Track-only model aims to showcase the Seven in its purest form

What is it?

Black? Of course it’s black. The mere act of witnessing the most menacing new Caterham Seven on sale as it’s being disgorged from its trailer is an experience laced with excitement and trepidation. Any other colour wouldn’t look right.

The tiny warrior emerges backwards, revealing first its squared-off backside, then the rearmost struts of its very bright and very large roll-cage, followed by the oily sheen of an Avon slick’s fat sidewall. Next up is the rolling-pin exhaust silencer, then the windscreen – or lack thereof – before the exhaust tract splits into four and dives into the long, long nose of the aluminium body just ahead of the big number seven but behind the somehow still cute fenders. A few seconds later and here is it: the Caterham Seven Championship UK Racecar, on show in all its unforgettable, unhinged glory.

This single-seater Seven isn’t the most powerful Seven that Caterham currently sells. That honour goes to the 620, whose supercharged 310bhp makes it a match for any supercar. The Championship is a different proposition.

It’s not supercharged so makes only 175bhp, although even this gives it roughly the power-to-weight ratio of the latest Porsche 911 GT3. In any case, the Championship makes ground elsewhere. As a pure racer designed for the uppermost rung of Caterham’s four-tier single-make championship series, it isn’t bound by rules of the road, as the 620 is. Hence no windscreen and, new for the 2021 season, the fully slick tyres.

The gearbox is also out of the ordinary by road-car standards, being a six-speed sequential unit by Sadev. It has featured in road-legal Caterhams in the past, true, but it’s a rare thing, and with flat upshifts and a scrumptious mechanical action, it elevates the act of cog-swapping to a level beyond the satisfaction offered by even the most exquisite dual-clutch automatics. It sits between Caterham’s fettling of Ford’s 2.0-litre Duratec engine, in this instance naturally aspirated, and a Titan limited-slip differential nestled within the De Dion rear axle.

With the arrival of slicks and the larger forces they generate, that tube has extra bracing, and the A-frame has been made stiffer to prevent cracking. Springs are from Eibach, dampers from Bilstein and, again for 2021, there’s extra camber adjustment, courtesy of new suspension arms.

15 Caterham seven 420r championship 2021 uk first drive review track rear

What's it like?

After dropping in directly through the top of the cage, the moulded ‘seat’ – really just stuffing to stop you from rolling around – has you far more reclined than in any road-going Seven. It’s cramped, your eyeline skimming the top of the quick-release Momo steering wheel, and you need only to crunch your funny bone once on the unpadded metal of the tall transmission tunnel to know that bouncing off rumble strips is an event you should brace for.

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Feed in the clutch and the 420R skims tersely along the pit lane at Llandow, exhaust blaring, steering like concrete, diff clunking horribly and the throttle so sensitive you would swear they had put kangaroo petrol in the tank, which has no gauge but supposedly holds enough for 45 minutes flat out. We’re a world away from the relatively plush and accommodating confines of the 420R road car, but in truth, anything less would be a crushing disappointment.

On track, the priority is to get heat into the tyres. It’s no mean feat. I push for several laps on stone-cold rubber, then come in. John Byrne – an affable and deeply knowledgeable one-man support crew who quite handily also happens to be a multiple Caterham series champion – informs me that you couldn’t even warm your fingers on this rubber. Fantastic.

Thereafter it takes quite a few more laps – along with the realisation that this really is a racing car with only some vestigial road DNA, rather than a road car amped up to max – to properly start unlocking the thing. It’s an important epiphany, because from this point you begin to treat the car rougher, which is what it wants. You hit the brakes ever harder and later, marvelling at how instinctive the gearbox makes the process of matching engine and road speed. You then get back hard onto the ultra-responsive throttle earlier and earlier still: one metre, two metres, three metres before the point at which only four laps prior you swore such an act would have the car slip out of shape.

11 Caterham seven 420r championship 2021 uk first drive review steering wheel

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Now this hardcore Seven really starts to click. It’s hot, it’s noisy, it’s sparse and it’s stiff, but it’s also phenomenally enlivening. The flat upshifts, for which you yank the short lever backwards, are slammed home at the engine’s shouty redline, because without synchromesh it’s there that the actuation is smoothest.

This car has shift lights, but there’s no need take your eyes off the track. This is total immersion in the act of driving, and the balanced, cohesive 420R wants every bit of pace squeezed out of it with precise, assertive inputs into the unassisted but light steering (the rack is also quicker than on any road-going Seven) and similar for the pedals.

The Avons are also a revelation. Even when half-baked, they’re generating grip that doesn’t easily compute if you’re used to testing road cars. At close to proper operating temperature, allied to such a light car, their jowl-tugging ability is profound. You would need downforce for more. Yet they’re so much more progressive than you might expect. In fact, to go deep into the Championship experience, you need to enjoy that sensation of the chassis floating a little loosely above the track surface because, as with old single-seaters, the 200-section rears need some slip angle to give their best, and the car is only too happy to oblige. Using power as a substitute for steering lock is the fastest way forward but also the most fun.

Where this Seven really separates itself from road cars is the manner in which you can rag the hell out of it yet it never feels as though it’s going to come around on itself, or punish you in a dangerous way. It’s an expressive machine, with plenty of bark and plenty of bite but also lots of enthusiastic face-licking.

In fact, so confidence-inspiring is this Caterham that I end up wanting more oversteer in the balance, even after relatively little time with the car. This could be achieved by either adding an anti-roll bar at the rear (this example has neither a front nor rear ARB fitted, to my surprise) or by increasing the rake of the car via the spring-mounts. However, doing both those things together would probably make the handing too edgy.

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Should I buy one?

Naturally, the circuit brilliance of the Championship comes at the price of versatility. An old Porsche Cayman R costs about as much, still rewards effortlessly on track but has far greater breadth off it. There’s no shortage of second-hand road-legal alternatives, either; an S3 Lotus Exige Cup is just one. Caterham's own CSR-style independent rear suspension would also have the Championship lapping more elegantly and extra mid-range torque would be nice.

So it’s not perfect, but the Champ still feels like the definitive track-day experience from the definitive driver’s car. And that, along with the potential for endless set-up experimentation, makes it not only unique but also plain irresistible.

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Richard Lane

Richard Lane
Title: Deputy road test editor

Richard joined Autocar in 2017, arriving from Evo magazine, and is typically found either behind a keyboard or steering wheel.

As deputy road test editor he delivers in-depth road tests, performance benchmarking and supercar lap-times, plus feature-length comparison stories between rival cars. He can also be found on Autocar's YouTube channel

Mostly interested in how cars feel on the road – the sensations and emotions they can evoke – Richard drives around 150 newly launched makes and models every year, and focuses mainly on the more driver-orientated products, as is tradition at Autocar. His job is then to put the reader firmly in the driver's seat. 

Away from work, but remaining on the subject of cars, Richard owns an eight-valve Integrale, loves watching sportscar racing, and holds a post-grad in transport engineering. 

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LP in Brighton 9 December 2021

With all that scaffolding attached to ther upper body, this doesn't look like a very pure racer. I appreciate the need for safety both or road and track, so isn't it about time that Caterham re-designed the Seven so that the roll over protection was an integral part of the car? Perhaps something along the lines of the F1 halo would look more pure and elegant. A car this good deserves surely deserves the looks to match its undoubted speed!