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Stuck for somewhere to practice drifting? We have found the answer...

5w ago

10.8K

Will cut his teeth as a designer on Evo magazine, before slinging a U-ey and writing for them instead. So if it has four wheels and an engine then there's a chance he's drifted it in front of a camera, driven it incredibly hard and then written about it. When he's not writing he's can be found fettling his 1971 BMW 2002 and trying to stop Wagtails defecating on his old Range Rover.

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You want to learn car control. Perform a powerslide, tame some lift-off oversteer, perfect a handbrake turn, that sort of thing. But where can you go to practice? These aren’t the sort of skills you can add to your CV so there’s no community programme, no evening course you can sign up to.

Try it in an empty car park or on the wide roundabouts of an industrial estate late at night and you’ll find yourself in some bother with the police. A quiet country road is out of the question – it’s equally as dodgy and there are too many things to hit.

If you do inadvisably have a stab at it in public, anyone you encounter will, while shaking a fist, tell you to save that sort of behaviour for the track. Although they might be right, the average track day marshal will start waving a black flag at you at the merest hint of some opposite lock, so you can’t learn it there either.

That leaves you with a drift day, where you’ll be dodging beaten-up E36 BMWs and bumper-less 200SXs driven aggressively by experienced hands, or one of Caterham’s drift experience sessions.

I know which one Id’ rather do, and it’s the one in someone else's car fitted with someone else's tyres. The Caterham Drift Experience – one of the brand's CDX events – looks simple because, like a Caterham, it is simple. It comprises of a wide expanse of tarmac at Brands Hatch, a bunch of cones mapping out a tight circuit, and a Caterham 270 with a few alterations. You pay £189 and you get half a day of attempting to skid, slide and scurry through the course.

The most significant change to the car is a set of van tyres on the back axle, while the front still has the sticky Avon ZZSs. As well as the mismatched rubber the anti-roll bar at the back has been put on its stiffest setting and the rear ride-height has been jacked-up by 15mm and the front lowered by 10mm.

There are two courses to drive throughout the morning, one for your first and second stints in the car – the first you do with an instructor to give you pointers, the second you do by yourself. Then the route is slightly altered for your third and final solo set of attempts.

A big open patch of tarmac with a scattering of cones covering it looks deeply confusing when you're stood next to it. It's simply impossible to plot where the course goes as look over it. Amazingly, once snuggled into the hot confines of a warmed-up Caterham it starts to make more sense. As you can only see one or two obstacles ahead you're not trying to determine the entire track, just where you need to go immediately. Still, a guide from the instructor is very welcome.

The first layout consists initially of a slalom made up of four walls of cones that you weave in and out of. That's before a long 180 right-hand horseshoe bend at the far end of the carpark. As you exit the top corner you’re immediately confronted with some ‘gates’ – three pairs of offset cones you need to drive in between. Then there’s the finale, a single cone that should provide the centre point for two donuts you're to perform before heading back to the start line.

The idea is to keep the Caterham in a constant state of oversteer, the rear wheels spinning, the whole way around the course. So, a boot of the throttle and a disregard for the clutch unsticks the back wheels as you set off. If you’re not aggressive, the wheels don’t spin – they might only be van tyres but there is some grip there. With rubber burning and traction levels low the 270 is already inclined to step sideways as you aim the front around the first wall of cones.

Steering from side to side kicks the back from one way to the other, but through these slow, tight corners it's the throttle that has a greater effect on the car's trajectory. A well-timed blip of the throttle as you tweak the steering allows you to control how much the car rotates. Balancing the slide your foot means you can let go wheel completely. To flick it the other way, you come off the accelerator, wrestle the steering back enough to feel the car shift in the other direction and then regain control with your right foot. Your hands can relax again, for the moment.

The next bend, the horseshoe, is a much faster corner, so you need to exit the third slalom corner with greater vigour to reach the required speed. If you're too slow you just won’t have the momentum to maintain a slide all the way around the long hairpin. That means full throttle before a firm tweak of the wheel to the right, then the 270 will then settle into a slid. But the speed will build and build with your foot flat to the bulkhead and you have to slowly wind off the opposite lock so the pace of the slide matches the intensifying revs, or else you'll spin.

Now things get tricky. The set of gates aren’t as tightly packed as the slalom, but you need to be going through them far slower than you do around the horseshoe. That means reducing your speed while still trying to maintain a slide, something that, up till now, has been the result of pressing the accelerator. Thankfully, the steep rake and the 270's brake bias mean you can use the centre pedal and still keep the car sideways. However, if you’re not sensitive and delicate with the brakes you’ll kill the slide dead.

But the difficult bits aren’t over yet, now you're into the donut. It might look easy, and if you were to start the donut from a standstill it could well be, but you’re approaching the solitary cone it at the same speed at which you weaved through the wide gates. A speed that’s far too fast for a donut. It’s here, on the tightest and slowest part of the course, that it's the easiest place to accidentally spin.

Carry too much speed and momentum into the 720-degree revolution and you’ll take such a wide route you’ll pirouette the Caterham just trying to find your way back to the centre cone. Too severe with the brakes and the slide will be lost and you'll have to reinitiate it with a severe prod of the throttle, and that is rarely successful either.

If you're lucky and you do get the nose tucked in with the right-hand wheel slowly rolling around the centre cone, just a few inches from it, you then have to find a delicacy with the throttle that you’ve not used since the slalom. It's very easy to be too bold with your right foot, light up the tyres and engulf the car in smoke as you spin about your own axis.

Mastering the course is not easy, and unless you’re a CDX instructor, you won’t get it right the first time. But the feeling, when you do string all the sections together in one fluid motion, is so gloriously triumphant that you don't yearn for it to be any simpler.

These wishes are granted for the next cone-defined pathway. In fact, the second layout is even harder. The first two-thirds, the slalom and the horseshoe, stay the same. The last section, the gates and donut area, are replaced by two cones you weave through in a figure of eight pattern. That means you now go straight from the fast horseshoe into a task that's as slow as the donut. Quite.

My attempts to enter the figure of eight were all very ambitious, squealing and sliding my way between the cones with all the grace of Boris Johnson in a child's rugby game. But every attempt I made, I began to perfect my transition from the fast right-hander, through the centre of the eight and into the tight left. Initially slowing the 270 enough with just a light touch the brakes, then scrubbing off another chunk of speed as the car shifts from one side to the other. With the car settled it's then all about being tentative with the throttle to get me around the cones.

The courses are short and with four goes per stint, you don't expect to spend much time in the car. And maybe, if you’d embarked on the event with the sole intention to learning car control in a very scientific and serious manner, you might not be happy with the amount of time you spent behind the wheel.

But in reality, with your lungs will be full of tyre smoke, your eyes caked bits of rubber, and the huge smile on your face, you don't keep track of how many goes you’ve had or how long you've got left. It's simply too much fun.

It isn't all just frippery and entertainment. I mean, it mostly is, but you will learn valuable lessons about car control. You see, in many ways, Caterhams make rubbish drift cars. Yes they’re rear-wheel drive, and the exaggerated setup and van tyres of the 270s on this event do allow them to go sideways easily, but keeping them there is trickier than in a lot of other performance cars.

It’s very easy to overcook a slide in a Caterham, be too eager with the throttle and too greedy with your angle. You can go from lock-to-lock quickly with the fast steering rack, yes, but there just isn’t the available angle for you to hang the back out wide. As I experienced on my many attempts throughout the morning, you can’t bring a Caterham back from a 90-degree slide, no matter how hard you try.

Mastering the ability to keep a slide within what the car can achieve, what maximum steering angles are on offer, controlling the wheelspin with the throttle, and understanding the effect momentum and speed has on oversteer are all vitally important when trying to slide around a Caterham and extremely useful in any rear-wheel drive car. They are the ultimate transferable skills. That’s the sort of thing employers want to see on people's CV’s right?

If this has inspired you to have a go yourself, tap here for more information.

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