Most stories start at the beginning; this one is a little different. Before I talk about Caterham, I need to talk a little about myself; not because I happen to like the sound of my own voice, that would be very droll.
No. The reason why I feel the need to explain myself is because some might try and deflect the story away from its course by suggesting I have a personal agenda for writing it. And I do.
So, for the record, I lead a busy professional life. I’m currently consulting / engaged as the Brand Director (Europe) for the new Mastretta MXT-R, a lightweight sports car that is undergoing testing for low-volume type-approval under the pan-European EC SSTA scheme. Hence, there is a clear reason why it could be all too easy to point a finger and say that I have clear motives to say what I say; that I might want Mastretta to benefit from what I write and that it’s in my interest to talk down the future prospects of Caterham.
I was encouraged by the enthusiasm I felt for the brand when I spoke with Caterham’s PR team before Christmas, but have felt a nagging suspicion since then as the comms was cranked into action and ‘insights’ began appearing in selected media titles. While there’s often a gap between ambition and reality, it’s best to limit this as much as possible, balancing the need for promotion with that of validation, especially in this digital age.
Customers, fans and other stakeholders sometimes have doubts and if these are not quickly addressed they have a habit of turning around and biting back. We were told to wait until 2013 before more would be revealed, but a month can feel like a very long time especially when it’s bridged by a major auto show and news of losses and cut-backs by Caterham’s most important industry partner.
If we do receive answers to any of the questions below, we’ll be the first to let you know, but for the time we know that many of you have doubts.
Over to you Caterham..
And prior to this, I ran and lost a business (Hyperion Motorsport) that was deeply engaged in all things Caterham. Again, anyone who knows this part of the world knows that the end was messy and that my relationship with Ansar Ali, Mark Edwards and Caterham deteriorated badly. HOWEVER, like Ansar and Mark, I live in the real world. We’ve kept in touch, shaken hands, and importantly, understand and respect each other’s positions at the time of Hyperion’s failure.
Finally, there’s the recent article I wrote about how the long-serving, former Caterham director, Andy Noble, found himself ousted; surplus to the requirements of a business with new ambitions. Andy and I have been friends for a long time, not great friends, but friends all the same and it will be easy for some to say that this is me employing retribution.
All of the above might easily be combined to create an argument for rebuttal. But they would be wrong. I write about Caterham not because I want to; because I have to.
I spent years living their dream. Even today, I work independently with dealers, creating ways to promote new business, and teaching drifting at the Nurburgring and Hockenheim, showing people what an amazing car the Seven is, and wearing a shirt with the brand emblazoned across my heart. This is why I write: I care about a business that I believe has become blinkered, and about the people whose jobs depend on the outcomes of decisions made by others.
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Anyone who attended last week’s Autosport International Show at Birmingham’s NEC will no doubt have been impressed by the majesty of the Caterham displays, both in the main exhibition hall and the live action arena. The tyre-smoking passenger rides are always a highlight for those who can only dream of possessing the nerve and skills that Caterham’s CDX team so admirably display. Whilst over in Hall 20, the assembled race and road cars, including a new R600 racer and SP/300.R glistened in the lights of a host of venerable iPhones and compact digital cameras.
Much was made of the display and much was made of the award it received for the best stand of the show, but then this is how Caterham is now perceived by many: An all-smiling PR machine, so deliberately focused on presentation that they’ve forgotten the need to provide substance.
Before Christmas, my editor and I suggested to Caterham that we were aware of a growing number of issues regarding product and projects, and that we’d like to discuss these face to face with them; just me and Steve, Graham MacDonald and his press officer, at a pub, over a pint. We wanted to give them a chance to give real answers to real questions and to do this in a way that would allow us to write a considered article that would explore the good news as well as the bad.
Our request was declined for the time being, until we can discuss concrete plans for Caterham’s road products (future variants of the Seven and the Alpine/Caterham JV).
Because of my relationship with Mastretta, I had considered changing the nature of my writing away from talking about specific manufacturers and current product to historic motorsport and personalities. This would allow me to continue writing without the suggestion of conflicts of interest. But then came the 2013 Autosport show, and more talk of exciting developments, and a familiar pattern of promises that appeared to melt without delivery.
So if Caterham aren’t prepared to discuss these points privately, perhaps I’ll raise them publicly and see if any answers are forthcoming. Here are some of the questions I’d like to answers:
At Autosport International in 2011, the SP/300.R was launched. We were promised a one-make series in the UK for 2012 and were told that cars would cost £60,000 and that only 25 would be made each year.
At the 2012 Autosport International, press and dealers were told that racing would commence in 2013 as a pan-European championship. The previously quoted price of £60,000 had now grown to £80,000.
Having shown the car again at Autosport International in 2013, I’d like to ask Caterham this –
Q. If I order a SP/300.R today, and pay in full, (i) how much will it cost me (in full race-trim)? (ii) When will I receive delivery? (iii) When does the one-make series commence and how many other cars will be competing?
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Just as we’ve heard so much about the SP/300.R, so we’ve also been promised a one-make race series here in the UK for the new R600 race car.
Q. I’d like to ask Caterham (i) how many cars will be taking to the grid for the inaugural race and when this will take place? (ii) I’d also like to ask if the cooling has been developed and tested to take account of the effects of slipstreaming, especially in the hot summer months, where ambient temperatures could reach over 30c more than they have been recently? (iii) Finally, I’d like to ask when the first customer cars will be delivered and if customers can be assured that kits will be complete? *
* This isn’t a spurious question. When the CSR was launched, and when the C400 upgrade was introduced, kits were incomplete and cars were not fully developed, meaning that teams were unable to build cars with sufficient time for customers to properly test and customers were also required to pay for remedial work allegedly due to sub-standard engineering.
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Back to January 2012, we were also told that Caterham would be launching a one-make kart series for 2013. Modelled on the successful Academy concept, young karters would be able to enter the Caterham Motorsport ladder from a very early age, with the carrot of the company’s involvement in Formula 1 being very firmly dangled.
Last week, it was once again announced that Caterham would be launching a one-make kart series, but this time for 2014.
So for the record, I’d welcome an answer to the following:-
Q. Are Caterham serious about carrying-forward these plans in 2014 or, are they merely still testing the market to understand potential demand?
Plans and fruition are important words that carry weighted meanings.
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I’m also intrigued as to what benefits Caterham genuinely think they will gain by putting virtually all of their eggs into Renault’s crumbling basket. At first glance, some might be forgiven for seeing the tie-in to co-produce a new Alpine at Dieppe as being a great coup for a UK manufacturer who probably only built about 450 cars / kits last year.
But as I often have to point out, there are always at least two sides to every story. I don’t doubt the ability of the engineers at Caterham Technology & Innovation to build a capable, lightweight sports car; what I do have to question are the real reasons why Renault were so keen to invite Tony Fernandes to collaborate financially in keeping 300 jobs in Normandy alive at a time when they are already seeing the need to reduce their workforce by almost 17% (approximately 7,500).
But then read deeper into Renault’s actions and you will see that job losses are not a spoken-about matter in France. There will be redeployments, early retirements and vacancies left unfilled, all of which can be managed carefully with union consent, except for Dieppe. Something had to be done to keep the people belonging to a redundant brand in work. Fernandes and the deep pockets of his investors’ might just have happened along at a very opportune time.
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Move away from Caterham, Surrey?
There’s one final concern nagging at me. For some time now, there’s been talk of moving Caterham’s manufacturing business at Dartford and sales operation at Caterham to the new F1 facility at Leafield. This has become more of an issue lately as the Nearn family, who founded Caterham Cars, have been actively seeking to realise their investment in the freehold of the sales office and workshops in the town bearing the marque’s name.
Why does this concern me? Well simply, if my business was under threat of having to relocate, I’d be doing something about it, especially if it might require asking staff to move to a different part of the country. From the outside, it could be easy to argue that if the Nearns did enforce the closure of Station Avenue, it shouldn’t be too difficult to find new premises close to home. And of course, they already have a secondary sales operation in the Midlands near Leicester.
But the showroom represents much more than just a shop-front. There’s a thriving sideline in selling-on trade-ins to the lucrative South-Eastern market, not to mention the servicing and upgrades business. And of course, this is seen by many as where the journey began (even though it’s not); and is almost like a place of homage. If Caterham are forced out, it’s going to impact on them in ways that a planned move will not; it will affect staff, it will affect turnover, it will affect the whole business.
It is important to stress that I’m not trying to compare events at Caterham with the sad and lingering demise of Lotus. Nevertheless, it seems ever clearer that what is happening today is not what Graham and Simon Nearn, or Andy Noble, or Ansar Ali, or Mark Edwards could, or would sit comfortably with. Winning an award for a very expensive stand is one thing; selling cars and creating a return on investment in a declining market is an altogether different story.
What I want to see from Caterham is honesty. I’m not asking difficult questions.
If I’m wrong, I’ll be man-enough to say so.