Thursday, 6 December 2012

Season Summary

Academy Season Summary:

It is just over 2 years since I took my family down to Caterham South to place a deposit on the 2012 Caterham Academy. Making the decision to enter was not the work of a moment for me, in fact I delayed my decision once and almost pulled out before finally taking the plunge. I knew I wanted a 7, but I was originally toying with a second-hand R3/4/500 for track-days and Sunday blats, however like all of the best laid plans one thing lead to another. In the end a desire to build my car and knowing that I couldn’t afford anything more than a new Roadsport, along with a dose of man logic that an saw an Academy car as essentially a Roadsport with a years racing thrown in for free, helped make the decision for me.

Eleven months later my kit arrived at my parents’ house ready for me to start assembly. I hadn’t coped particularly with the intervening period and only managed to keep myself sane by re-joining the club, going to the odd meet, reading and re-reading the build manual and watching endless YouTube clips of Caterham racing. When my kit arrived it was like Christmas, birthdays and a promotion at work all rolled into one. My first brand new car and I had 2 weeks to enjoy the process of seeing it come together in front of my eyes.


With rose tinted spectacles firmly on I would say the build was a wholly fantastic experience, but if I force myself to look back at it more realistically then I would describe it as a thoroughly rewarding but at times maddening experience. I have never felt such satisfaction (starting the car for the first time), but also such frustration (having to take the diff out for the 3rd time) in anything that I have done before.

Would I do it again? Yes, without a shadow of doubt, but I would do it differently. I put myself under huge pressure to build my car in 2 weeks. I have a young family and don’t have a garage at home, so tried to pack the build into a short period of holiday from work to keep everyone happy. Next time (and I do hope there will be a next time) I would take my time and make sure I had a space at home that allowed me to pop out and tinker for an hour or two each evening, rather than slog away for 10 – 14 hour days on my own in my parents garage, away from my family.

I said at the time, with ever increasingly stringent legislation who knows how long it will be before building your own car is outlawed. I hope I never see the day, but knowing I have done it gives me a huge sense of pride and a much better understanding of the machine I am racing. To work hard and buy the car of your dreams, then to work hard and build it for yourself is a pretty unique experience and one I feel proud to say I have done.


With the excitement of the build gone the wait for the first competitive event seemed as though it would last forever, but Caterham very cleverly used the winter period to keep us engaged via a number of dedicated events; Introductory Seminar, Factory Visit and Set-up Day, Handling Day, ARDS Day and finally the Test Day. On top of this I added a trip to the AutoSport Show to get hold of my race gear and spent plenty of time preparing the car for racing. Far from being a quiet time, I was struggling to fit everything in. Others were using the time to do plenty of testing/training (quite how much became apparent at the early sprints).

My favorite event, by quite some way, was the test day at a sodden Castle Combe in early April. This was my first venture out onto track and was a truly eye opening experience. In conditions that would have stopped an F1 race we slithered, slipped and spun our way around the track together for the first time. I think on that day many of us managed to scare ourselves into finally realising that we weren’t an F1 driver waiting to be discovered. We were amateurs trying very hard to balance our own fear/excitement ratio. It was a baptism of fire for all of us, but I loved it.


Looking back at the sprints it would be easy to dismiss them as frustrating and a lot of effort for minimal reward, but I think that would be an unfair assessment. The sprints were a great introduction to motorsport. They offer the thrill of speed and competition, but with far less risk of damage to either car or driver. It is very easy to see why Caterham get Academy drivers to take part in them before going wheel to wheel racing later in the year.

Our first event at Aintree was fantastic. I still remember the feeling of excitement arriving at a race course knowing that I was going to compete, in my car, for the very first time in my life. Aintree is a long way to go (for most) for less than 10 minutes driving and the course itself is not particularly interesting, with only three main corners, but that paled into insignificance because we were finally about to do what we had waited so long to do. A 4th placed result was a reasonable start, but I was close to a podium and the competitive spirit within me wanted to stand on it at least once during the year.

Curborough a few weeks later was better still. The small clubby atmosphere and fantastic weather helped make it a thoroughly enjoyable event. That it was my first win also helped slightly. The track is tight, twisty and narrow. It is a place that you could spend years trying to master (as many of the club speed championship members do) and still derive great pleasure from. I loved it and was really starting to get a taste for the competition.

By the time we got to Snetterton I think we were all starting to feel ready for the circuit races. The day was enjoyable and the competition fierce, but many of us were looking forward to doing more driving and less standing around, for you really do a lot of waiting at sprints. Another win was a nice reward for the final sprint, but the question for me was could I convert sprint pace into race results.

The sprints required us to try and put our best qualifying lap together on each and every run and at venues that we hadn’t seen before. No amount of YouTube videos can quite prepare you for the un-known and that was both the thrill and frustration. For those that got it right there was a feeling of great satisfaction. For those that got it wrong there was the sense of un-finished business. I can see why people go back time and again to try and master a course. I had enjoyed my sprinting experience, but was ready to move on.


The races are where the excitement really started to ramp up. After all, this is what we had all been working towards and waiting for since we placed our deposits, in my case 18 months previously. I will never forget the mixture of nerves and excitement of that first race at Donington. They subsided slightly at the later events, but not by much. No track day has come close to giving me the same buzz since.

The thought of Donington kept me awake most of the previous week. I couldn’t sleep for the thought of getting out onto track and racing against 25 other cars. I may have been quick at a sprint, but would I know how to overtake? Would I crash into someone else trying to get past in a silly move? or would someone do it to me? Would I remember all I needed to from the Blue Book? In the end it was a short race, with a mid-field crash putting us behind the safety car for several laps. In the short number of racing laps that we had I experienced a high unlike anything else and a lucky win was the outcome.

Brands Hatch a few weeks later was another great weekend. A fantastic circuit on a nice day and a very clean race. I lost out at the start to Scott Lawrence, but passed him on lap 2 and had a slightly lonely drive to the finish. This time the main enjoyment was in driving a great circuit as smoothly and cleanly as possible, without doing anything silly and throwing away the lead. I didn’t and was starting to think about the championship.

Snetterton was our first weekend long event and despite only having 15 minutes of qualifying and a 15 minute race it was a packed weekend. Both Saturday and Sunday mornings were spent marshaling on the circuit for extra points in the championship. It was a very worthwhile experience to get an insight into the dedication of the marshals that support us. The race itself was a relatively straight forward affair as I led from lights to flag, but no less enjoyable for that. Snetterton really is a lovely circuit to drive and the weekend had been fantastic fun with a brilliant atmosphere in the paddock all weekend. We were all becoming good friends by this time, rather than a group of people thrown together around a common passion. A win and the championship was the icing on the cake.

With the championship in the bag I approached Rockingham a little differently to the other events. From the trackday I had done there a couple of weeks before I knew I didn’t like the track as much as the others and with my brain not fully in gear had my worst qualifying of the year for 3rd. At the start I got swamped and was down to 5th place at the end of the first lap, however the fight back to briefly take the lead on the last lap and eventually finish second proved it to be the best race of the season so far. It proved to me that the race, not the result was the most important thing.

A few weeks after Rockingham 35 Academy drivers, from both Group 1 and 2, returned to Donington for the post season Caterham Autumn Trophy. Two 20 minute races thrown on by Caterham for those that hadn’t quite had enough racing for the year. The anticipation was high as it would be the first time that Group 1 and Group 2 had competed together and we would finally get to see who was the quicker. After a fog delayed start both races were shortened to 13 minutes, but this did nothing to dampen the enthusiasm. With no time for qualifying we were placed on the grid in championship finishing order, so I was fortuitously gifted a pole. Stephen Nuttall (Group 2 champion) wasn’t there, so I had Pete Fortune (Group 2 runner up) sat next to me. After a year of Group 2 telling Group 1 they were quicker (and quite frankly me believing it) I expected Peter to romp off into the distance with Danny Killeen (4th on the grid). In the end Peter, Danny, Matt Dyer and I spent the next 13 minutes racing nose to tail, with all of us taking the lead at various points and places swapping at least twice a lap. It was an epic battle and one I was lucky enough to come out on top of.

The grid for the second race was decided on the result of the first, so I was once again gifted a pole (I was starting to feel like a very lucky boy indeed). Starting in almost total darkness I held the lead for most of the first lap before being overtaken by Danny and Peter. After Peter and Danny had a slight coming together on lap 4 I was gifted the lead once again, which I held to the finish despite the best efforts of Matt Dyer and Nigel Board who both came past me at some point during the race, only for me to regain my position up front. I finished my final race of the year with another win and the perfect finish to a dream year.

The races were a dream come true and the improvements we all made throughout the year were incredible. By the end I trusted the guys around me implicitly, whereas at the start I wasn’t quite sure. We were driving faster, making fewer mistakes and enjoying ourselves even more. We had become proper racing drivers.


The Academy is billed as one of the cheapest and easiest ways to get into motorsport and of that I have little doubt, but it remains bloody expensive. Now this is all relative. Motorsport in general is hideously expensive, but when I sat down and ran through the cost to me at the end of the year (below) I was surprised by just how much I had spent. I deliberately tried not to think about it during the year as I wanted to focus on just enjoying myself and I highlight this only so that others who are thinking about it will go in with eyes completely open.

PurchaseBasic CarCaterham£18,894
Quick Release WheelCaterham£275.75
Weather GearCaterham£464.68
Lowered FloorCaterham£326.81
Starter ButtonCaterham£45.96
FluidsSam Centre£200
Post Build Inspection & FixCaterham£662
IVA PresentationCaterham£354
Road TaxDVLA£215
Caterham Bag SeatCaterham£100
Caterham Set-upCaterham£250
Service7 Workshop£180
DPR Set-up & AdjustmentsDPR£379.80
HANS ModificationArch Motors£240
RepairsNew cycle wingCaterham£54
Race GearHelmetDemon Tweeks£450
HANS DeviceDemon Tweeks£450
Race SuitDemon Tweeks£550
NomexDemon Tweeks£100
BootsDemon Tweeks£50
GlovesDemon Tweeks£100
MiscellaneousCaterham/Demon Tweaks£100
TrailerTrailer PurchasePrivate Purchase£1,000
Trailer ServiceGT Towing£518.46
TrackdaysSnetterton 300Javelin£179
Brands HatchMSV£295
Snetterton 200 (evening)Javelin£89
TuitionSnetterton 300 (Solo)Ben Elliott£345
Donington (Shared)Ben Elliott£149
Brands Hatch (Shared)Ben Elliott£149
Snetterton 200 (evening) (Shared)Ben Elliott£60
Rockingham (Shared)Ben Elliott£149
Extra Non-Championship RaceDonnington Autumn CupBRSC£375
Caterham SupportCaterham£30
FuelRace Car Approximately 700 litresVarious£950
Tow Car Approximately 800Various£1,080
AccomodationAintree SprintPremier Inn£80
Sneterton RaceB&B£80
PhotographyPhotos throughout the yearRachel Horgan£125
Year BookRachel Horgan£110

I ran the season as cheaply as I felt able to and in reality could have shaved £5,000 off the total cost had I not bought a trailer, not taken coaching, not got a HANS device, stayed in a tent rather than hotels etc. But had I done that I am not sure I would have enjoyed the experience as much. If I had my time again I would do it in exactly the same way. The only additional item I might consider buying would be a V-Box to help with analysis on track days, but that really would be it.

Many others spent an awful lot more than I did. Some were doing lots of track and test days. Some had 3 or even 4 sets of tyres (I ran with one set of tyres all year and they are still good for another couple of races), some spent a lot with race teams. This may well have helped a little, but it really isn’t necessary. Caterham tell you this at the beginning of the year and it really is true.

Golden Nuggets:

If I can provide any advice to those thinking of taking the plunge, these are the things I would focus on. There are a myriad of other recommendations and suggestions, but these are my golden nuggets:

-          Build your car – No matter how mechanically inept you think you are you can build a 7. It is not as difficult as you might think and the reward from doing so is fantastic. It is frustrating at times, but it will give you a much better appreciation of how the car works and how to work on it when things go wrong.

-          Set-up – Put 500 miles on the car as quickly as you can to let the suspension settle and then get it properly set-up. The out of the box factory set-up on my car was not great, but after I had driven it for a few months and taken it back to Caterham for the flat floor it was fantastic. Don’t get too hung up on who does it (Caterham, DPR, SPY, etc.) they will all do a very good job and make it much better to drive. I won 2 sprints with a Caterham set-up and 5 races with a DPR set-up.

-          Track time – Get out on track and spend time really pushing the car to the limits. However don’t feel as though you have to do dozens of track days. One day at the start of the year to get your eye in, then one day at each of the tracks you will be racing at so you know which way it goes come qualifying will be just fine. Don’t get psyched out by those that do a very great deal more, they won’t necessarily be quicker as the law of diminishing returns very much applies. 4 ½ track days was what I did and I didn’t feel as though I needed to do any more.

-          Tuition – Get some tuition as soon as possible, but as above don’t go mad. A day at the beginning of the year and then a day at each track before you go there (this can be shared with others to help keep costs down) will be plenty and will make the biggest difference to your driving throughout the year. I used Ben Elliot, who was fantastic and probably found more time from me that I would have found from a set of CR500’s and a Supersport upgrade.

-          Time – Make sure you allow at least twice as long for each job as you think it will take. I couldn’t believe how much time everything took. From loading the car onto the trailer (probably the best part of an hour the first time you do it) to putting on all of the racing decals (probably 3 hours). Everything takes time. Accept it, account for it and get super organized so you aren’t in a flap the night before an event. Also, warn your family so they know what to expect!

-          Enjoy it - You won’t get talent spotted, so don’t get hung up on where you finish. Those that put pressure on themselves to win inevitably enjoyed the experience less than those who were battling their way around in the mid-field, or at the back. In fact I think the best racing was mid-field and I certainly enjoyed the scrapping more than I did the winning.


The Caterham Academy has been one of the best experiences of my life. A great car. On great circuits. Competing with great friends (and they really do become friends). Supported by a great team. It exceeded my expectations and I really couldn’t have asked for anything more.

Before I started I was worried that the series would become expensive bumper cars and cost me more than I could really afford. I spent too much time watching YouTube videos of Caterham Academy crashes worrying that I was going to be surrounded by people with more money than mechanical sympathy or driving talent. My experience couldn’t have been further from that concern. Each of us is competitive by nature, but we also love our cars and respect each other too much to do anything malicious or truly silly. Where accidents happened, they were as a result of genuine mistakes and were sorted out with an apology and a handshake afterwards.

Caterham have designed a series that works. They hand hold you through every step of the process (and give you the occasional telling off along the way when it is warranted) and are a fantastic team as passionate about the cars and the racing as the drivers. Win or come last it is an experience that just can’t be topped. It is also what the 7 was truly designed to do. Whilst I still use mine on the road as much as I can, it is on the track with 25 other Caterhams that it truly comes alive and that is why I will be heading to Roadsports next year…I can’t think of any other legalised activity that might provide the same high.

I hope you have enjoyed reading my experiences over the last year and that they haven’t been too self-indulgent. I would like to leave by saying that if any of you are considering the Academy and want more information, further thoughts or ideas, then please do contact me…as you can probably tell, I can’t recommend it enough and could talk about it endlessly!

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