Opposites attract

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Simon Arron

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Britain is almost as rich in one-make sports car series as it is in monotype saloon categories. Here, we try two varieties at different ends of the subtlety spectrum

There is something deliciously satisfying about defying the apparent laws of gravity. Out of the third gear lefthander, change up to fourth, and rush headlong towards Gerards, the first corner after the start at Mallory Park (and subject of a rambling thesis in last month’s Motor Sport). Your brain thinks ‘The brakes, you clod, the brakes’. Your eyes tell you ‘The bloody brakes, you fool, the bloody brakes’. But you’re into your rhythm by now.

And, more critically, you’re in a Caterham Seven.

Thus you can sail, smugly, beyond what common-sense tells you are sane parameters, knowing that the Caterham will stick.

There are, however, less edifying sensations in motor racing. Such as finding yourself firmly rooted in a gravel trap after only a couple of qualifying laps.

Having shared a TVR Tuscan with a handful of fellow wordsmiths during the inaugural season of the Tuscan Challenge, in 1989, and having thoroughly enjoyed the experience, I was looking forward to renewing acquaintance with the 420 bhp renegade at Brands Hatch.

A TVR doesn’t offer the same sensory relationship as a Caterham, nor does it have the kind of telepathy that knocks tarot cards into a cocked hat. It is nonetheless stimulating, however, to try and contain its apparently wayward character. It’s a bit like an affectionate boxer dog. It’ll give you a hard time, but it seldom bites. You can feel the car lurching all over the place, particularly when the tyres are cold, but if you’re awake, and you’re prepared to wrestle a little with the persistent undulations of the steering wheel, you can keep it pointing more or less in the intended direction of travel. It will pop sideways under hard acceleration in fourth gear as you thunder out of Brands Hatch’s Clark Curve and steam towards Paddock. The previous lap, the Tuscan had felt a little too light at the rear as the road dropped sharply away at the downhill right-hander. This time it felt lighter still, and as the message gradually percolated through to the driver’s brain that more opposite lock was required, the brain had already ascertained that the steering was against the rack stops, and that fast approaching, to the left, was a gravel tr…

The flurry of sideways motions ceases suddenly amidst the clatter of pebbles on fibreglass and the arrival, in the cockpit, of a shower of small stones. No point even trying to give it a bootful of revs. As this impromptu piece of investigative journalism had just proved, Brands Hatch’s gravel beds are devilishly effective. You’re already up to your axles, and you’re not going anywhere without the assistance of a bucket, a spade, half a dozen highly amused marshals and a sizeable tow truck.

Back at Mallory, we’re in a similar Rover K-Series-powered Caterham to that with which we fell irretrievably in love during a brief encounter at Snetterton last autumn (see Track Test, January 1992). The Caterham we had begged to race ever since. It’s a boom time for Caterham racing. If the world was in perpetual recession, you get the feeling that Caterhams would always sell. Makes no sense at all really. For similar money, you can buy a sporting hatchback which comes, ready built, with four seats and space for luggage. Might not have quite the same acceleration, and the handling might not quite be as sharp, but as an overall package the hatchback formula still offers a lot more car for the money.

But still people buy Caterhams, and anybody with a soul will understand why. You don’t so much sit in a Caterham, you put it on. It’s you, four wheels and the elements. Sod the luggage.

The size of the entry with around 30 cars in the more powerful B class (pushrod Ford power, around 160 bhp) and 14 in ‘our’ C division (125 bhp pushrod Fords, and the lighter, 110 bhp K-Series cars) — demanded split qualifying sessions, Bs and Cs being mingled together. At times, that was quite frustrating. The B cars slam past down the straights, but have to pull up far more sharply at the entry to Gerards and the Lake Esses. They are less agile, too. It soon became clear what fellow journalist, and Caterham regular, John Barker had meant when he muttered about the likelihood of being impeded by the B cars. The quickest of the latter were around two seconds per lap faster than the C class pace-setters, but catch one at the entry to a corner and you’d be momentarily held up, the nimbler car’s superior agility instantly trampled.

Although Mallory is short, and not exactly teeming with corners, it takes time adjusting to the Caterham’s uncanny adhesive properties. Like anything, when pushed hard, the Seven slides around, and your right elbow gets to learn all about the ripples at Gerards as it snags the top lip of the body. Balancing a Caterham is a precise art, though. Even the more violent twitches require only modest corrections at the wheel, but ninth place on a grid bolstered by non-qualifiers from class B suggests that you still have to learn to provoke it some more.

Ninth on the grid? A pipedream in TVR land. Having watched qualifying continue from behind the barrier closest to the spot where the Tuscan finished up, and having observed everybody else going faster and faster as the early mist succumbed to hazy sunlight, you’d be lucky to be far enough up the grid to see the green light.

To be 15th of 18 is actually an unexpected bonus. Never thought I’d never been so pleased to be so far up, so far down the grid, if you follow.

Offer a Tuscan anything more than a couple of thousand revs and you won’t get far in first gear. The starting technique is to trickle away at 2500 rpm, then floor the throttle once you’ve worked up some momentum. On a starting grid, the onset of the red light is usually the cue for an earsplitting cacophony. In a field full of Tuscans, there is a mild increase in the throaty burble which accompanies the TVR at tickover. Then, a few seconds after the green light, the din becomes awesome.

Previous experience tells you that Tuscan starts can often be accompanied by showers of fibreglass. They are big cars, and most British racing circuits aren’t very wide. The Mobil 1 Tuscan, prepared by the factory for the use of assorted guests, seems strong on initial acceleration (hardly surprising, with in the region of 500 bhp per ton when fully laden with fuel), making up a couple of places well before Paddock. With the field bunching towards the apex, it looks as though there is time to be made around the outside… but perhaps not quite that far wide. Trying to slot back into file before Druids, one of the early places gained has already been reclaimed by its original owner. With a jostling knot of TVRs to the inside, you have to stay wide at the hairpin, too. Where are we now? 14th? 15th? Who knows? Concentrate. Concentrate. The tyres are still cold. Change up early to fourth for Graham Hill Bend. Let the car settle. Allow the massive torque (360 lb/ft) to pull you through cleanly. Traffic bunches up again for Surtees. Car very skittish through there. Down to third for Clearways, then hard on the power and up to…

The accompanying rumble tells you that you’ve snicked neutral.

There are two transmission options for Tuscans. The Borg-Warner TS, a five-speed, all-synchro affair. Or, as fitted to the guest racer, the four-speed Quaife dog ‘box, developed in conjunction with TVR. This requires a firm hand. “Just bang it in,” advises TVR’s John Reid, who finds time to race a Tuscan when he’s not fettling a whole fleet of them. On this occasion, one bang wasn’t enough. It goes in at the second time of asking, and the car spears mildly sideways at the resumption of acclerative force.

Martin Crass, just ahead, runs wide into Paddock. Quicker through the corner, you draw alongside into Druids. He starts to close the door, but you’re already there. There’s a kerb on the inside, and you’re virtually on top of it. That gap is getting smaller…

After a gentle brush, Martin bounces off to the left and you are through. The incident is later discussed, amicably, in the paddock. One of those things. No hard feelings. There is damage to the left front wing though. Getting back up to speed through Graham Hill Bend, the steering feels OK. There’s a cluster of several cars up ahead. They’re holding each other up. Should be able to catch them. Turn into Surtees. Steering doesn’t want to know. Spin in middle of track. Roll gently backwards, trying to get out of the way of the oncoming traffic. Dealt a glancing blow by Crass, for whom the Mobil logos seem to be something of a magnet. Driver out. Car stranded on edge of circuit. Red flags appear.

The initial impact had actually pressed the bodywork hard into the front left wheel, and had mildly rumpled other ancillaries. Consequently, chassis balance had been impaired. No chance of making the restart. The race is later red-flagged again when leader John Kent’s car blows its engine, spews oil everywhere and spontaneously combusts. With the results taken back a lap. Kent still wins. You spend the rest of the day as a frustrated spectator. Bit like qualifying, really.

The Caterham is prepared by Hyperion Motorsport whose proprietor, Magnus Laird, is something of a whizz in the cockpit himself. The personable Magnus’s startline tip is to aim for the centre of the track at Gerards. “A lot of people get bunched up on the inside. It’s a good way to make up ground.”

It works, too. The Seven snakes away from the line at 4500 rpm. Up ahead, another car tries the outside route but goes too far and slithers around on the grime. Sticking doggedly to the centre of the track, you exit Gerards on the tail on the leading quartet, thereafter running side-by-side most of the way up to the hairpin. At the last moment, slot to the inside to fend off potential challenges from the rear. The non-qualified B cars have been tagged onto the rear of the field, and are sure to make their way through at some point.

Into Gerards for the second time, the first seven cars are still together until Paul Trevor, just ahead, spins two-thirds of the way through the corner. As he loops one way then the other, you hesitate. Off the throttle briefly, then back on again as he finally slides off to the left and you can see a safe route through the tyre smoke. The first four have broken clear now. You’re left scrapping for fifth with Pippa Jacobsen. Have a peep around the outside at the Esses. Not really on. Tuck back into line, just in time to notice Alex Rae, eyeballs out almost as far as his vizor, thundering up the inside at the hairpin. Let him go, take a wider, slower approach, and nip back ahead as he scrabbles for traction on the exit.

Rae is just the type of keen novice Caterham was hoping to attract with the K-Series car. Feasibly, the machine can be driven to and from events on the road. Several competitors do just that. Aware of the ferocity of the competition, Rae prefers to cosset his with a trailer. Particularly as the closest circuit to his native Durham, Oulton Park, is a good three hours away by road.

He’s shaping up to have another go into Gerards. Leave the dab on the brakes a little later this time. Still, the limits of tolerance haven’t been breached. It’s sliding more, but the cloud of blue smoke in your mirror tells you that the immediate pressure is off. Unsighted, a marauding B class car was somehow trying to slot between you and your pursuer, causing the unamused Alex to spin off. A lap later, said vehicle blasts by down the Stebbe Straight and thereafter edges away to finish a class-winning fourth overall. The frantic activity of the first few laps is over. Henceforth, it’s a simple question of consolidation. Sixth in class, seventh on the road is there for the taking. Enjoy the Caterham’s poise while you can. At around 55/56s, laps at Mallory are disappointingly short.

The first foursome continue to dispute the lead fiercely. The late arrival of Peter Fiddes’ B machine makes it a five-way squabble, but the C cars fend him off. Rupert Douglas-Pennant wins, despite Barker’s last-ditch bid to patent a new line in passing manoeuvres around the outside of the hairpin. Barker gets so sideways that there is no room for any of the following cars to squeeze past, and he retains his second place. Just. Everybody returns to the paddock, still the best of mates, and sits down to discuss the afternoon’s activities over a cup of coffee. Strange as it may seem, these two apparently disparate series have a few common elements. (Indeed, the most potent Caterham series, for the 188 bhp, slick-shod Vauxhall-engined variant, produces lap times on a par with the planet Tuscan. It’s just that two very different techniques have to be employed to obtain the same result.) Both are crowd-pleasers. The Tuscans look, and sound, like racing cars should. Big. Noisy. A touch brutal. The Caterhams are quite the opposite, particularly in their humble class C format. Slight and spindly. Mildly rasping. A paragon of balance.

Both are immensely attractive to both competitors and spectators. They provide close racing, are immense fun and feature a level of paddock ambiance that certain other manufacturer-backed one-make series would do well to match. Of the two, the Seven is clearly the cheaper, more practical, option, but any comparisons in terms of price and performance are wholly irrelevant. Even around Mallory’s short lap, a quick Tuscan would be around six seconds faster. The TVR is a racing car, pure and simple. No road-going version yet exists, though one is promised. The mighty Griffith might give you half an idea. The Caterham K-Series is a road car which doubles up as a weekend racer. If you fancy a crack at something more muscular later on, this is an excellent starting point, a place to learn all about racecraft in a car with exquisite manners and a most forgiving disposition.

Perhaps the strongest connection between the two is the proof positive they provide of the ongoing love affair between the British and low-volume, thoroughbred sports cars. After all these years, the passion rages on.

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