June 08, 2020
Getting Back On Track: What You Need To Know
Earlier this month, circuits across the UK reopened their gates and rolled out a new season of track days, paving the way for this year’s motorsport competitors. As we are the self-proclaimed king of track days – because that’s exactly what a Caterham is designed for – we thought we’d share everything you need to know before hitting the circuit for the first time.
For this, we turned to two familiar faces of Caterham, Sam Parker and Luke Kidsley. Most recently, they’ve appeared in our Super Seven launch which you can check out here. Now, Sam has been part of Caterham for over 15 years, mainly involved with track and experience days, and knows a Seven like the back of her hand. Luke Kidsley has also been with the team for around 15 years, working as an instructor for handling and circuit days, and is an accomplished racing driver.
So here it is, our rapid-fire guide to getting on track – whether you’re a track day virgin or experienced visitor, here are our top tips:
Where to start?
Luke: If you’re an absolute novice, the best thing to do is to go online and check out the [track day] calendars. See what days are being run, and by what company, along with the type of track day its offering. There are some novice-only ones out there, and some for the more experienced driver where the rules and regulations may be a little different. Novice days follow a stricter structure, so you know you’re in safe hands.
Sam: Everyone there is in the same boat. You aren’t going to get anyone messing about, and if anyone is being a little silly, they’ll get told off straight away. So you can feel at ease, and being relaxed really helps.
What should I expect when I get to the circuit?
Luke: There’s a massive disparity between the type of cars, and the different speeds that can be achieved on track. You could easily be in one of the fastest cars out there.
Sam: Thing is, it all comes down to the driver’s ability and how well they / you know the circuit.
Luke: A lot of beginners aren’t quite ready for that. You could find yourself being destroyed in a straight line by something with a lot more horsepower. But, when you get to the corner you could be more competent on the brakes, have better handling dynamics and then you’re right on the back of a car that passed you a minute ago. People aren’t always prepared for the braking distance, and generally, something with more power is going to be heavier and not as nimble in the corners.
Treat your first session with caution, be as observational as possible, and give as much room as you can to other drivers (and yourself). Watch where people are braking and know where your car can brake – you’ll be in the back of another car if you’re not careful.
Sam: You’re better off starting on a novice day. Some people will think ‘I’ve had my Caterham for a long time, I don’t need to go on a novice day’. Don’t be afraid to start at a lower level. Build yourself up, and that way you’ll still have your car in once piece at the end of the day. Going flat out and thinking ‘I’m going to keep up with those guys, I’m experienced, I’m as good as them’ is not a good idea. Just start from the bottom if you’ve never done it before.
Luke: It’s best to take your time. People are naturally competitive, especially in motorsport and think they have to be the fastest. That mentality shouldn’t exist when starting out. Concentrate on your ability and understand the absolute fundamentals – which in my opinion is why a Caterham is such a good place to learn.
Why opt for a Caterham, or similar, when taking to a track day?
Luke: The fundamentals of a Seven are crystal clear, everything translates really easily. There is great communication between you and the car, you can understand the feelings a lot better – which you don’t necessarily get in other cars.
Sam: The other thing you learn is car control, where a Caterham might have less power you learn how to safely carry speed through corners.
Which circuits are good for a novice driver?
Sam: Silverstone is, for sure, as it’s a circuit that a lot of people are familiar with – they’ve probably seen it on TV, particularly with the Gran Prix. I would say, in my personal opinion, it’s a good one to start at. It’s very wide, and there’s a lot of space, there aren’t any trees or anything like that. For example, at Oulton Park the circuit is very narrow and lots of trees to whizz past.
Luke: It really is, there are Armco barriers within meters of the track too and other things that aren’t particularly forgiving. Circuits such as Brands Hatch may look simple, but there’s a lot of elevation changes, it’s quite technical and can be a difficult circuit. Apart from Cadwell, I don’t think there is another UK circuit that gives you that gut-wrenching drop. Bedford is a good circuit to start with, there are lots of different configurations, but at the end of the day – it’s an airfield. You can learn a lot about apex’s and corner, plus if you do get it wrong, you minimize the risk of damaging your car thanks to the runoff. It’s a great place to build confidence.
Do gaming and simulators help?
Luke: You’re preaching to the choir here! I cannot stress enough how important simulator time is. If you’re competing, it’s a great way to stay sharp. If you’re brand new to this, the amount of car control you can learn through simulators is incredible. It’s so well designed these days, the physics are close to creating a real experience. I think even for experienced people, it’s a great way to understand a car and a circuit.
Do experience days help?
Sam: Definitely, it’s worth going on track experience days before venturing out on your own.
Luke: If you own a Caterham in particular, an experience day is one of the best ways of going about it. You know that with the car supplied, it is set up in the way a Caterham should be for the track. If an owner gets back in their car after driving one at an experience day, they’ll be able to tell the difference straight away. Their car will behave how it should, but it might need a bit of a tweak before they take it on track – you can get this done at most Caterham retailers.
Touching on what we spoke about earlier, when you go to a track day or similar, you’ll find someone you’ve probably crossed paths with a few years ago – and they’ve probably spent £50,000 on their engine, on their rear spoiler, on a paint job – but they won’t do one day’s instruction. For me, that is worth way more than any engine upgrade. I can’t stress it enough… even if you don’t use me, or any of my colleagues, get some tuition and people on the track will really appreciate it. One day’s worth makes a massive difference.
Sam: That goes back to having ‘the best car’, like the fastest Ferrari, and turning up in your Seven, and you’ll be faster than him, because you’ve had tuition and he hasn’t.
Luke: Worst case scenario where you do have something on the supercar side, and you do have a mishap – I know which one I’d rather be repairing. If you’ve got the ability in the car, and know where the limit lies, you’ll be laughing.
Should I rent a car available at the circuit?
Sam: For sure, hiring one from a provider – rather than borrowing one from a friend, or even taking your own car the first time – is a far safer route. They’ll have experience and will have set the car up for that circuit, it’ll be ready to go. They’ll provide you with fuel, they’ll have another set of tyres if you need them, and sometimes even send someone along with the car to check on it.
It’s important because if you go out on the circuit, you’ll go out in the morning and most likely stop for lunch – your tyres won’t be as good as they were for your next session. It’s likely you didn’t think to check that. You’d then go out in the afternoon and wouldn’t have as much grip.
It’s worth getting advice, especially if you’ve hired the car and don’t get someone with it. Get all the advice from the provider – what to look out for, what to keep checking, what to know about the car and so on.
Luke: We call it arrive and drive, you can rock up at the circuit and know everything is ready for you. You only have to concentrate on what you’re doing – it’s a weight lifted off your shoulders.
What can you do to prepare for a track with your Caterham?
- Make sure your car has been prepared correctly, you can always ask your local retailer to set it up.
- Make sure the tyre pressures are correct.
- Make sure your wheels are done up tight.
- Make sure your harness is done correctly.
- If you’re wearing a HANS device, make sure that is done correctly.
- Make sure you take stuff out of your car, don’t leave things to roll around in the boot, or on the passenger seat, or even in the footwell.
- If you’ve got a camera, make sure that’s bolted on properly – and check it’s allowed by the circuit.
- If you’re in open top cars, have your arms covered
- It’s definitely worth checking the regulations for the track on the website you’ve booked through, so you’re prepared. Especially when there are new guidelines with COVID-19
- Turn up early, or on time. Don’t cut it close. If you’re rushed you’ll miss briefings, you’ll be flustered, you’ll want to be there for the sighting laps. The track day won’t wait for you, if it’s a 9 o’clock start, it’s a 9 o’clock start.
- Be conscious of noise limits, you’ll be tested when you get there. You’ll get sent home if you’re too loud.
What’s your advice for your first lap on circuit?
Luke: If you’re with an instructor, they’ll look after your mirrors for you. You just need to focus on the braking points, turning points, apexes and learning the circuit. If there isn’t an instructor, make sure your mirrors are set up exactly how you need them and be aware as much as possible as to what’s going on.
The first time is obviously the most daunting, because you’ve never been on track before. Nothing will ever prepare you for what you need to do. There are two main things to think about, 1) be aware of what you’re doing, and 2) be aware of what is going on around you and appreciate that not everybody has the same competence level. Treat everyone as novices and don’t put your faith in what they’re about to do. Be respectful.
Sam: A lot of people think it’s like driving on the road, it really is not like that at all. There’s a lot more to take in, and it’s a lot more tiring on circuit because you’re alert the whole time. There is so much to look at, you’re aggressive on the car and yourself. It’s important to say as well, don’t try to be out there for an entire morning. Do 15 / 20 minutes sessions, come in and think ‘how did that go?’, evaluate it, refresh yourself, have some water and say ‘okay I’m ready to go back out now, I learnt this on the last session / I won’t do that this time / I can go a bit quicker this time and so on…’
I want to time my laps, is this allowed?
Luke: No, a track day runs on a stipulation that there is no competition.
Sam: If you need to keep track of time, keep an eye on the clock in your car or wear a watch – and check how long you’re out for, not each lap.
Luke: That’s really important, if you’re on a large circuit like Silverstone – a novice can take about 5 minutes to do a lap. Before you know it, you’ve done 5 or 6 laps and have been out there half an hour. Fatigue is huge, especially in the afternoon – you’ll be exhausted and won’t concentrate as much.
Sam: A lot of companies offer half-days, it’s a great place to start. You can get a feel for it and they’re great value for money.
What can someone do to get the most out of their Caterham?
Luke: When you own a Caterham, you’re in such a beautiful position – and I do mean that. In coaching, like I said, it translates. You could be racing single seaters, GTs, even Le Mans prototypes, everything you learn in a Caterham can be directly transferred into a different car. If I owned a Caterham, I’ve done a few track days and thought ‘Yep, I’m starting to get the hang of this, I’m starting to get comfortable on the brakes, I can feel the car on edge but I’m not uncomfortable’, I’d try to build on that. When you break the limit, that is when your car is out of control. When you’re on the limit, that’s when your car is fastest, its when you surpass the limit, there’s a problem – so you need to know where that is.
With Caterham, during CDX experiences the advanced drift section is incredibly valuable seat time – it would give someone a little bit more car control, certainly one of the best things you can do. They’ll fully understand how a car moves.
It’s the feel of a car, not a case of numbers – you know ‘6,000 rpm, drop the clutch, back end will step out, 90 degrees of lock to get it back in again’… it doesn’t work like that. You need to feel it.
Sam: You’ve got to feel it through your hands, and you know, through your backside, especially in a lighter car. Initializing oversteer is one thing, but controlling it is an artform. If you can feel it coming away from you, you need to know how to get it back in line and know what is going to happen, don’t just guess or hope for the best. Knowing that you’re at that limit is the best part, you know you’ve got full control of the car, then you and the car can do pretty much anything together. You’ll know what to expect. You can go into a corner and think, ‘woah, that’s a little too fast’, but you’ll be able to correct it. You’ll always know what to do.
Luke: In some ways it comes down to muscle memory, it may be tedious going ‘braking point, braking point, turn’ – but you’ll know what to do when you get to a corner. Just remember, going sideways looks great but its slow.
Sam: And when you’re driving a Seven on circuit properly, you don’t drive it aggressively, you drive it smoothly, you’re in control – it’s consistent and fluid. That car will stick to the road like its on rails, you literally will not get any movement in it.
Luke: That’s the beauty of it. Sam and I have driven all sorts of cars, but genuinely its one of the most responsive cars out there – even against those that try to copy it. In a Seven you can really manipulate that level of control and stay on that limitation, and be fast, and smooth, and consistent.
What if I do over-do it on a track day?
Luke: Don’t rush in there on a track day, if you over do it you’ll be called in and someone will have a word. Generally the rule is, if you spin, you’re in. Nine times out of ten, someone is black flagged for spinning. It’s not an aggressive telling off, they just want to make sure that you, and the car are okay – they want to talk to you and know what’s happened.
Sam: After a spin you’ll probably want to come back in anyway, you’ll want a chance to reset. Your head won’t be in it, your mentality changes.
Luke: We see it all the time, if someone is getting tired or pushes too hard - that’s when they make mistakes. You have so much information to think about, just take it easy.
Sam: It’s important to say as well, that on your first track day, try to keep gear changes to a minimum. A Caterham has such a torquey engine, you can leave it in 4th or 5th and still get out of tight hairpins at a good speed.
Luke: It’s very much grassroots, just build up to it and you’ll benefit from the car more.
Luke: If someone is faster, just let them go past. There should be no egos on track days. If you’re in a quick car, but see someone behind you who is mega in the bends, let them go. Most track days will specify areas you can overtake, so lift off and let them past.
Sam: Exactly, and then you can concentrate on what you’re doing. Forget them.
Luke: It’s so frustrating for drivers, they’ll be compromised in the corners, you could drive off at rapid speed and then they catch up again at the next one.
Sam: I remember on one of my first ever track days, I’d only been with Caterham a year or two – I went out on circuit with an instructor next to me, and all I had in my rearview mirror was this car all over me, constantly. It was distracting. I moved over a couple of times, but he didn’t go past for whatever reason. They distract you, and you’re not concentrating on looking forward and to the next corner that’s coming up, that’s more important.
Luke: It’s true, some drivers will be quite aggressive. They’ll rock up with that attitude of ‘I’m Hamilton, watch this!’. It’s a really common thing.
Smaller things to think about?
- Nothing can prepare you for a track day and everything that ties into it
- Wearing a helmet for the first time is a little odd, especially with a HANS device
- In Academy cars, there are arm restraints so you may need to get used to this
- You can’t watch a video and think you know everything
- You’re not a racing driver, these days are designed for private owners
Top Advice Points
- Be prepared.
- Make sure you have everything you need, such as your driving license. If you can print off an indemnity form beforehand, and any paperwork, do it, have it all ready in a folder.
- Know the track day you’re getting involved with, do your research and learn the circuit.
- Check your car over fully and that it's ready to go. Take a jerry can and spare tyres if you can.
- Have the right clothing. For a Seven have a narrow, soft-souled shoe. Take thin layers of clothing, you don’t want to be bulky.
- Know your optimum tyre pressures, understand how they work.
- Have fuel for yourself! Take some food and drink, some snacks, just to keep you going.
- Don’t act like you know everything. Ask questions.
- Start where you’re comfortable (novice sessions, training, half days etcs...)
- If you have a scenario where there are 2 or 3 friends going along, share a garage.
- When you need to come in, try to do a cool down lap and ease off the car. Don't put the handbrake on once you've stopped, leave the car in gear.
- ENJOY IT!