One of the questions I get asked most about in my year in the Caterham Academy concerns money. If we were paying customers rather than media partners, how much would it have cost?
That’s not something I can answer with a single figure - it’s going to vary depending on how you approach the series, but there’s one thing every punter will have to pay for: the Academy package itself.
£26,495 buys you the car (as a kit, if you want it factory-built that’s an additional £2500) and your first season package - entry fees (two sprints and five races), hospitality, race day support, race license test fees plus a Caterham coat I’ve become rather attached to are all included; everything you need to get started as a racing driver, in other words.
That doesn’t seem so bad when the only slightly more advanced road-going 270S costs exactly the same. It’s no wonder you hear of people going into Caterham showrooms and being steered towards an Academy year - it’s a tempting deal. Plus, you could - so long as it’s kept fairly straight - sell it at the end for £19,000 - £21,000.
You could theoretically spend nothing else other than fuel, but the Friday test sessions are essential, and they’re anything from £180 - £300 for each of the five races (although a day-long test at Castle Combe is included in the base package), plus the extra fuel you’re going to burn. Some go further and book additional test and track days and get tuition - typically £500 - £700 to hire a pro for the day.
You also need to factor in your helmet, Hans device and flameproofs, which will be upwards of £1000. Most of our kit was kindly supplied by Alpinestars. Most Caterham racers also buy a VBox, which gives predictive lap timing and a video recording function with a data overlay via two included cameras, among other features. Buying one also ticks the onboard camera box - you’ll need front and rear-facing cameras anyway, should the stewards want to look at your footage. It’s £1438 for the ‘Lite’ version, and £2460 for the fancier ‘HD’ package.
I managed to comfortably get my car through the whole season on one set of tyres and brake pads, but I only attended two of the five pre-race test sessions, missed the ‘free’ pre-season Castle Combe test, and only did one other track day. At a circuit not on the calendar. Smart
Anyway, had I put more preparation in - which I really should have done - I’m not sure I’d have managed on just one set of each. I also drove my car to every race - most don’t, so you might need to shell out for a trailer.
Then we need to address crashing. If you lose a wing or smash a nosecone, it’s not the end of the world - you’re looking at a few hundred quid for each, assuming the damage can’t be patched up with gaffer-tape. Thankfully, there’s not a whole lot of bodywork to bend on a Caterham.
But come away from a crash with a bent frame - which was sadly the case for a few fellow Academy drivers this year - and it gets significantly more expensive. It’s possible to get insurance, but the premiums and the excesses are so big that many Caterham racers advise putting away what you would have paid for the cover into a pot should ‘the big one’ happen.
Anything else? Well, you’re going to want a ‘flat floor’ suspension geometry setup - about £300 - and unless you’re happy camping, you’ll need to think about paying for hotel rooms.
So TL;DR, it’s not cheap, and that £26,500 base price is likely to be quite a bit over £30,000 even if you don’t splash out on ‘luxuries’ like hotels and tuition. It’s not surprising - racing is notoriously expensive even at the lower end. But a lot of these - the car, the gear and the trailer for instance - are one-off costs, so if you’re intending to stick around, your next few years of racing shouldn’t set you back anywhere near as much. Speaking of which…
If you don’t want to pack it in at the end of the year, you can graduate to the next class up, called Roadsport. Your car stays largely the same, with the crucial difference of a set of semi-slick Avon ZZR boots cutting lap times significantly - at Thruxton, the Roadsport pole lap was two seconds faster. The minimum upgrade cost is £1140, rising to £2429 if you fit optional extras like bigger anti-roll bars and braided brake hoses. Then you’ll need to stump up £445 for registration, £795 for the support package, and between £425 and £480 for each double-header race weekend.
From there, you have the option to further upgrade the car to go up to the 270R class, while the 310R tier requires new camshafts among other engine modifications to increase power. It’s not until you get to 420Rs - in which Chris Hoy currently competes - that you’ll need to ditch your original Academy car for a much more serious Caterham with a 175bhp 2.0-litre engine, a sequential gearbox, and a digital race dash.
Were I to wind back the clock and start my motorsport journey again, I’m not sure I’d want to do it anywhere but in the Academy. It’s so much less daunting knowing everyone around you is also a rookie, and it makes the camaraderie even stronger. You have brilliant people like Abi, Louise and Kirsty guiding you through your first steps in motorsport, meaning it never feels like you’re being chucked in at the deep end.
Yes, Ginetta has a very similar product with the GRDC, which features a more advanced car and more races. But the base package is nearly £10k more, and the grids this year were half the size.
The Caterham weekends, on the other hand, have packed races across all tiers. They’re exciting to watch, thrilling to be in, and sort of affordable to enter.
I’ve had an incredible year of both ups and downs racing my little Caterham, finishing the season feeling at home in my new racing family. The only problem? I’ve become addicted to racing, and I’m about to go cold turkey…