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Speed Week: Caterham 160 vs P1

  1. A lot of clever people will tell you that air is a performance car’s biggest enemy. Or was it friend? After all, your engine likes to suck it down, it’s handy for cooling and if you stick a wing up in it, it’ll push you into the ground. However, you also have to move it out of the way. And I only have 80bhp to do that with. It’s not enough. Air comes at me from all angles, a raucous, invisible assault - my right eye is closed and my right ear is numb. Hair? That, at least, is not something I have to worry about. Air is thick, too. At 60mph, it’s as viscous as soup; at 80mph, I feel like I’m trapped in jelly. I stick an arm outside the cockpit and waggle it around in the gale, enjoying the sensation, but realising that I’m not exactly using air to its best advantage.

    Photos: Rowan Horncastle

  2. Ahead, I watch as the McLaren P1 slices through the same air, a blade pursued by a brick. Now that’s a car that’s been designed to use air properly - to bend, shape and mould it, not batter at it feebly and uselessly. It uses air to generate up to 600kg of downforce. The day after tomorrow, at Castellolí racetrack, it’ll pull over 2g through corners.

  3. Right now, in the company of the wind-battered Caterham Seven 160, the P1 is ambling along the A2 towards Barcelona, and I’m realising that air alone is not the only difference between them. No, what they illustrate is the sheer scope and variety of the performance-car market in 2014. Later, you’ll find hatchbacks, coupes and even, ahem, an estate. But these two British two-seaters are the outer limits: the most and least advanced, the most and least powerful, the most and least expensive. For the record, the McLaren has 11.3 times as much power, and you could have 48 Caterhams for the price of a P1…

  4. You might wonder why we’re here, too, not starting at a racetrack or high in the stunning Montserrat hills. Well, there’s plenty of that sort of thing coming up over the following pages, and right now there’s a bike track day occurring on our chosen circuit.

    So, as TG’s advance party, and with a Caterham and McLaren to play with, we needed an excuse to do some driving. Frankly, where the P1 is concerned, it didn’t have to be much of an excuse. It was my first time in one. And you never forget your first time.

  5. “Barcelona’s cool,” went our thinking, “and Parc de Montjuïc, high above the city used to stage F1 grands prix until 1975 - and besides people would love to see these cars, wouldn’t they?” In our book, that was justification enough. The side effect, of course, is that it’s always interesting to see just how broad the talents of extreme cars are. “The best driver’s car on road and track”, is McLaren’s claim for the P1. No mention of roadside posing, oddly. Or speed-hump capabilities. In fact, some common ground does exist between these two: of all the cars you’ll read about in Speed Week, these two are - on paper at least - the worst daily drivers.

  6. Does this, then, constitute malicious and inappropriate use of an £866,000 supercar? Probably, but right now I’m in the Caterham, the car we built ourselves*, watching as the P1 tentatively, delicately attempts to slot itself up the inside of a bus as we try to negotiate the Plaça d’Espanya roundabout. It’s seven lanes wide, has umpteen exits, we don’t know where we’re going and we’re hemmed in on all sides by the aggressive thrust of mobile phones. The P1 seems to be suffocating. The Caterham, however, is proving excellent. Visibility is not a problem when you have no doors or panelling of any sort above knee level. The teensy turbo gusts about happily with so little weight to work against, and it’s small. Really small.

  7. So small, it’s almost invisible, in fact. So captivated are the Barcelonians by the P1 that they fail to spot the off-white roadster, and I’m buffeted and barged by the currents. I don’t mind - the Caterham slices and dices through them as we make our way up to Parc de Montjuïc, and when people do notice it, they love it - I’m dinky, cute and harmless, more lapdog than performance car. But then an Aston Martin DBS pulls up alongside the P1. The girl inside is even more beautiful than the car. Time to swap.

  8. An aura surrounds the P1, and people and cars don’t come too close. This helps my nerves. As does the fact I can trundle around in electric, therefore not giving the crowds advance notice that something wicked this way comes. It’s quite a hard, piercing electrical whine, and you can’t go that far before the V8 blares back into life, but there’s a wonderful sense of satisfaction to be had here.

  9. Does that gel with the idea of a performance car to you? This is performance of a different sort, almost theatrical rather than sporting. The drama of the doors never fails to draw an “ooh” from bystanders, and simply being in the P1 is an event. You nestle in it, bathed in light pouring in from all these windows, marvelling at the light, delicious steering, the superb visibility afforded by the low scuttle and generous side mirrors, wishing you could keep the spoiler at ‘silly’ height all the time. You can’t, because Race mode is illegal on the public road. It has a mode that is illegal. I love that about it, too.

  10. It’s been a fun day out, I reflect, as we head for the hills. I haven’t used more than a quarter of the P1’s throttle travel nor even made the Caterham’s skinny tyres squeal, and yet I’ve had a ball - proving that exciting cars are capable of so much more than just speed. They’re defined not just by their numbers (however big or small they might be), but by their attitude. Numbers separate the P1 from the 160, attitude draws them back together. It’ll be attitude that counts at Castellolí, too.

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