Caterham Seven 420R Donington Edition
This limited-edition Seven is designed to hit the circuit-driving sweet spot. So could it be the greatest trackday Seven ever built?
FFORGET FOR A MOMENT that this year Caterham’s Seven celebrates its 60th anniversary. What’s more relevant, for this car at least, is that Donington Park circuit is celebrating 40 years since it was re-opened. To mark that event, Caterham dealer and trackday purveyor Bookatrack has used its experience with the Seven to create what it thinks is the ultimate Caterham.
The Donington Edition starts as a 420R, with its dry-sumped, 210bhp 2-litre Ford Duratec engine. However, for your £47,500 (a regular 420R starts at £35,490), there’s also the carbonfibre dash from the range-topping, supercharged 620R as well as that car’s nose-cone, with its extra intakes and bigger oil cooler. The Donington also has a host of trackday paraphernalia, including a full roll-cage from the 420R race car (previously known as the R300-S), an aero screen, aero front wishbones, a rear-exit exhaust (to keep noise down) and sticky, 13-inch Avon ZZR tyres. There is only one option with the Donington and that’s whether you have the regular S3 chassis or the wider, longer SV.
Mechanically, the big change over a road-going 420R is the Sadev six-speed sequential gearbox – the same found in the 620R and the 420R racer – which replaces a fivespeed manual. Drive is sent through a clutch that’s more aggressive than the one found in the 620R but not as savage as that of the race car.
It’s the details that really set the Donington Edition apart from other Sevens, though. Not bound by the rules and regulations of a race series, Stuart Faulds, Bookatrack’s chief engineer, was able to use whichever components he thought would make the Donington the best handling car it could be. His approach to setting up a fast, track-ready Seven differs slightly from Caterham’s, too. He has used a combination of dampers, anti-roll bar settings and bespoke springs (which aren’t available on any other Caterham) to change the car’s balance to suit hard track driving. The result, in the most basic of terms, is that the Donington Edition feels stiffer overall, and particularly much more so at the front, than a regular 420R.
Only ten Donington Editions will be made, each assembled in Bookatrack’s workshop at Donington Park, which make this launch event at Spa-francorchamps in Belgium all the more perplexing…
Whatever the circuit, the Donington Edition needs to be tested on a track. It is road-legal, but any car that you have to climb into through the top, like it’s an adult jungle-gym, is clearly not destined to spend much time on the road. Once you’re strapped in and wearing a helmet that restricts your vision to a horizontal slot, the latticework of roll-cage doesn’t make the car feel much more cramped than a regular Seven. Get geared-up in racing boots and the close pedals actually feel perfectly spaced, too.
To pull away you need to feed the clutch in yourself. There’s not a lot of slip as it engages, but it isn’t too difficult to ease the car away cleanly. Once moving, you only need the clutch for downchanges, as upshifts can be done with just a pull of the gearlever. An ignition cut means you don’t even need to come off the accelerator as you climb the ’box, and the shifts feel best when you’re determined and quick with the stick.
The gearbox’s ratios are so closely stacked that when changing gear at 7500rpm the revs only drop by 500rpm. As you bang up through the gears with the engine continuously screaming, the building speed is such an addictive sensation that just going in a straight line is huge fun. Moving down the ’box, a slight jab
of the clutch is all that’s required for the gear to slot into place. It’s a little smoother if you can heel-and-toe to match the revs, but the shifts are so rapid that it takes practice to time your blips exactly right. One of the added benefits of the sequential ’box is that there’s no need to move your hand sideways while you’re grasping the lever; when space is at a premium, as it is inside a Seven, that makes a huge difference.
As fun as it is in a straight line, it’s in the corners where the Donington Edition really shines. The first time you brake hard for a corner, you sense the difference Faulds’ setup makes. There’s less dive and all of the body’s movements are a lot less exaggerated. The chassis supports the car under higher loads much more effectively, and this increases the overall grip significantly. It’s easier to be precise, too – you know at every instant where the car is and exactly how it will react to inputs. This gives you the confidence to drive it harder and harder, relishing in the masses of grip available.
The quick steering rack, typical of all Caterhams, feels less nervous in the Donington, too. It’s just as direct as in other variants but neat transitions from corner to corner are easier and require the smallest of steering inputs.
What the Donington’s spec hasn’t done is eradicate the much-loved Caterham characteristics as you get close to the limit. Although it takes more speed and more commitment to edge up to where the tyres want to give up, the way this car reacts is recognisably friendly-seven behaviour. You’re able to balance it right on the edge of grip, and a little bit over, while driving into a corner on the brakes and then continue this throughout the bend with the steering and throttle. The firmer front end does mean you have to be more cautious on turn-in, though. At track speeds, if you don’t add some weight to the front tyres with the brakes, you can sense more understeer than in a regular 420R. Then again, if you’re not driving in a committed fashion, you won’t get the best from this car.
Not only is the Donington Edition more competent, faster and grippier than other Caterhams, it’s also more predictable, too. It’s one of the best Sevens we’ve driven. It’s just a shame so few are to be built.
Top left: Donington Edition gets the carbonfibre dash from the 620R. Above and left: racespec dampers and unique spring rates help to stabilise the chassis through aggressive direction changes and under heavy braking