How to drift – a day with the Caterham Drift Experience
“Have you ever done anything like this before?” he asked as I walked in the door. “Yes” I foolishly replied. “So you'll be showing us some proper drift heroics then?”... “Oh god no, I meant I've driven a Caterham loads!”
Thus began my morning at the Caterham Drift Experience at Brands Hatch. Had the team running the day have been a little bit more vindictive rather than helpful they might have made me regret my accidental bravado. Fortunately, they were the exact opposite.
I'll admit that I didn't really know what to expect when I received the invite to have a go at drifting a Caterham at Brands Hatch. Sure we spent six months driving a Caterham in the super-hot summer of 2018, but that was road stuff. Not to say we didn't have some fun, but lairy long rubber destruction was not really on the cards.
The Caterham Drift Experience has been running for several years, at several different locations. You can now find it in a humble yet welcoming setup at the famous Kent circuit, just next to the steep drop from Paddock Hill bend.
My previous drifting experience on arrival, opposite to what I'd nearly told the instructors, was minimal. To be honest I've never thought public roads the place to learn, and didn't spend any of my youth in Tesco car parks perfecting my lift-off oversteer in a battered Corsa. As such the day could have been anything from total, on-my-roof disaster, to completely revelatory experience.
I wasn't alone in my experience level. Three of us were booked into the experience that day. I was with one chap who had completed the course several times, was a professional bike race instructor and had owned a Caterham for years and another who worked in the city, had just bought his first Caterham and wanted to learn how to really use it. Which put me, no drifting experience, but six months living with a Caterham, pretty much smack bang in the middle.
I've done 'experience' drives before, and almost without exception they're fun, but a little bit disappointing. Not to say that you don't learn something, or leave having not done what was promised, but that you often drive off feeling like there just wasn't enough. So many set you up with about an hour of intro, before plonking you trackside to watch others while awaiting your 15 minutes in the car, before charging you £50 for a picture of the car in which you can't really make yourself out.
So I arrived at the drift experience hoping for fun but not expecting to spend a significant amount of time in the car. First surprise of the day was that the briefing was as simple as you like. An easy to understand explanation of how to get the car sideways followed by a demonstration lap with my instructor Max.
And that was it for the boring teaching time – it was straight into the cars. In this case 135bhp Caterham 270s which had had their anti-roll bar removed and been put on some less-than-road-legal tyres to help us get them a bit sideways.
What followed was several hours of almost non-stop practice and coaching. The various levels of experience were not an issue, with three guys helping us who were more than happy to offer calm advice and coach us through all of our issues and problems. With this kind of thing it's always a case of two steps forward and one step back. Retraining your mind to thrash the living daylights out of a car and let the wheel slip through your hands, rather than try and control every moment is difficult, but doable.
But the calm nature of our instructors and the sheer time given to practice meant that those problems were not insurmountable. For every step back there was a calm word saying what we'd done wrong. For every step forward, there was congratulations and advice for the next step.
Slowly but surely I went from a complete novice, sitting in my own clouds of tyre smoke at every turn, to someone who could passably say they've learned to drift a Caterham. In the right circumstances.
More importantly I'd learned some proper car control skills. After three hours of on/off drifting a Caterham round a former car park I wouldn't say that I’m going to be challenging Mad Mike and co. for any pro titles. But I would say that I'm a better driver than I was. The Caterham Drift Experience is an absolute ball, but more importantly it leaves you a better motorist than when you arrive. It's the kind of car control exercise that everyone should have to do at some point. Set in an ultra-safe environment with no fear of real danger, you will come away better equipped to deal with genuine issues that might come up when driving on the road (or on track). You're not a driving hero, but you are a more effective road user.