Learning to Drift Is Deeply Satisfying

By automotive-mag.com 9 Min Read

It’s hard to believe Caterhams are still a thing. They’re tiny, light, and, even with modest power, ludicrously fast. There are no safety aids to speak of. They’re also miserable experiences 95% of the time. They’re cramped, bumpy, on the highway they’re noisy, and the transmission tunnel will slow cook your legs. If the weather turns, the wipers are largely useless, and Caterham’s convertible roofs aren’t great at keeping water out anyway.

But find the right road in a Caterham and you’ll find heaven. Loud noises, a short shift, and the sort of responses the likes of McLaren and Ferrari spend billions chasing. A Caterham of any flavor is about as close to ‘pure’ as cars get. But keeping them on the road is a foolish thing to do. Sure you can race ‘em, but why not spend a day drifting like a teenager in a parking lot while not worrying about getting busted by the cops? 

Friends, welcome to the Caterham Drift Experience: where grown-ups go to slide.

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Caterham hosts several days per year when drivers of all abilities can rock up, get in a car, and be expertly taught how to slide, far away from anything solid. 

Unlike the myriad of experience days where you sit in a tired old Ferrari and do three flaccid laps of a parking lot, here you get a car to yourself and are told to listen to one of Caterham’s expert coaches. The result is that you actually learn something—whether you’re an old hand or a rank amateur, the aim is to give you a big grin and a new take on car control.

At the start of the day, the team talks you through the basics: how sliding a car works, how drifting is possible, the concept of weight transfer, and what you’ll be doing for the day. You’re also introduced to the car: a Seven 360R. Packing a 180-horsepower 2.0-liter Ford Duratec motor hooked up to a five-speed stick, it’s a punchy package, especially considering it weighs just 1,235 pounds. 

The ‘R’ in its name indicates this is not a standard car. R cars get a light flywheel, a limited-slip differential, punchier brakes, 15-inch wheels, four-point harnesses, fancier trim, and R badges all over the place. Caterham says it’ll crack 0-60 mph in 4.8 seconds, and hit 130 mph. But on the day, you won’t go anywhere near that—and you won’t care a jot. 

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You’re only allowed to use first gear here, and for good reason. The cone courses are tight, too tight to get ‘round with power alone. Here you’re using the magic of oversteer. The first course, a tight slalom followed by a glorious broadside drift, is there to get participants used to what happens when you try to provoke a car into oversteer. Essentially: turn the wheel, prod the gas, steer to catch the slide while balancing the gas, steer the other way to shift weight, prod the gas… You get the idea. 

Link as many of these together as you can to look like a hero. It’s a short, sharp way to get used to driving differently. Everything on modern cars is designed to not slide, slip, or spin, yet that’s what you want to do here. It can take a while to find your groove, but that first, perfect slide lights something inside you. You want more. Thankfully, Caterham has plenty of slippage to spare. 

After a gentle slalom, it’s time for figure eights, the same as before, but in a wibbly circle. Turn, stab, catch, balance, repeat… for a long time. Sure, one slide is easy, but keeping one going for a while, then transitioning for another long’un? That requires brain power. Again, nailing it feels incredible, but doing it consistently takes practice. 

After each run, you’re given pointers. If you’re new to sliding cars, the whole thing feels utterly bizarre. You’re in a safe space to make mistakes, the tires can take the punishment because the cars are so light, and everyone (no matter how much experience they have) will muck it up at some point. 

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The course was at the UK’s legendary Brand’s Hatch circuit, not on the track, but a quiet bit of patchwork tarmac safely out of the way. It made for varying amounts of traction and was neatly lined with massive, super picturesque red trash bins (kids, litter ain’t sexy). When the inevitable British rain hit, all those different surfaces became… interesting. Less power is needed to lose traction, and more concentration is required to get all your inputs right. 

With the rain (not standard on every course) came a bigger course with a donut around a cone, a tighter slalom, and more time behind the wheel. It’s here that two things made themselves apparent: The car is incredible but needs a lot of manhandling if you’re not a pro, and if you don’t look where you want to go, you won’t go there. The former is fixable with time and practice, but if you’re not used to it, you’ll feel it the next day. 

The latter is something we all know, right? Yes and no, because there’s looking vaguely in the right direction, then there’s a laser focus on your goal. Want to slide into a cone? Stare it down. Fancy donutting around a fixed point? Give it the eyes you give your most mortal enemy. Time to drift from point to point? Assert dominance with the kind of crazy eyes Klingon Chancellor Gowron would be proud of. 

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As the day draws to a close there’s a final, scored challenge. Everything you’ve learned over the day is linked to one big course. You’re given two practice runs, then one marked for ability and style. It’s a tense way to end, as you’re keen to best your competitors, but also don’t want them to curse you as they drive home. You hope that you don’t replicate small mistakes from earlier runs, that you don’t slip up in a way that costs you points (like, erm, trapping a cone under your front wheel when you need to be donutting around it… ahem), and you don’t want to end the run exhausted either. 

See, when you mix a day of new skills, an unfamiliar car, pressure, and (perhaps) a body built by Creme Eggs and suspicious meat, you can quickly become fatigued. But hey, on your last run, you take aim, fire the car the way you want it to go, and hope for the best. After what seems like one endless slide, you fly over the line with weird grit under your nails (presumably from white-knuckling the ‘wheel), aching forearms, the stench of tire smoke lodged in your nostrils, and a quiet hope that you’re the best of the best. 

Being honest: winning here doesn’t matter. Unless the whole field is evenly matched there’ll be a standout who’ll blow everyone away with their skills. For the rest, simply turning up and doing the thing is the most important thing you can do. You’ll learn, albeit in an extreme car, a new skill. When the weather goes south, or perhaps when something just… happens, you’ll have a better idea of what to do than you otherwise would have. And you’ll have had a blast learning it.

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