9am on a cloudy Saturday morning in Paris. Just three hours to get to Le Mans.
It’s a 120 mile journey, with a 2.5 hour drive time on a good day – and the Saturday of Le Mans weekend is not a good day to be travelling to the Circuit de la Sarthe. The 250,000 expected visitors to the 90th anniversary of Le Mans are likely to all arrive together. And Google Maps offers one word. Gridlock.
No chance of making up time en route, either, because the gendarmes are well aware of what’s going on. Twitter reveals many stories of over-zealous Brits getting pulled over.
Still, it's not all bad. I'm driving a Caterham Seven SV - powered by a 300bhp supercharged Ford Duratec engine - to the track. I’m keen to try the Seven, having driven a competitor product - a Westfield Megablade - at track days for the past year.
I’m driving the 40th anniversary version of the Seven – which comes with bespoke decals, additional interior leather and a chrome badge showing which model out of the 40 made it is. This is number one.
As we leave the car park and head for the motorway I’m looking forward to getting to know the SV. We don’t get far, though, as the legendary Parisian traffic stops us getting above 30mph for the first half hour of our trip. I'm very aware that the temperature gague is not only showing that the car is warmed up, but is slowly edging towards being hot as well. We need to start moving.
Soon enough, though, we’re clear of the traffic and on the open road – Caterham country. This SV is fitted with a five-speed manual gearbox taken from a Mazda MX-5 rather than the usual Ford Sierra units used. Since Sierra gearboxes are increasingly in short supply, Caterham has had to source an alternative. It's a good 'box, and likely to become standard issue on the Seven range in the near future.
The SV has been a good seller for Caterham – broadening its market and customer base and allowing drivers of all shapes and sizes to get involved with the brand. Chief Commercial Officer for the company and my co-driver for the trip, David Ridley says the SV now accounts for half of all Caterham road car sales, falling to 20 per cent when cars built solely for the track are taken into account.
We make good time along the A11 towards Chere, but sure enough the overcast skies open and rain begins. Luckily, the aerodynamic effects of the Caterham mean that most of the rain doesn’t enter the open-topped cabin. Combined with a surprisingly effective heater driving the SV in the wet is, in a word, fun.
As we edge closer to the circuit the drizzle becomes a downpour, and we make the decision to put the Caterham’s roof on. Even in the now enclosed space there’s more than enough room for my 6'1" frame, though there’s some muffled chuckling from French onlookers as I clamber aboard for the final stint. This is not a car you enter or exit gracefully.
I also receive a text from colleague Lewis Kingston, who’s already at the circuit having driven down in an Aston Martin DB9 Volante. It says: “Whatever you do, make sure you arrive at the site with the windows up and the roof closed.” I don't fully understand, though my co-driver reveals that I should be prepared to do a few on-demand burnouts for the crowds, or face the consequences.
The final few junctions get steadily busier as we get closer to Circuit de la Sarthe, finally resulting in a wall of traffic waiting to get into Le Mans. It’s the best traffic jam I’ve ever been in, though, with every driver swapping stories on their cars, their journeys and, in some cases, their experiences with local law enforcement.
There’s a real affinity for the Caterham here, and it draws even more attention than many of the passing supercars. One chap in a Ferrari F430 looks positively distraught that this low-sprung British sports car is getting more affection than his Italian masterpiece.
As we pull into our parking space, narrowly avoiding the assorted exotica parked on every pavement, roadside and layby, I shut off the SV’s engine for the last time. I feel like we've bonded - more so than on any other long drive, because to drive the Caterham you actually have to put some effort in. It's tiring, but in a good way.
There's a steady throng of visitors headed for a gate in the distance. That's the entrance, then, and it's where I'm headed next. Let Le Mans begin.