8

What if you’ve had your fill of a Porsche 911 Turbo or Porsche 911 GT3? Maybe you’ve exhausted what you’re going to get out of it. Maybe you’ve tried slicks, tried upping the power, but it’s still not enough. You crave more.

How many people are there like that? “You’d be amazed,” says Caterham’s marketing man James Drake. Hence the creation of the car you see here, the new SP/300.R (from whose name, if you’ll excuse us, we might omit some punctuation).

If it isn’t hardcore enough for even a hardened track day veteran, I’ll eat my Nomex gloves. From its every pore oozes the vibe, sight and smell of race-car detailing.

Caterham has made the Super Seven since adopting it from Lotus nearly four decades ago. There’s not much more entertainment to be had on track than peddling a Supersport quickly.

But Sevens don’t translate everywhere. In Russia, the Middle East and the Far East, they understand track days and fast cars. They don’t (Japan excepted) understand Sevens. In short, if you’re Caterham, what do you do if you want to expand the portfolio? You ask Lola if they can help knock something up.

Et voila: Lola hands you back the SP300R, with an aluminium honeycomb passenger tub, a supercharged 2.0-litre Ford Duratec motor hung behind it and an F3-spec Hewland gearbox with paddleshifters.

The SP300R looks and feels every inch the racing car. A one-make SP300R series beckons. It has air jacks as standard, is happiest firing from a slave battery, is snug to slip into and has first-rate fit and finish.

I’ve done a few track days and even a few races. But as I slot into the SP300R’s cockpit in the Rockingham pitlane, I’ll admit to feeling intimidated. It rides on slicks, for heaven’s sake. Despite the ability to post lap times three to four seconds faster than a BTCC car around Brands, the SP300R is completely assembled at Caterham’s Dartford factory.

I also think it looks the business. Clearly a designer’s hand, and not just an aerodynamicist’s, has been at work in the finishing. The detail strip across the back and the LED lights are sweet touches. The detailing inside is easily up to the standards of hospitality types, who will use them to scare corporate punters.

I suspect it’ll do that before it has even reached the end of the pitlane. It feels ‘proper’, as Caterham’s engineer eases it off its air jacks and its pitiful turning circle makes itself obvious on the way out of the garage. The clutch is sharp and there’s precious little response to the first centimetre of throttle travel.

It’s tractable enough, pulling from lowish revs without fuss, as long as you’re positive with the accelerator. Keep some throttle down and it upshifts without the clutch, too – cleanly, quickly and smoothly.

The motor makes 300bhp at 7500rpm, although drivers will have access to a higher ‘push-to-pass’ rev limit during racing for overtaking. The engine, gearbox, tyres and weight will all be controlled; the only difference will be set-up and driver talent. With the SP300R, Caterham is attempting to follow the theme of its other race series: affordable, fun and fair. All commendable aims.

Affordable? Well, that’s relative. It’s an £80,000-plus car, which is a lot for a track day weapon that is not and cannot be road legal. Options include spare wheels with wet tyres, a workshop and maintanence package, uprated harnesses, adjustable seats and other race-related additions. It’s easy to spend similar money on making a sports car good for the track and ruining it for the road. Value is measured in the fun you get out of it.

Fun? Hmm. During my first few laps? Crikey. There’s a lot going on. Too much potential, too much intimidation. I’ve always thought track days were about going out, pulling some skids and enjoying a car in a way that you can’t elsewhere.

I stop, take a short breather and think about it a bit and head out on to Rockingham asphalt again. Once you start to feel more confident in the SP300R – and in yourself – it makes a lot more sense.

Get to know it and it becomes clear this kind of car is the next logical step in track day driving. Once you’re tired of wearing out brakes and feeling 1300kg of underdamped metal move around, the SP300R makes perfect sense. It’s a track. It’s a track car.

The SP300R generates genuine aerodynamic grip – 450kg of it at 155mph – and weighs 545kg, so it develops 550bhp per tonne.

It’s not the kind of car you’d use on an airfield day, driving around the outside of Novas. On a serious circuit, on a serious track day, it would be immense. A car this good is able to let you feel, examine and enjoy its constituent parts. A car this memorable leaves sensations lingering for days.

Steering is heavy and short of lock, but communicative and accurate. So precise, you can place a millimetre of tyre on to a kerb should you want to.

Acceleration is fierce, but manageable. Throttle response is superb and, because it’s supercharged rather than turbocharged like the Radical SR3 SL, its linearity gives the confidence to put your toe in. You’ll receive only the amount of power you asked for.

The gearshift is brilliant, like all these race ’boxes. Upshifts are instant. Downshifts are blipped and best matched if you’re hard on the brakes.

A lot of race cars have hard pedals, with a wooden feel. Not the SP300R. It has the best-modulated pedal feel of any car I can remember right now.

And handling? I’m still getting to grips with cars that produce serious aerodynamic grip. Caterham admits many of the SP300R’s drivers will be, too. Radical says the same. The key to making this kind of car approachable to tamer track or racing drivers is to gradually add aerodynamic grip to mechanical grip, to builds a driver’s confidence. Should they get a bit sideways, the aero grip doesn’t disappear and leave you floundering.

To their credit, Radicals and the SP300R do that supremely well. Do I remember the Radical SR3 SL being easier to quickly get on top of? Maybe, but it was on road-legal tyres.

This SP300R wears the same rubber as an F3 car so is more capable in this spec. It takes longer for a bloke like me to get to know its capabilities, but therein lies the fascination. It’s set up to allow a little understeer in slower corners, although if you trail the brakes the nose is keener, while it has a limited-slip differential and will nicely straighten things on the way out. You want sideways? Buy a Caterham Seven.

As the laps pass, I start to get it, start to explore, then start to concentrate. I think and drive like I would in a kart: finding places to shave time and marking and testing braking points. I feel aerodynamic grip wanting to keep the car straight in higher corners and adjust a line accordingly. The SP300R changes the experience from a hoon to a science. It’s still driving, but with a different focus. The sort that leaves you aching and buzzing and staring into the middle distance while people try to talk to you. It’s sensational.

You’d have to be careful. Get hooked on this path and it’d be an easy addiction. That’s a ruinous road. Track day organisers don’t like you timing yourself, yet that’s the only plausible onward step.

From there the only sensible outlet is competition. More expense. More time. More buzz. More adrenalin. More of everything. Take care on this path. The Caterham SP300R is brilliant, but it will suck you in and consume you.

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