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First drive: Caterham SP/300.R. Image by Lyndon McNeill.

First drive: Caterham SP/300.R
Caterham creates a track-only machine that's LMP2 fast, yet it remains a Caterham at heart.

   



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| First Drive | Rockingham, England | Caterham SP/300.R |

Overall rating: 4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5

Downforce, slick tyres, open cockpit and 507hp per tonne: Caterham's SP/300.R takes track day weaponry off the scale. We don racing attire, ruin the power to weight ratio and experience track day performance that could win classes at La Sarthe.

Key Facts

Pricing: 81,000
Engine: 2.0-litre supercharged four-cylinder Ford Duratec
Transmission: rear-wheel drive, six-speed Hewland paddle-shifted gearbox
Body style: sports prototype
Rivals: Formula 3/Ford car, Porsche 911 GT3 RS, Radical
Top speed: 180mph
0-62mph: 2.8 seconds
Power: 305hp at 7,500rpm (335hp with 'push-to-pass')
Torque: 290Nm at 7,500rpm

In the Metal: 4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5

Serious and more than a little bit daunting, the Caterham SP/300.R looks like it's ready to line up at a 24-hour race rather than take part in a track day. Sitting on its on-board jacks with a team of mechanics in the pit garage fettling it between the test drives only enhances this, the lift off panels and gearbox mounted suspension underneath are pure motorsport. A massive rear wing, zero ground clearance, composite materials, open cockpit, twin roll hoops, tiny mirrors and sweeping aero-shaped body only underline that this is a track day car like little else.

The removable twin-gripped steering wheel with its rev-counter LEDs running across the top edge also features LCD read-outs for oil and water temperatures and a few twist dials and a neutral button. To the left there's a big brake bias knob, a couple of toggle switches and the battery isolator key. It's basic, but full of purpose. Full of me too, as the rail situated sliding seat (which Caterham admits isn't ideal, but necessary with so many people in and out of it today) is not hugely accommodating. It's very laid back too, the legs straight out, arse forward, shoulders back and arms forward position more bathtub than anything I've ever driven before, but necessary to get you in - and out of the airflow.

Driving it: 4 4 4 4 4

A few sighting laps in a Caterham 7 with 'well used' rear tyres around Rockingham's infield and partial banked main straight does little to instil confidence before getting in the SP/300.R. Rockingham's infield is tricky, the banks fast and the transitions unsettling. No worries then. Getting comfortable in the SP/300.R isn't easy, my shoulder digging into the bodywork on the left, the lack of a footrest for my clutch foot not ideal - especially given the reclined driving position.

The 2.0-litre engine is fired up, neutral button on the steering wheel is held and right paddle pulled. Leaving and entering the pits is the only time the clutch is needed, otherwise your left foot is redundant - unless you left foot brake. That's advisable, as it not only gives you a brace in the absence of a footrest, but stamping on the pedal is advisable given the way the SP/300.R carries speed. It's very quick, deceptively so in the wide open spaces of Rockingham's circuit and with nothing to chase down - but Caterham's people said it absolutely hammered everything on a track day they attended with it.

That's hardly surprising given its 305hp and sub-600kg kerb weight. Add 450kg of downforce at 155mph and the SP/300.R is friendlier in corners the faster you go. That's something that takes a bit of getting used to, as does the nerve to push the accelerator to the floor. What's remarkable is just how drivable it is, Caterham stating it wanted it to retain a level of adjustability. Even so the combination of a mid-engine, masses of downforce, low weight and slick tyres really shouldn't feel as easy as it does here. Naturally it's going to have the ability to bite, and hard, but the Caterham SP/300.R isn't quite as daunting a prospect as you might anticipate.

A few fraught sighting laps give us a chance to learn the track from a lower, faster perspective, a quick pit stop to check everything is good and then some hot laps. What's obvious is how quickly you can get into a rhythm, pushing the car harder and harder as you become familiar with it. Unsurprisingly it's a physical experience, the tight cockpit and heavy steering meaning aching arm muscles, the lack of a footrest meaning an awkwardly held left foot when it's not on the brake, but it's mighty fast and incredibly entertaining. There's some slow speed understeer, but the rear is mobile too, and catchable if you're quick. Not that having the SP/300.R moving about is a goal; instead smoothness is rewarded with greater speed, giving greater grip and even more pace.

The gears shift instantaneously and if you're over eager on downshifts the transmission won't swap cogs - to protect the engine. The supercharged 2.0-litre engine delivers its power in linear fashion, there being no nasty peaky surprises to upset the balance of the car. The brakes are mighty, the pedal feel just about perfect and the steering so precise. It's heavy on hard lock on tighter bends, but hugely accurate and loaded with feel. Several fast laps and you the SP/300.R can be pushed ever faster, braked later and turned in increasingly quicker, it responding faithfully and making everything I've ever driven on a track before feel like a truck. Mindful that it's not mine, and with the pace increasing markedly each lap I take the skier's out and deny that always dodgy 'one last run' and bring it into the pits before my ambition overreaches my ability.

What you get for your Money: 3 3 3 3 3

Sure, 81,000 might seem a touch on the high side for a toy, but given the number of people tracking road Porsches and the like, and paying heavily on consumables, the SP/300.R isn't such a crazy proposition. You'll tire of driving even the sharpest, road-going, but track-biased car on the circuit, the SP/300.R something that you'll always find ways to make quicker and enjoy more.

Worth Noting

As it stands it's not homologated for racing, though Caterham is planning a one-make series for it. Around 25 cars are being built per year. It really is the real deal, its numbers genuinely stacking up with competitive prototype race cars. Caterham is looking at a fix for the footrest issue, and a bag-seat would help make it a bit more comfortable than the compromised cover-all set-up on this test machine.

Summary

Bored of tweaking your road car on track days? Then the Caterham SP/300.R really does represent an opportunity to take your circuit driving experience to a completely different level. You'll be the envy of the pit lane and absolutely nothing will come close to it on performance.


Kyle Fortune. Photography by Lyndon McNeill - 13 Apr 2012



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2012 Caterham SP/300.R. Image by Lyndon McNeill.2012 Caterham SP/300.R. Image by Lyndon McNeill.2012 Caterham SP/300.R. Image by Lyndon McNeill.2012 Caterham SP/300.R. Image by Lyndon McNeill.2012 Caterham SP/300.R. Image by Lyndon McNeill.

2012 Caterham SP/300.R. Image by Lyndon McNeill.2012 Caterham SP/300.R. Image by Lyndon McNeill.2012 Caterham SP/300.R. Image by Lyndon McNeill.2012 Caterham SP/300.R. Image by Lyndon McNeill.2012 Caterham SP/300.R. Image by Lyndon McNeill.



2012 Caterham SP/300.R. Image by Lyndon McNeill.
 

2012 Caterham SP/300.R. Image by Lyndon McNeill.
 

2012 Caterham SP/300.R. Image by Lyndon McNeill.
 

2012 Caterham SP/300.R. Image by Lyndon McNeill.
 

2012 Caterham SP/300.R. Image by Lyndon McNeill.
 

2012 Caterham SP/300.R. Image by Lyndon McNeill.
 

2012 Caterham SP/300.R. Image by Lyndon McNeill.
 

2012 Caterham SP/300.R. Image by Lyndon McNeill.
 






 

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