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Caterham Lola SP/300.R is the Latest Track-Day Alternative to Your Road Car

By J.P. Vettraino

Is $135,000 too much for a big boy`s weekend toy?

Not as reigning ALMS champ Chris Dyson sees it, if the big boys happen to be the growing cadre of well-heeled track-day enthusiasts, and the toy is essentially a pure-bred race car. Dyson`s thinking goes like this:

A heavy-hitting, tracked-tuned sports car will start at more than $100,000. A Porsche 911 GT3 RS 4.0 is $185,000; a Ferrari 458 Italia is $229,000, before track-day options. If those big boys spend another $50,000 to $60,000 to make their sports cars truly track ready, they are left with machines that are truly brutal road cars. On the track, they still have the compromises inherent in a car initially developed for the street.

Then there are ongoing consumable costs and insurance. And what happens when the big boy caves in a corner of his Italian stallion on a tire wall? Truly committed track-day drivers are bound to do so.

All things considered, Dyson figures that the time is right for Dyson Racing`s latest side project: importing, and ultimately assembling, the Caterham Lola SP/300.R.

“Track-day driving is the fastest-growing area of motorsport today,” says Dyson. “We have been pursuing the notion of a track-day car for a long time, and the SP/300.R was clearly the right way to go. It is a fantastic car—very fast, but also driver-friendly. And it looks amazing.”

The SP/300.R was designed and developed by Lola and manufactured by Caterham, the longtime builder of the Lotus-based Super Seven. Peter Weston, Dyson Racing`s technical director, participated in its development. None of the SP/300.R`s components are sourced from Lola, so the race-car builder`s recent bankruptcy filing will not affect the project.

This track car has an aluminum honeycomb tub, a stressed mid-mount engine and a formula-car pushrod suspension, front and rear. We might think of the SP/300.R as an ALMS LMP car in 90 percent scale, on a wheelbase comparable to a Formula One car (or a 458 Italia).

The most obvious difference, compared with an LMP car, is the SP/300.R`s cockpit. It is finished more lavishly, with space for a driver and a passenger up to six feet, four inches tall. A driving coach can ride along for feedback, or friends and family can get the ride of their lives.

The SP/300.R`s suspension is fully adjustable—including antiroll bars. Its adjustable rear wing and carbon-fiber diffuser help generate nearly a half-ton of downforce at 150 mph. The bodywork is plastic, though a more sophisticated composite is under development to trim 35 pounds. For now, the car weighs 1,200 pounds dry.

Initially, the SP/300.R will be imported with a Ford Duratech-based 2.0-liter four, tuned by Caterham with a low-boost supercharger to develop 305 hp and 215 lb-ft of torque. Dyson plans to offer lighter, normally aspirated options with similar output in the future. The transmission is a six-speed Hewland racing box with clutch pedal and paddle shifter. The SP/300.R comes with a fully programmable ECU that allows data acquisition, an adjustable pedal box and a programmable steering wheel and dashboard.

Do the math, and you will find that the SP/300.R`s power-to-weight ratio surpasses that of a 458 Italia or a GT3 RS 4.0 by 30 percent to 35 percent. In development tests with Dyson driver and Le Mans winner Guy Smith, the SP/300.R has run from 0 to 60 mph in 2.8 seconds and topped out at 165 mph. Thanks to greater downforce and a superior power-to-grip ratio on Dunlop race slicks, SP/300.R lap times should be substantially quicker than on any supertuned road car.

Consider operating costs. If he or she is up to speed, a driver can expect to spend $4,000 to $6,000 for an aggressive track weekend with a track-tuned road car, in tires, brake pads and eventually rotors. The cost target with the SP/300.R was $2,000 or less. The tires and pads should deliver five hours of hard driving, according to Dyson, and the cast-iron rotors up to 20 hours. And $10,000 should cover anything a driver might incur in a track accident, short of a rollover that damages the tub. You can not fix the suspension and bodywork on a corner of a Ferrari for that.

At $135,000, the SP/300.R comes with the engine and everything else required for track duty, not to mention a tour of Dyson Racing`s 30,000-square-foot shop in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and an orientation day at nearby Monticello Motor Club. Dyson now has a demonstration car in the United States and has sold its first copy. Purchase requires a $25,000 deposit. Dyson Racing plans to begin assembling SP/300.Rs for North America at its shop by the end of 2012.

Caterham has launched a spec-race series for the SP/300.R in the United Kingdom, and Dyson expects one or more sanctioning bodies to homologate the car for racing in North America. But that really is not the point.

His intent with the SP/300.R is a sturdy, relatively inexpensive, turn-key race car that is waiting when big boys (or girls) show up to let off some steam at Monticello or any of the motoring country clubs proliferating around the United States. Dyson Racing will provide spares nationally, and it will offer trackside support in the northeastern United States—say, at Monticello, New Jersey or Lime Rock Park—with maintenance, orientation and even instruction from one of its team drivers.

“Most people start track-day driving with a road car,” Dyson says. “But compared to a car designed from the start for track work, even the best road car is overweight and slow-responding. Our goal is to give track-day drivers a better value proposition—a car that is less expensive to buy and operate and more fun to drive. Our hope is that we can share the team`s decades of experience with a lot of other drivers who would otherwise never know what it is like to pull more than two g around a fast corner.”

Caterham Lola SP/300.R Price: $135,000

Available: Now

Layout: Two-passenger, rear mid-engine track roadster

Drivetrain: 2.0-liter, 305-hp, 215-lb-ft I4; rear-mount Hewland six-speed racing gearbox

Weight: 1,200 lb (dry)

Performance: 0-60 mph, 2.8 sec; 165 mph top speed (mfr)

Contact: Steve Potter: [email protected]