When Caterham enjoyed its finest hour in improbable surroundings
Twenty years ago, a humble Caterham squad took on the Nurburgring 24 Hours and delivered a giant-killing performance that captured the imagination of fans. Here's how the team did it.
The frustration with some modern endurance racing is that it can be annoyingly predictable; which is why one race in 2002 was so remarkable. The might of German automotive engineering was brought to its knees by a band of unlikely lads and a diminutive hand-built sportscar, whose lines were penned some 45 years previously.
Anyone who has ever raced a lap of the Nordschleife will tell you there is no tougher test, prompting racer Chris Cooper to sit down with Caterham Cars MD Simon Nearn in the summer of 2001 and pitch an idea of a joint effort to combat some of the biggest names in production car racing for 24 hours around ‘the Green Hell’.
It wasn’t Caterham’s first attempt at endurance glory. In 1992, its American dealer invited a factory team (led by chief engineer Jez Coates) to join an assault on the ‘Longest Day of Nelson’. The Seven ran for 990 laps, winning outright and beating factory entries from Honda, Mazda and others. Lessons learned would be well remembered.
It also wasn’t the first time that a team from Kent had headed to the Eifel. Cooper knew of the woes of some previous hobby entries; this had to be different. He wanted full attention from the factory, aware that, in return, Nearn required a comprehensive development programme, together with the support of a major media partner.
The Caterham entry attracted plenty of attention
Photo by: Nathan Down
Nobody knew the Seven better than Coates. During his tenure, he had diligently transformed a simple kit car into a world beater. He instinctively identified the elements required to define the approach, proposing the focus should be on building a blueprinted car already in Caterham’s portfolio: the R400 Superlight. Formula Ford specialist Minister Power would oversee the engine programme, believing an unstressed 1800cc unit could deliver all that was required to repeatedly cover the lap in just over 10 minutes. Graham Fuller from Minister was therefore an early recruit to Coates’s inner team and immediately set about determining the operating parameters to keep the car in the fight.
A similar approach was taken with tyre, brake and gearbox partners. Coates had worked with each for well over a decade and all knew what the Seven needed for both reliability and performance.
“Normally, the fans get close to the cars, sometimes pounding the roof in approval but, for me, in an open Caterham, they patted my helmet and even tried to shake my hand. It was 20 minutes of mayhem that made me realise this race wasn’t just about us” Chris Cooper
Meanwhile, Cooper was assembling the team to race and support the effort. Top of his list was Team Parker Racing, a then youthful outfit, that also guided him to 2001’s R400 crown. Parker would build the car, alongside Caterham’s Chris Weston. As Stuart Parker recalls: “The synergy was inbuilt from the start. Everyone had years of invested experience, so when somebody spoke, everybody listened, and when Chris came from the factory to help build the car, we just focused on what we each did best. The whole project was fuelled by positivity.”
Autocar was promptly recruited as media partner. Steve Sutcliffe and Chris Harris (now of Top Gear fame) would represent the magazine, Cooper would lead, and the fourth man would be Clive Richards. Richards isn’t only quick but mechanically sympathetic, too. Then, out of the blue, Sutcliffe received a second invitation to race, this time from Ford. It was an offer the stand-in British Touring Car driver couldn’t refuse, and so Cooper turned to Peter Haynes, a former Autocar man who was also an accomplished Caterham racer. Haynes knew the ’Ring well, making it an easy choice, and one Sutcliffe would live to regret, his entry managing just 54 laps (compared to Caterham’s 130).
Sutcliffe's decision to join Ford squad proved to be the wrong one
Photo by: Mike Cooper
Once finished, the car underwent aero development and night-lights testing at Bruntingthorpe, the latter being key to dark hours confidence yet equally detrimental to airflow along the power-sapping straights. Finally, a trip to Oulton Park gave the car a competitive shakedown and the team the chance to practice pitstops and driver changes. A glitch with the propshaft was quickly identified but, once remedied, the car ran faultlessly and was deemed ’Ring-ready.
By the afternoon of the race, over 200,000 fans had assembled, ready for the most remarkable of all Einfuhrungsrunde (green-flag laps). With spectators descended onto the track, Cooper describes it as “a most surreal moment”.
“Normally, the fans get close to the cars, sometimes pounding the roof in approval but, for me, in an open Caterham, they patted my helmet and even tried to shake my hand,” he remembers. “It was 20 minutes of mayhem that made me realise this race wasn’t just about us.
“Once racing got under way, fan participation gathered pace too. Exiting the Karussell, I found myself with only one hand to steer; if I didn’t wave with the other, fireworks were hastily launched towards me. It was exhausting yet exhilarating and, as the stint progressed, everyone started to see this funny little English car bravely overtaking in places where others didn’t dare.”
Haynes adds: “We weren’t the only Seven on the grid, but people were responding to us. It could have been the bright orange rollcage but, as we climbed the order, you sensed the excitement in the crowd, who would cheer every time they saw we were still in the running.”
It was nine hours into the race before Harris’s first turn at the wheel. He later waxed passionately, describing “the glow of a thousand raging bonfires that shielded the night-time sky” as he watched his dash flicker between 129 and 130mph along the back straight, “only to be brutalised by the leading Viper, hammering past some 70mph faster”. But, as any Caterham racer will tell you, what is lost with power can mostly be recovered in the twisty bits.
The Caterham crew stood out from the crowd and won support from the fans
Photo by: Mike Cooper
Next was Richards. “It was by far my most memorable weekend of racing,” he says. “Twenty years on, wins and championships later, nothing will ever eclipse it. I remember the lingering smell of barbecues and the brilliance of the sun rising over the Eifel; I had to share the moment.”
Coates recalls the same story: “We’d made steady progress through the night, and then Clive gets on the radio talking nonsense about the sunrise. ‘Keep your eyes on the bloody road!’, I told him.”
Cooper took the final stint. The team had raced up the order of 200 starters into 11th at the finish, heading its class by a whopping 10 laps. It was a result nobody had dared to dream of and was signalled by an eruption of cheers from the family and friends who had travelled in support, not to mention thousands of others, across the pitlane, through the grandstands and on the banking.
“Twenty years on, wins and championships later, nothing will ever eclipse it. I remember the lingering smell of barbecues and the brilliance of the sun rising over the Eifel; I had to share the moment” Clive Richards
Cooper says the whole experience resonates even now. His Challenge Consulting business had not only found the budget to race but assembled a team dedicated to a single goal. Haynes, the PR man, described it as the truest moment for the Seven. Harris wrote that he would bore his grandchildren relentlessly, while Richards’s words still echo the praise of his team-mates and crew.
It was both remarkable and unique, made even more so by Germany’s ADAC banning the Seven from ever returning to its grid on “safety” grounds; a reaction more likely inspired to appease those who had just been taught a lesson in lightness. But the final word should go to Coates.
“It was Caterham’s finest hour,” he says. It is hard to disagree.
Harris, Richards, Cooper and Haynes achieved a giant-killing result to finish 11th overall
Photo by: Mike Cooper
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