Science and Fiction: Caterham’s Unanswered Questions

caterham-R600-science-fiction

Science was never my strongest subject. On the morning that I should have sat for my chemistry A-Level, I came to the conclusion that whether I endured three hours in a lab, or stayed on the bus and enjoyed the morning in Manchester, the outcome would undoubtedly be the same.

This was the moment I encountered Occam’s Razor; lines of reasoning, suggesting that under Parsimony, it is pointless to do more when you can achieve the same with less. Occam, it appears, was a man who understood me well.

Over the centuries (I didn’t realise you were that old – Ed) , this wisdom became science and is today used by investigators to explore the unexplained; mainly, that with any problem, the most probable becomes the most likely.

A week ago, we openly posed a series of questions to Caterham’s management team. The reason for doing so were simple; we believe that if any business seeks to gain or enhance its reputation through the media, then the same media should employ checks and balances to ensure proper and accurate reporting. To simply regurgitate carefully crafted PR releases verbatim is not what our readers expect.

Unfortunately, for whatever reason, our questions went unanswered. I tried to contact all three of Caterham’s senior management team on Wednesday but discovered each was now on holiday leave. Perhaps whoever has been handed the keys to Dartford did not feel able to comment.

So, on the basis that both my editor and I will be more than happy to say “we were wrong”, if we are wrong, I’ll save Caterham the expense of commissioning their response by replying to these questions myself. *

* To be clear, the comments below are mine and not those of Caterham Cars Limited or their representatives.

Caterham R600

Q

Will the new R600 Championship commence as stated this year?

SH

I don’t think so. You have to look beyond the reviews of the car. There’s no doubting that the R600 is likely to deliver an incredible driving experience. Most Caterhams do. But it was born out of folly; a personal statement rather than a well-timed progression. Can they convert grins into orders, enough to warrant a standalone grid? I don’t think so.

Not that long ago that Caterham offered something very similar. They called it the CSR.

Yet in its first year (2005), of the 20 that would regularly grace the track, only half were sold in the UK. And by the end of 2008, just three were left waiting at the abattoir. It was a sad end, but proof that even before the economy changed, Caterham could no longer attract the investment of high-end race teams. Their skill had always been to match competitive racing with affordable budgets, understanding that their road cars and race cars were two very different things. But times and people were changing.

Back in 2005, national motorsport was buoyant, grids were strong and the backlash against bonuses was nowhere near the horizon. Still, only 10 UK cars were sold into the flagship series. Today, national motorsport is staring into an abyss, and Caterham face ever increasing competition from niche clubs and ambitious manufacturers (such as Ginetta and Radical). Of course, it’s easy to argue that both of the latter are enviably resourced and led by men who understand the cut and thrust of both the track and the paddock. Nevertheless, if you pitch yourself into their game, you either have to compete or take a long, lingering bath.

I don’t know what made Caterham think that they could put 16 R600s straight on to the grid. The timing is wrong, the product seems wrong and I suspect the after-taste will be bitter (for all involved).

Caterham SP/300.R

Q

We’ve been promised a race series for the UK, then a race series for Europe. Where do I sign-up?

SH

Signing on the dotted-line isn’t the issue. But if you think you’re ever going to go competitively racing for your £80k, or whatever Caterham plan to charge, you’ll need to think again.

As far as I can see, there was only ever one reason for this project, and that was to attract a new investor into the business.

Back in 2009, Caterham’s former CEO Ansar Ali and COO Mark Edwards knew that time was running out for the Corven deal that had taken them from Hethel to Dartford. They either had to find someone with very deep pockets, or face seeing their ambitions for Caterham thwarted.

But they had a problem; whilst the Seven might have become a great product, it had both limited appeal and a rapidly-approaching sell-by date; neither would bode well to possible suitors. Moreover, the ongoing investment required just to keep exports in step with tightening European standards meant that despite the need to show that they could be more than just a one-trick pony, the ability to start with a clean sheet of paper was never going to be an option.

Resourceful as they are, the ex-Lotus men did the next best thing. They looked for something redundant and adaptable; the Series 1 Elise would have been perfect.. had only the right people said ‘yes’. But then in a dusty corner of Lola’s Huntingdon base, they found a forgotten project, the B08/90 race school car. With a little work, they could develop it into a sophisticated gem with a focus on both performance and engineering: The SP/300.R was born.

Of course, every concept needs a plan and Caterham’s appeared straightforward enough: make the car affordable and target the track day market (meaning that there was no need to consider expensive issues such as emissions or motorsport). Job done.. or so we thought.

Then the plan changed. The affordable track day car that could be trailered to the circuit and self-supported, became a different proposition. It would go racing, the easy-access body would be re-styled and a host of expensive add-ons thrown at it. Prospective owners would now require team assistance and a lot more cash!

Perhaps if Caterham had put all of their energy behind the car, who knows, it might still have succeeded. Then again it did, because it smiled at Tony Fernandes, and Ansar, Mark and co were saved. Or so we thought.

But back to the SP/300.R. The problem with announcing that it would go racing can be summed-up in one word – Radical.

Caterham’s product had become expensive, it was heavy, it was uncompetitive and Radical were already doing what Caterham thought that they could . . . and they were doing it very well. Add to this the fact that the car had been developed outside of the FIA’s CN standards (meaning that it would be precluded from joining in with any serious multi-marque series) and the limitations of the car really should have been more apparent: –

  1. Too difficult and costly for track days

  2. Too heavy and slow to race against others

  3. Too expensive to pitch as a new one-make series.

I don’t know how many Caterham have sold but I’m going to guess that after two years, you still won’t need a baker to count up to a dozen.

Nevertheless, the car did make an appearance at this year’s Autosport International Show, so Caterham must either have firm plans for its future, or they were hoping to sell the one that they’re left with. Either way, displaying it right next to Radical’s impressive array of finely-honed racers might not have been the wisest choice.

Caterham Karts

Q

We were promised a new kart and a series for 2013. We’re now being promised the same again but for 2014. Are both or either going to happen?

SH

I hope so. I think that if Caterham can build a competitive kart and genuinely (in both financial and people terms) support a series or even a series of series for aspiring racers, then they have very little to lose. I can see no other initiative capable of selling more baseball caps and hoodies than this one, and if racers and spectators can be engaged into the brand at an early age, then “well done”.

There is, however, a ‘but’.. And the ‘but’ here is the need for serious investment in the right people. Not just Laura Tillet. They need a dedicated team of capable professionals who understand karting and know how to deliver results; not, as was witnessed at Autosport, sales people referring to the product as a “go-kart”. Go-karts are for stag nights and Super Mario, karts are for racing.

Move away from the Caterham Sales Office

Q

We didn’t ask any questions about this last week but I did make reference to the disruption of a business that must already be stretched.

SH

My recollection of events is that planning permission was sought some time ago for the redevelopment of the site by the Nearn family. Despite a refusal by Tandridge District Council, the government’s appeal process has now given these plans the go-ahead. As such, I’m assuming that the move away from Station Avenue must be imminent. So why haven’t Caterham already taken the initiative and found new premises in order to make a managed transition? They’ve known about this for months.

This is what worries me; if this is how they plan ahead for change, what hope is there for the greater challenges they face?

2012 will not have been a good year for them. They’ve had to pay-off Ali, Edwards and Noble, and one thing’s for sure, they won’t have gone cheaply. And if I’m right about the R600, then they won’t be seeing any return on their investment any time soon.

Also , EU6 is approaching, requiring yet more funding. Oh, and then there’s the kart, and all the trips to Dieppe.. The last year will have been very expensive and with more R600 refunds than sales in the pipeline, revenues must surely have fallen short of projections.

I’m going to be bolder now. I think that the problem is this. I think that Tony Fernandes and Riad Asmat and Mike Gascoyne don’t really give two hoots about this little corner of England. Of course, I might be wrong, I might be doing Tony and Riad a huge disservice. But if they genuinely cared about securing this business, surely Caterham’s sales office and factory would have been relocated some time ago?

As far as I can see, the only thing that can have prevented this has been money, or rather, a lack of it. They might love F1, and I imagine that they love the prospect of seeing their investment in all things called Caterham being bought-out by Renault, but do they really love the Seven and the people who come with it?

Entrepreneurs invest with the expectation of reward. Now that Caterham has the Alpine contract, perhaps they’re ready to realise theirs. I wonder what William of Ockham would say?