Taming the Snake in the Stig's Caterham
posted on - 05/08/2013 16:33
Now there's a title to surely grab a petrol-head's interest. The Stig's Caterham must surely refer to the Caterham Superlight R500; one of the fastest cars ever around the Top Gear test track and the magazine's Car of the Year in 2008. Indeed it is. And the Snake could be the Snake Pass; the twisting stretch of A57 black-top delight that wraps the peaks of the Peak District, around Manchester and Sheffield. Right again. And the only reason that the two are mentioned together is because the Snake Pass was (hopefully – it's a bit tricky in places) tamed in the super-rapid R500, right after the Stig had set his scorching Top Gear lap in it. One-hundred per cent correct. And what a mission of pain, sadness, speed and joy it was.
The road trip from heaven (and hell) to one of the finest roads on the planet started at the Caterham HQ, in Caterham, Surrey. The white-hot R500 had just been released from the Stig's grip, and my road trip buddy, Jon, and myself were dutifully informed by the Caterham PR chap that the car was still on the Stig's suspension settings. Rock-hard for the track, basically.
Being a couple of hardcore motoring journos we scoffed at the warning of numb bums and the offer of a suspension softening. We also laughed at the fact that the windscreenless – for lightness – R500 requires a safety helmet to drive, unless you like a face full of everything a motorway may have laying on it, and not to mentioned the winged wee beasties in the air. Again we scoffed and simply donned our sunnys and wrapped woolly scarves around our chins. It was early winter and we had to drive all night from the south to the north of England. Hardcore? Read 'ill-prepared'...
The first few miles out of Caterham, in the Caterham, were awesome. Full of excitement to be driving the fastest Caterham ever; with 263bhp and a sub-3-seconds 60mph sprint, on our wonderful-sounding road trip to the legendary Snake Pass – a road with more bends than a plumber convention; the perfect playground for the grip-tastic R500.
It wasn't long before I noticed yet more weigh-saving. The all-carbon seats are gorgeous to look at and light as a feather, but with no padding and a bony behind, the two (the posterior and the seat) met like a rock and a hard place. First my backside went to sleep and then my legs started to go numb. That was about 30 minutes in. Good thing I wasn't driving at this point.
Caterhams are awesome on the twistys, but the drone of the sports exhaust, zero wind protection and no roof soon got a little old after a few hours on an endless motorway. The plan was to drive through the night to get up north, only stopping to sleep when our journey to near the start of the Snake Pass was reached. This seemed like a good idea at the time, and it is indeed hardcore goals like these that stories like these are made of. But then it started to rain. And then hail. By the time we got to near our destination it was hailing hard – with most of it going directly into my left ear – and it was the middle of the night. Numb, wet, tried and so very cold, we couldn't talk to each other over the noise of the loopy R500, so took to signing little songs of cheer in our own heads. This helped a little as the hail drove harder still.
We got to our stopover and enjoyed a hot and hearty meal. I cannot describe how good that meal tasted and felt, but even after hot food and hot showers, we were both still frozen to the bone. Some sleep in warm beds helped some.
We awoke the next day – the day of the Snake Pass run – to a cold but clear day. No rain for today – thank goodness – but it had rained all night, and with no roof, the R500 had filled with icy water. So we bailed it out with bare hands and then hit the road; slightly restored souls getting punished once more.
As the sun came up the R500 barked into life – sorry, neighbours – and we edged out of the sleepy base village in search of the Pass. And let me tell you at this point; a 263bhp R500 on cut-slick tyres ain't a lot of fun on a frozen road. The joke of the hour was reaching for the heater and saying 'shall I just pop the heather on..?' - there was no heater.
As we reached our target of the ultimate driving road, all thoughts of bone-crunching cold were washed away by the excitement of the Pass. We knew we were close because the danger signs started. The number of deaths and injuries on this twister of a road is plenty and sobering, as are the police helicopters that are said to circle above in search of thrill-seekers. And here we are in a bright-white, super-Super-7, that about as loud as a police helicopter on full chat!
But, wow, what a road, what a car. With mid-morning traffic very light and one of the fastest, most grippy cars in world at our frozen feet, the time and place was perfect for a bit of fast-fun. Stunning acceleration, pinpoint steering, and a chassis, brake and grip combination to separate head from shoulders, the R500 is everything as fast and exciting as you think it is.
It's a rowdy and loudy little lunatic and absolutely will eat anything else around, on roads like the Snake Pass. I don't care what supercar you're driving. At under £38k – but sadly no longer on sale new – the R500 was less than a second a lap slower than the very most expensive cars in the world, and this was on a cold lap of the Top Gear track. A performance bargain and style icon indeed, and it's good to know that there are used versions on sale - or similar-speedy new models in the Caterham showroom. Just go for one with a windscreen, and heater, and maybe a little touch of padding on the seats. Then you're all set for the ride of your life, but without the tears!
Posted by Sebastian Turkenburg