Guest Blog: On Track For the Academy with Rob Oldland #2

Guest Blog: On Track For the Academy with Rob Oldland #2

What a month it has been! Let’s start with the car. I had my first track day on the 1st February on the Brands Hatch Indy Circuit. I had an absolute ball, the Academy Seven is a really lovely car to drive! It handles really well and instils confidence to grab it by the scruff of its neck and go for it! It has a tendency for a little understeer if anything and it kind of just squats its bum and gets on with it!

After a couple of 20 minute sessions I was confident enough to allow the car to move under me; like every Seven, it tells you what it’s going to do, and with only 125hp and the constraints of the Academy suspension setup, everything happens much slower than with my previous car. Despite this, I was constantly able to lap at the same time as the best ever previously managed in my 620, and my best lap of the day was actually 1 second quicker. It really does go to show that it’s not just about power, but good setup, driver ability and technique. At this point, I would like to recognise a couple of people who helped me to achieve this.  The first is Rob at Boss Racing who has set up the suspension brilliantly. At the moment, I have just had the ride height, camber and alignment set up to the Academy regulations (2019) and will return to get a full flat floor once the car has a few more miles on the clock when the suspension has properly settled. The second is driver coach Jamie Unwin. At present, this looks to be the only day of driver coaching I can afford so I did my best to absorb just as many hints, tips and feedback as I possibly could. Jamie has competed in Caterhams and has previously been a factory driver for Caterham Cars so he definitely knows his stuff! Between each session, Jamie was able to identify two or three items for me to address in the next session and so on. The result was a transformation in my driving, my confidence and ultimately my lap times. While I’ve been on track with several instructors before (which serve a good purpose) having driver coaching is something really different. Jamie is currently a brand ambassador for Ferrari and Maserati and is well worth making contact with if you would like to improve your technique on track.

A few days before Brand Hatch, I joined the other drivers in the Caterham Academy 2020 ‘Green Group’ for our ARDS (Association of Racing Driver Schools) day at Castle Combe to complete the instruction required and demonstrate competency so I could apply for my race licence.  The event is organised by Caterham Motorsport as part of the Academy package for all drivers and it proved to be a very well-organised, informative and enjoyable day. We were spilt into four groups and worked around the day’s activities in different orders. Luckily for me, my track session and driving test were in the afternoon as in the morning there was actually ice on the Castle Combe circuit! My first session was completely unexpected - a skid pan experience. This session did not form any part of the race licence, it was put on purely to give us experience and tuition of handling a rear wheel drive car, particularly in oversteer and avoidance braking situations. Along with two dedicated skid pan instructors, six of us shared two BMWs, so there was plenty of opportunity to drive. I thoroughly enjoyed it and learnt lots.

The next session was led by Darren, the senior trackside engineer who, along with his team, will support us at each of the practice, test and race events throughout the season. Darren took us through the changes we’ll need to make to turn our road cars into race cars including all of the safety requirements such as the seat, race harness, FHR (frontal head restraint) devices, tow straps, fire extinguisher, kill switches etc.

After a break for the lunch provided, the next session was in the  classroom where an instructor explained the essential rules, basic driving techniques and expectations of the format for a race day. This was followed by the practical driving on track. For this, the Castle Combe school’s Ford Fiesta Zetec-S cars were used. Our sessions started with three laps being driven around the circuit by an instructor who was explaining the lines to take. Then it was time to swap over. The brief was to drive at a good pace to demonstrate you are not going to be a danger during a race by being too slow, but on the other hand you were also informed that if you span the car, you failed! No pressure then… The first 15 minutes was under instruction, then the instruction went silent for two laps where I had to demonstrate my competence unaided. I felt like a teenager again, nervous and almost forgot how to drive! What would have been driven on autopilot become hyper-focus, but nevertheless, I was informed that I had done what was required and passed with some items to discuss to improve my track driving. Next up was the medical. As I had already had my eyes tested before the day, this was a short conversation with the doctor.

The final session of the day was the written test. I was informed ahead of the day that I needed to familiarise myself with Motorsport UK’s (formerly MSA) rule book (commonly known as the ‘blue book’, but that I’d need to learn the flags in detail. This proved to be good advise and I was able to complete the test with ease. The flag section is indeed the most difficult - you are given a scenario and you have to identify which flag you’d expect to see and whether it would be stationary, waved, double etc. The second part of the test is multiple choice and can be answered with limited knowledge by applying common sense.

What made the day particularly enjoyable was being with the other drivers and the Caterham Cars Motorsport team. This was only the second time that the drivers had come together so it was great to get to meet and chat to new people, find out how they are feeling, preparing for the season and enjoying their new Caterham as for many, this was their first experience of Seven ownership. So, ARDS day successfully completed and a very enjoyable day it was too.  Now it should just be a case of waiting for my race licence to arrive!

Additional costs

Other than the purchase of the car, there are other cost considerations during the season. This month, I’ll talk about the race gear that’s required. Of course, you can set your budget for low, medium or high. I decided to opt for the middle. I was told to budget £2,000 and this proved to be spot on. While I am on a tight budget, this was one area where I didn’t want to compromise. It’s probably true that you could go cheaper and still equip yourself with racewear items that meet the required safety standards for around £1,000 all in. What I found was that the difference you get for spending that bit more is comfort. To me, this is important - when I’m in the car, I don’t want to be distracted by restricted movement or be any warmer than necessary. What I also discovered is that race suits vary in weight and in their ability to allow your body to breathe.  The way they are constructed varies too, such as having ‘floating arms’ which improve comfort and mobility. I opted for the OMP First EVO suit, gloves and boots and for a Sparco RF-5w helmet and balaclava paired with a Stand 21 FHR device. These are the mandatory items. In addition, I purchased race underwear including top, bottom and socks. As and when the budget allows, I hope to add a second set of underwear as testing and race days are back-to-back. I purchased all of my gear from Demon Tweeks - the service has been excellent. Don’t forget to follow the instructions on the L7C website to receive a Club discount.

To fund this, I had to be creative. Until now, my Sevens have been all mine, others are barely allowed to look at it, yet alone drive. With a race car however, you have to look at ownership differently - it’s a tool, it will get scratched, dented and worse. For this reason combined with the fact that the new car only has 125hp, I spoke with my eldest son to see if he would be interested in sharing the car. We made a deal during a discussion over a Subway sandwich where he gets to use the car on the road, to start to gain experience on track days along with me (further cost saving for track days there also) and potentially to share the second season of Caterham Motorsport racing (Roadsport) where we can drive for alternate race weekends. This is the sort of sacrifice I was prepared to make to race. However, what I have discovered (and will tell more about in future issues) is that sharing this experience with others has actually made everything so much more enjoyable.

To complement this series of articles, I have started a BlatChat thread ‘Caterham Academy 2020 VLOG - Can you really race on a budget?' where I would love to keep the discussion going between editions. I have also launched a new YouTube channel that I’ll update on a regular basis.  Please do take the time to subscribe to my channel as this will really help to support me.

Next month I’ll report about the changes made to the car following the Caterham set-up day and how I got on during a handling day on the tarmac lake at Donington Park.

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Rob is a keen Caterham enthusiast. It took him 25 years of dreaming before he was actually able to own his first Caterham and now he's on Caterham number 4! Working his way up through the range from Roadsport, 420R and 620S, Rob has now embarked on the exciting journey of the Caterham Academy as an introduction to motorsport. Rob will be writing monthly blog posts following his progress in his first year racing Caterhams. 

This article originally appeared in Lowflying, the Lotus Seven Club magazine for Caterham and Lotus Seven enthusiasts – you can find out more here -www.lotus7.club.