Guest Blog: On Track For The Academy with Rob Oldland #3

Guest Blog: On Track For The Academy with Rob Oldland #3

Following last month’s driving tuition, Rob Oldland recounts some other forms of training that he’s received recently as the preparations build towards his first Caterham race experience.


It’s all getting very real! I write this month’s update the day after a packed weekend at Donington Park for the Academy handling day on Saturday and a Javelin track day on Sunday.


To avoid the cost of a night’s accommodation and being away from the family, I opted to load the car on Friday night, ready for an early start next morning for the trip to Derby. 03:00 alarm, 03:30 get away (which served as a wake up call for the rest of my neighbourhood!) for an 07:30 sign on at the Launch Pad Building, located in the familiar surroundings of the Tarmac Lake and home of the fabulous 60th celebrations in 2017.


I need to recognise Caterham for the quality of the support provided to us Academy participants. Clearly, we benefit from years of Caterham’s experience in organising the Academy, listening to the feedback of drivers from previous years and spotting ways to polish the experience. The result is complete support to get us successfully started in motorsport. Kirsty, the Championship Assistant, is in regular communication with all of the drivers to make sure we know where we need to be and when, acts as our dedicated point of contact to answer any questions and is at each event to make sure things go smoothly. The result is that even with no previous experience of racing or owning a Caterham, the Academy will prepare you.

Saturday was the first time that all of the Academy drivers, along with their cars, were brought together. After signing on and a briefing from Simon the “Head Honcho" we were told to stand next to our cars for the first challenge of the day known as the ‘Le Mans Start’. The challenge was to get in your car and sound the horn when you were securely in and race-ready. Simple, right? Well actually no. Even though I have got into and out of a Caterham thousands of times, I failed on three counts; incorrectly-fitted head restraint, I forgot to put on hand restraints and didn’t fasten my door. Admittedly, a few drivers were correctly in and ready very quickly, but it took some of us 15 minutes to get it right, including the frustration for some of hitting the horn only to find that their power switch was still in the ‘off’ position! The lesson learnt? Give yourself 20 minutes ahead of going on track just to get in the car. This way you are well prepared and as calm as you can be as you head for the grid.


We were split into six smaller groups for the morning to ensure that we got lots of driving time. The next activity was practice starts. This was an excellent opportunity for starts to be timed and to receive feedback after each run as to how you can improve. After qualifying, the start is the next best opportunity to make up places, places that might take you precious race time to gain during the race itself. What we established was that a relatively sedate launch made for the quickest time. Too many revs and dropping the clutch may lead to an impressive amount of wheel spin, but a less impressive time. With the dry conditions we were blessed with on the day, 3,000 - 3,500  revs and good clutch control would make for the best start. Something I hadn’t considered before was how to prevent the car from creeping while on the grid. When racing, the handbrake is covered to prevent the straps of the arm restraints from getting snagged, so my usual traffic light get away technique wasn’t an option. What we were taught was to apply a little pressure to the brake with your right foot while also on the throttle, a bit like heel and toe.


The next activity was the slalom. This was a perfect exercise to get to grips (pardon the pun) with the huge amount of understeer you get from an Academy car and how best to manage these intentional characteristics by shifting the weight balance using the throttle and brake.


Next up came the mock scrutineering. Leading up to the weekend, I completed all of the preparation required to turn my road car into a race car. This would be checked to make sure that everything had been correctly completed. This included fitting tow straps front and back, fuel sampling valve, head restraint, rain light, roll cage padding, covering the handbrake, tape between the windscreen and roll cage, taping the headlights, fire-proofing the boot and removing the wheel centre caps. In addition, I opted to isolate the inertia switch. It is recommended either to isolate or relocate the switch inside the cockpit as sometimes it can be triggered by the car being involved in an impact, whether from another car or by jumping over a kerb; sudden loss of power on a live racing circuit is not a good situation! The biggest job by far however was to make a race seat. Regulations state that there must be at least 5cm clearance between the top of the driver’s helmet and the top of the roll cage. With the standard Tillett seat I was nowhere near this. This left a few options; to fit a higher roll cage, have a bead seat made, or make a ‘builder’s foam’ bag seat. The best solution is a bead seat, but at a cost of £1,000- £1,400, this was not going to be an option for me. This left me with the budget option, the builder’s foam bag seat. At a total of less than £50, I can honestly say that the result is the most comfortable I have ever been in a Caterham. While it did take most of a day to make, it does present a huge saving for those like me who are on a budget, even if it will only last the season. I’m pleased to say that all of my work was completed correctly and that my was car signed off as ‘fit to race’. This brought the morning’s activities to an end. We headed over to the restaurant ‘Garage 39’ where Caterham provided lunch.

Now, the afternoon was when the competition really started. Spilt into our Green and White groups, we were to drive the larger ‘Super Slalom’ course against the clock and our fellow competitors. This brought together the lessons learnt from the morning to compete for the first trophies of the season. Tom, Gwyn and Toby took 1st, 2nd and 3rd respectively in the Green group. To be honest, I’m impressed (if not slightly concerned!) with how good so many of the drivers are. I know what cost me a place, over driving. I’m the first to tell people that sideways might look good but is not quick. Shame I didn’t take note of this good advice myself eh! Oh well, lesson learnt for me to take into the remainder of the competitive season.


While the Caterham-organised event was complete, my weekend was only halfway through. One of the other members of Green group, Andy, had asked me a few weeks before if I was going to stay on for the Sunday’s Javelin track day. I hadn’t thought of this and within an hour, the track day and Premier Inn were booked. Another driver who lives locally to Donington invited my wife Anita, daughter Abi and I for an evening meal on the Saturday. How lovely is that?


Before joining the Academy, many had told me that I would make great friends. What I hadn’t appreciated was how true this is. While competitive, everyone is so friendly and helpful. Already I have made friendships that I know will continue beyond the Academy season.

The track day would be the second of three occasions I would be taking my car on track before the first sprint race, so I wanted to get as much seat time as possible. However, the other track day participants had different ideas. I have never known so many red flags during a session. In fact by lunchtime I did not have a single clear lap completed. As the weather conditions was excellent, it was difficult to identify why this was - perhaps it was due to the wide range of cars and of driver abilities mixed together? As well as a good proportion of Caterhams, there was a range of serious saloon-style race cars, Radicals and track-orientated hot hatches, with some cars being shared between three drivers. However, it seemed that the red flags were caused by cars and drivers of all types of car. Luckily, the afternoon was more like ‘business as usual’ with just a couple of sessions brought to a premature end. I was finally able to get some decent seat time and it was a real opportunity to check how the car feels following the suspension and flat floor setup the week before. Even before owning my Academy car, I have always said that the best upgrade you can get for any Caterham whether for road or track is to get the suspension properly set up.  Due to the constraints of the regulations – lack of rear anti-roll bar, narrow front suspension, high ride height, skinny high-walled tyres – the list goes on, an Academy car will never handle like a 620, but what I do have is a very predictable car which inspires confidence under braking and through corners.


While I have previously been to Donington Park to watch racing, I have never driven it. I think Donny is one of the most beautiful race circuits. Spectating from the top of the circuit, looking across the Craner Curves, I think it looks more like a golf course than a racing circuit. Now having driven it, I love it even more, it’s a wonderful fast and flowing circuit. As Donington Park will be the location for our final races of the season in October, I will be attending the L7C track day on the 5th October which will serve as a great refresher ahead of the races on the 17th/18th.


Next month I will provide an update on the final testing at Castle Combe before the start of the season and on progress with securing a sponsor to help ‘make ends meet’.

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