How much fun can you have in a car in a large and damp car park? Well if you are in a Caterham Roadsport 140 that’s been specially tuned for drifting and donuts, then then the answer is “an awful lot!”.
The problem with this idea is that most people don’t have either a Caterham or a suitable car park to play in. So Caterham have come to the rescue with their fantastic Drift Champion experience. You can spend an entire day up at Silverstone, learning how to perfect the art of drifting in a controlled environment under the expert guidance of Caterham’s instructors. And a couple of weeks ago, I was invited up to have a go.
We have covered driving experiences before here at The Car Expert, but the Caterham Experience program is a bit different for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the whole operation is owned and operated by the Caterham car company themselves rather than a third party, so the cars are all factory-prepped and liveried and the instructor team are hand-picked by the company. Secondly, you get loads of time behind the wheel. On my trip, we had four drivers sharing each car, so the ratio of driving time to standing-around-time was pretty good.
What exactly is drifting?
Drifting is the art of sliding a car around a course, with the emphasis on style rather than speed. In fact, for the entire day of drifting, we never got out of first gear. But there is an enormous amount of fun to be had in first gear, performing giant slaloms and donuts. Professional drifting is judged on style and technical prowess, with speed a secondary factor. The sport has become immensely popular over the last decade, having its origins in Japan and spreading globally. Cars that are ideally suited for drifting are lightweight rear-wheel-drive vehicles – exactly like a Caterham, funnily enough.
So how do you drift a car?
The first thing to get your head around is that it’s possible to drift and slide the right car at remarkably low speeds with the right set-up – as I said, we never got beyond first gear all day long. That makes it quite accessible, and means we could use a car park at Silverstone for the drift experience rather than needing a proper race track.
The object is to throw the car off its natural balance, and then maintain its unbalanced state for as long as possible, sliding sideways rather than travelling straight ahead. To do this, you stab the brakes hard and steer sharply into a corner, which throws the car’s weight forwards and makes the rear end go light. Then you stab the throttle and the rear wheels will immediately start to spin. From there, you simply keep stabbing the throttle while holding the car in an elegant, drifting slide all the way around the bend. Sounds simple, right? Well it’s anything but!
Deliberately throwing a car out of balance and then trying to keep it there goes against everything you are ever taught about driving on a road or track. Usually the idea is to keep the car very much under control and pointing in the direction you want to go. So changing that behaviour and forcing yourself to brake, steer and accelerate in a very different style requires plenty of practice to even start to get it right.
After a morning of practice and instruction, we were starting to get the hang of things. Although it was hardly perfect, our efforts at least started to make us look like drifters rather than panicked learner drivers. And then over lunch, it started raining…
Rain, of course, makes a road slippery. And for drifting, that can be a very good thing. Jumping back in the car after lunch, on what was now a greasy wet surface, I found it much easier to throw the car off balance and get the back end to slide. But it did mean that controlling the slide was trickier, as the car would spin around like a top much more easily than in the dry. Keeping the car balanced on the edge of sliding and spinning was difficult, and usually resulted in you facing back the way you came from.
I found that a slightly wet track produced best results, being easy to get the car to start sliding and not too tricky to keep it going. As the rain started to get quite serious and the circuit became very wet, I was spending less time drifting and more time spinning. And of course, a Caterham isn’t very weatherproof, so we all ended up very wet. But no-one was complaining as we were too busy enjoying ourselves to notice!
So how much fun is it really?
Quite simply, a hilarious amount of fun. And to get good results, very challenging too. The speeds are low and the whole event is carefully controlled (and only one car on track at a time), so it’s all quite safe. Caterham runs the events most weekends throughout the year (except when it’s simply too cold/snowing/icy at Silverstone over December and January), so get in touch and give it a go. You will absolutely love it!
Stuart attended the Caterham Drift Experience as a guest of Caterham Cars. Photos (c) Caterham Cars.