First Drive: Caterham R500 with Launch Control

First Drive: Caterham R500 with Launch Control

Caterham are all about providing pure no-frills driving enjoyment, right? So what are they doing fitting a gimmick like ‘Launch Control’ to their ultimate R500?

Having thoroughly enjoyed the R500 in both conventional H-pattern and sequential gearbox forms in the last few months – the latter in our recent Angelsey track test, where we compared it with the Ariel Atom 300 and Lotus 2 Eleven – we were keen to discover how this new electronic system would affect one of the purest driving experiences money can buy.

Life is currently pretty hectic here at DR. So, with Chris Harris over in Germany on the VW Scirocco launch, Dickie Meaden in Italy at the Alfa MiTo launch and Jethro otherwise detained on an old-versus-new comparison of Vauxhall’s sporting hatches, I was presented with a rare and welcome opportunity to escape DR HQ to spend a few hours testing the new launch control system at a sunny Bruntingthorpe Proving Ground.

Anyone familiar with the SMG system fitted to BMW’s M-cars will be aware of the limitations of launch control, namely that while it’s awesomely effective, over-use of the system can render the warranty void. Not what you want to hear when you’ve spent £2500 on a trick gearbox.

It was with this very problem in mind I asked James Drake and Chris Weston from Caterham what limitations they placed on its use in the R500. “None” was their reply, “We’ve already completed 50-60 launch control starts in today’s test, and it feels as fresh now as it did this morning”.

Impressive confidence, no doubt born from the knowledge that such a lightweight car will be kind to its clutch and transmission, even under extreme use. A quick glance at the rear tyres underlines the fact, for they look remarkably fresh, despite big black lines on the track surface: evidence of James and Chris’s earlier efforts with the LC system set rather more aggressively.

Chris suggests taking me out for a few laps of the track to demonstrate how the system works, but not before James first explains the various controls. In this development mule there are two new controls: firstly a dial with settings from 1-8, which is used to adjust the aggressiveness of the launch. Setting ‘1’ is for wet slippery surfaces, whilst ‘8’ is more suitable for the warm and abrasive surface we are enjoying at Bruntingthorpe.

Once the setting is selected the procedure is as follows; depress clutch and select 1st gear in the sequential box, then press a button (which is located on the test mule’s handbrake lever but will be re-positioned on production cars) and floor the accelerator, then listen to a count-down of engine revs moving through two phases, before releasing the clutch on the third phase. Cue perfect launch as the R500 does its best to beat the 2.88 seconds Caterham quotes for the sprint from 0 to 60 mph.

After half a dozen impressive starts sat alongside Chris, it’s my turn. I’ve never driven the R500, never used its new sequential box and this was my first time operating its launch control. No pressure then. However, as far as James and Chris are concerned it’s the perfect scenario, for they are keen to see how intuitive the system is for a newcomer. No doubt expecting me to mess it up, James rather helpfully points out how to restart the engine if I stall it. Thanks guys…

Much to our collective astonishment my first start is perfect. Even with the LC set to a full-on ‘8’ there’s just the mildest fizz of tyre-slip before the R500 launches itself up the track, leaving my head and neck temporarily back at the start-line. Shifting up through the gears without using the clutch is super-fast, but not the brutal affair you might expect so long as you have a partial lift of the throttle on each change. Why can’t all cars be this much fun?

I stop on the track to try it again, this time with the LC set to ‘4’ to see what difference it makes. There’s slightly less tyre-slip but the launch is similarly effective, pulling a neck-straining 1.04g off the line! Chris tells me that he can ‘just’ beat the launch control system by starting manually using clutch and throttle control, but over 4 or 5 starts the launch control system’s consistency is unbeatable.

So, to answer my original question, is it a gimmick?

Emphatically no. Anything that enables you to repeatedly nail the perfect start is a genuine asset, especially as while Caterham has engineered the launch control system to be usable by anyone, it remains engaging to use. Here is a system that feels entirely in keeping with the Caterham driving experience, takes skill to use properly yet adds another level of enjoyment to the R500. Better still, Caterham will introduce it to other models in the Seven range.

Costing a paltry £350, the launch control system is due to be delivered to R500 customers from August.

  • Richard Fiennes

    Glad to see my favourite sportscar getting better and better. Traction control a very useful option; the old R500 could easily squirm under a lightish throttle in wet conditions. Are there plans afoot to offer steering wheel sequential levers?

    Richard Fiennes

    • Steve

      Richard I really enjoyed driving the R500 LC, it felt cruel to repeat the launches so many times, but it was all in the interest of development and the engineers encouraged me to give it plenty of stick!

      I don’t think there are any plans for steering wheel levers, there’s so little room in the Caterham’s cockpit and the transmission mounted lever is so close to hand anyway.

      Everyone should have the chance to try Caterham’s launch control – it’s addictive.

  • Richard Fiennes

    Glad to see my favourite sportscar getting better and better. Traction control a very useful option; the old R500 could easily squirm under a lightish throttle in wet conditions. Are there plans afoot to offer steering wheel sequential levers?

    Richard Fiennes

    • Steve

      Richard I really enjoyed driving the R500 LC, it felt cruel to repeat the launches so many times, but it was all in the interest of development and the engineers encouraged me to give it plenty of stick!

      I don’t think there are any plans for steering wheel levers, there’s so little room in the Caterham’s cockpit and the transmission mounted lever is so close to hand anyway.

      Everyone should have the chance to try Caterham’s launch control – it’s addictive.