They never warned us about things like this at school. Cigarettes, heroin, Newcastle Brown, the local girls high school. . . we were cautioned against all of these, but never once did anyone mention the Caterham 7, now available with Rover’s critically-acclaimed K-Series engine as an entry-level road car-cum-racer.
How does a respectably married man finance a habit such as this? For starters, you need around £14,000 and 50 man hours. After that, running costs aren’t too bad. And, if one day your addiction is cured, you can more or less match your original investment when the time comes to sell.
As with any Caterham, the K-Series Seven arrives in partial kit form. The factory tends to all major safety-related items (eg brakes) and anything that requires jigging (eg wings). Suspension, gearbox and rear axle are a matter for the capable DIY enthusiast.
The idea behind the K-Series Seven is that it can be used either on road or track. The example we tested at Snetterton didn’t require anything as vulgar as a trailer to reach Norfolk. It was driven to and from the circuit, having completed a full day’s track work in-between times.
The differences between road and race specifications are minimal. The race version has slightly more power (110 bhp rather than 103), thanks to freer breathing through a K&N filter (replacing a more complex, power-sapping airbox) and a four-into-one side exit exhaust (in place of a longer, heavier tail exit pipe). In addition, the road car has its rear roll-bar set slightly stiffer, producing a mild bias towards oversteer. The bar is, however, fully adjustable, and can be tailored to suit individual preferences on or off the circuit.
A colleague who had tested the racing version of the Vauxhall-engined Caterham (188 bhp and slick tyres. .) earlier in the year reckoned it was the best balanced racing car he’d ever laid hands on. After 10 laps at Snetterton, I can say the same about the K-car. Any chance of a few comparative laps in Hyperion Motorsport’s Caterham-Vauxhall, lurking in the neighbouring pit garage, was wiped out by a queue of prospective purchasers stretching most of the way to Great Yarmouth.
In some respects, that was a shame. The brutish Vauxhall device appeared almost as agile as its nimbler K-Series cousin through the twistier parts of Snetterton, but the difference in lap times came into sharp focus when I exited the Russell chicane (well, that’s what they call it, though ‘abomination’ is an apter description) just ahead of the former. Accelerating hard through second and third gears, the Vauxhall slammed past as though it had been fired from a catapult. The nimbler machine recouped fractions of lost time through Riches and Sear, but down the Revett Straight the Vauxhall was gone, off to play with Formula Ford cars and not to be seen again.
That does not mean that the new model is a slouch. The factory reckons that competitive lap times around Snetterton will be in the 1m 26s bracket, which is what you might expect a quick production saloon BMW M3 to achieve. It’s certainly a few seconds faster than Mazda’s now discontinued MX-5 Cup racer, which has similar fun appeal but is rather less versatile, not being road legal.
Such lap times beyond reasonable expectation are a direct result of the Seven’s hugely impressive cornering ability, even on road tyres. A Caterham’s straightline speed is not much to shout home about, given that the basic Seven shape has the approximate aerodynamic properties of Denmark. (Caterham quotes a 110 mph top speed for the K-powered road car.)
The level of available grip is quite staggering, being particularly noticeable through the quick right-handers at Riches and Coram. Questions about the Caterham’s principal handling characteristics were met, pre-test, by a smiling response. “What would you like it to do?” This didn’t mean that the team was about to rush around fiddling with roll bars and spring rates (which are free). Quite simply, the K-Series responds a bit like a 100 National kart. If you want it to oversteer, simply plug in your ‘brutal’ chip. Turn in late, on the brakes, unsettle the car, reapply the power, the tail works loose. . . and no more than millimetric steering corrections are required to redress the balance. Such user-friendliness is not common to all racing cars, but Caterham reckons to have dialled it in right across the board. The Vauxhall car, for instance, is geared to rival the mighty TVR Tuscan Challenge in terms of lap times. At most circuits, it is just as fast; at some, it is even faster. There could hardly be a greater contrast in styles to achieve the same result, the TVR all armfuls of lock, the Caterham needing little more than the occasional flick’ of a wrist.
Caterham has now restructured the format of its road-going race series, and there is a logical progression to the giddy world of Vauxhall propulsion. Previously, there were three classes — A, B and C. The former has now been axed as, according to Caterham’s Jez Coates, “the cars tended to be so extreme that they were seldom used on the road.” In its place is a separate Vauxhall-engines-only series, “the closest thing to a Seven-shaped, full-blooded racing car that there is.” The road-going series continues with a two class structure. B for Ford pushrod-powered cars with around 160 bhp, C for 125 bhp pushrod Fords and the new K-Series. What the Rover-powered cars lose to their C-class rivals in terms of horsepower, they gain in weight and agility. The factory entered its own K-Series racer for the final round of the 1991 championship. It qualified second fastest in class, though it finished its afternoon in the gravel trap. Forgiving as the Caterharn may be, it isn’t immune to oil slicks . . . Whatever, the factory returned from the meeting confident that the car would be a competitive proposition for ’92.
The K-Series is aimed squarely at the beginner, and Caterham is launching its own novice driver award (though tyros running any car are eligible for this). In addition, Rover is putting up a trophy for the best K-Series performer, irrespective of overall class results. Eligible cars will have to run factory sealed engines and Yokohama 185/60 13 control tyres.
Judging by the response of those queuing up at Snetterton, Caterham will have no problem filling grids. A couple of K-Series deposits were taken there and then. At the time of writing, sales of K-Series models were well under way. Initial expectations are that there will be 10-15 of them competing regularly in 1992. And there’d be another guaranteed entry, if only I could find a buyer for my grandmother . . SA