The world has moved on around the Seven. Yet it still encapsulates everything that is truly good about cars
By Matt Bird / Saturday, 3 June 2023 / Loading comments
Full disclosure from the off: I’ve been really, really looking forward to this one. Of course, there isn’t a dud category in the entire PH25 Pantheon, but if you asked for a personal favourite, then track cars would be it. If the windows are plastic, the tyres sticky, the weight reduced and the stickers garish, count me in. Perhaps more than any other PH25 vote, the track car outcome was hardest to call and featured the most disparate field of contenders. A Renault Megane with no rear seats had arguably as much claim to the title as one of the greatest mid-engined Ferraris ever made.
As it was, our top three were nothing if not diverse, with mid-engined, front-engined and rear-engined layouts represented. The winner had an engine half the size of that in second place; you can buy an example of the third-placed car for a tenth of the price of the runner-up. And while all our track car podium finishers are rear-drive, tyres span everything from a 215-section to a 325 on the driven axle. That’s the sort of variety we’re talking about in just three cars of a brilliant category, with one very clear, very deserving winner: the Caterham Seven 620R.
You like them old school, clearly. With Elise and E39 M5 having already established themselves as PH25 winners (and the Clio Trophy very nearly taking the hot hatch title), there’s clearly an appetite for traditional thrills in this competition. And they could hardly be any more traditional than a Seven. The original road-going track car, really – and the finest exponent out there of how brilliant the front-engined, rear-drive balance can be, how essential the principle of lightweight really is and how inimitable exposure to a car’s workings feels in this day and age.
There really is nothing that brings joy on a circuit like a Seven. Even the modestly powered models are so immediate, so responsive and so visceral that you can’t fail to have a good time. Keeping up with folk who’ve spent six figure more on a supercar with nothing more than an old Ford engine and four Avons really is enormous fun. For the PH25 track car vote, however, we wanted to up the ante, hence the inclusion of the 620R. Turned out to be a good decision, too, as you voted for the 310hp, sequential, supercharged, madcap flagship of the Seven range in your droves.
Somewhat miraculously given our recent luck, Wales played ball and we had a glorious day at Anglesey to film. Having experienced both the Seven and Anglesey in almost every climactic condition over the past decade or so, it really felt like a match made in heaven. Rain would have made for a funny video, but the sun showed off the best track car in 25 years at its very best. I really hope some of the joy comes across on video, in between the screams of fear and attempting to say something cogent.
A Seven going sideways in the sun by the sea would have made for a good video already, but this is PH – and PH25 specifically – we didn’t want to just do a ‘good’ video. So as with the saloon and hot hatch efforts, we brought the second-placed car along for the ride as well. And when second place is the Porsche 911 GT3 RS 4.0, it felt a bit like bringing Ronnie O’Sullivan to play pool at the local. As far as we were concerned, modern 911 road racers come no greater than the God-like 997 4.0, and it seems a good many of you agreed.
It hardly needs a stunning road to prove why the GT3 RS is so revered (and why no Euromillions garage would be complete without one) but we gave it one anyway. Properly done, some optimisation for track actually makes for a better road car as well, stripping away what isn’t really necessary to make the driver (and the drive) an even more important part of what’s going on. Bring that immersion together with a 500hp Mezger flat six and a manual gearbox, and every single mile – practically every moment, in fact – is memorable. Both these cars demand you’re A-game to do their thing, and reward in kind.
It says much that even a couple of days with the pairing didn’t feel sufficient to properly get to grips with them. They need time, patience, skill and commitment to get the very best from them, and, of course, that means the satisfaction you get from driving them even vaguely well is off the scale. In the first few miles, the 620R is downright scary, such is the sheer speed and physicality; when cold, the GT3 is reluctant at best and recalcitrant at worst, hunting for revs and not much keen on changing gear.
With both cars up to temperature, however, they really are utterly sensational. Nailing a downshift in the 4.0 is one of the great automotive experiences, and nudging a crazily powerful Caterham just beyond the limit as you grow in confidence is up there as well. As cars generally make going fast easier than ever, there’s something immensely gratifying about having to put the legwork in; similarly, knowing that these cars would continue to reveal different facets of their character with more time, different techniques and new challenges only increases the affection for both. Never have I left a shoot so desperate to spend more time experiencing the subject matter – even if 200 motorway miles is a long way home in a Seven. As well as being the two of the most capable track cars of the past quarter century, both Caterham and GT3 are driver’s cars of the highest order. The experience is at least as important as the obvious ability, a timely reminder that being the best of the best isn’t just about lap times.
Anyway, that’s more than enough waffle. You knew these two were superb – you voted for them. And we really couldn’t have asked for better conditions to show why you did, so hopefully the video does a pair of fantastic track cars justice. Thank you Anglesey, thank you Wales, and thank you Harry, who has outdone himself yet again. And thank you, PHers, for making it so. Now sit back and enjoy.
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