legal

The next session covered basic maintenance of the car and checks to do before and after every race.

If you choose a factory car it comes fully prepared and there is full track day support from Caterham on race days, where you just pay for the parts needed to fix your car.

But keeping your car in racing condition is down to you.

We learn what is involved in spannering the car – checking all the 50 or so bolts that could come loose.

There is the ‘£4,000 bolt’ so called as if you don’t keep an eye on it and it works loose, the engine works moves and wrecks itself, and that is what it costs you for a new one.

It all sounds pretty scary but it is a straightforward check that I am sure will get easier every time we do it.

At the end of that day came the best bit as ‘my’ car for the season was ready to take home for a bit of on road driving.

Nigel Atkins
Atkins’ seat has been moulded around his body

I had sat in one before but never turned the key.

Out on the road the two things you notice the most are how low down you are to the ground and the noise from the side exhaust mounted along the driver’s side of the car.

Both combine to give an epic sense of speed, even when travelling at a modest lick, which is something you rarely get in a modern car.

With zero sound deadening the stones can be heard pinging off the underside.

There is little around you apart from a roll bar and a windscreen so visibility is excellent.

Being so low and close to the front wheels I can’t think of any other car that can be placed so accurately on the road.

Job for the month is to get a 1,000 miles on the odometer to bed in the engine and the car before the first race, so I am going to get cracking on that.

Next month will get real as we take our cars on track for the first time.

– Find out more about the Caterham Academy




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