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?

Evo - - DRIVEN - Will Beaumont (@Will­beau­mont)

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

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