It’s a tremendous cliche to say that cars are ‘just too good’ these days, but there’s plenty of truth to that old chestnut. Even entry-level modern sports cars are over-powered, over-tyred and just too damn capable to be properly enjoy on the road. Then you have the issue of all the car industry’s naturally-aspirated engines being ditched for less characterful downsized versions with lag-inducing turbos strapped on.
I’ve sampled Caterhams before and never really ‘got’ them. And as far as answering the modern day sports car dilemma, surely looking so far to the past isn’t the way to go? Now though, a few weeks into living with the car I’ll be using to take on the Caterham Academy and my first foray into the world of racing, I’m totally onboard with the Seven way of thinking.
The revelation came on the way back from the ‘handling day’ portion of our Academy journey. Taking place on a nice big slab of tarmac in the grounds of Donington Park circuit, it’s a day of autocross-style driving intended to get competitors used to the on-the-limit (and beyond-the-limit) handling of their cars before the sprinting and racing kicks off, where there’ll be bigger things than cones to hit when it all goes wrong. It’s also the first time you get to don all your gear, so the organisers can check you’ve bought the right stuff.
I finished the day 7th overall out of 25th with the second fastest practice start, proving that I hopefully won’t be too useless when competing for real. But at the time I didn’t know that - the full results didn’t arrive until a few days later, and I left Donington a little dejected, feeling my performance hadn’t been as polished as it could have been.
I hadn’t gelled with the car quite how I’d wanted either, so seeking to remedy that, and lighten the mood, I peeled off the boring road that leads back home and took a back route I sometimes use when I’m in a car that needs a thorough spanking. It was on this road that the Seven and I finally clicked.
Driving modern performance cars quickly is often more about trusting in the capability of the machine under you, as opposed to outright skill. But in a Caterham, it’s all down to you. There are no electronic aids - not even ABS - to save you if you cock up. You need to be rev-matching to keep everything smooth. You have to think about your throttle inputs. And you have to carefully judge how far you carry the brakes into each corner to make sure the surprisingly understeer-prone front end has enough weight on it to dig in.
With precious little separating you from the outside world, no power steering and a weight figure less than half that of even the lighter hot hatchbacks out there, there’s a purity to the Seven you just don’t get with ‘normal’ sports cars. And my God is it a good car for heel and toe, thanks to its tiny pedal box and responsive 1.6-litre, 125bhp engine.
This plucky little Seven has given me an appreciation and love for driving that - after about 13 years behind the wheel - had been starting to wane. But, I don’t think the biggest factor is the way it drives. No - it’s that using a Caterham in any capacity is more of an occasion.
Going out in a Seven requires planning. You have to think about what you’re bringing with you, and where you’re going to put it. If - like me - you have abnormally large feet and have a penchant for buying bulky Vans trainers, you’ll have to put on race boots to avoid accidentally clipping two pedals at once. Even after all that is considered, you still need to clamber in (impossible to do in a dignified manner, by the way), harness up and attach the steering wheel.
All of this - plus the Seven’s noisy and breezy demeanor at speed - makes arriving at your destination feel like much more of an achievement - something I haven’t experienced since my brief and crashy dalliance with the world of motorbikes. It makes you enjoy what a car is for at its most base level - getting you from one place to another. It just happens that the bit in the middle is immense fun too.