2017 SEASON REVIEW: CAR MAGAZINE CATERHAM ACADEMY – GREEN GROUP
The CAR Magazine Caterham Academy is a unique series exclusively for novice drivers. An all-inclusive ‘introduction to motorsport’ package of Ford Sigma powered road-legal race car, race licence, technical support, the racing itself and perhaps most importantly, the guidance of the Caterham team at every stage. The 125bhp car uses an open diff, 5 speed gearbox and low-grip tyres to ‘teach’ car control. So successful has the formula been that over twenty-three years, that this year Caterham marked the 1000th mark for ordinary people who have become racing drivers through the Caterham Academy. Each year, two identical Academy championships are run in parallel to cater for the demand; a ‘Green’ group and a ‘White’ group.
Hertfordshire’s Daniel French took victory at the traditional opening event for the Academy, the Aintree Sprint. It has been five years since neither of the two groups’ Aintree winners went on to be an Academy champion, so the Sprint has always been something of a barometer for the season. Therefore, the inaugural victory is seen as an important one and 40 year-old French duly went on to be the class of the field, taking four wins from seven events, securing the title before the final round.
A group of four drivers argued over the remaining title podium places; James Murphy, Toby Clowes, Matt Sheppard and perhaps most notably of all, Caterham’s very own CEO, Graham Macdonald in a car he built himself.
If French had been looking for a perfect set of results, the weather quickly thwarted that plan at the second (and final) sprint event of the season at Curborough. For the first time anyone could remember, mid-event rain was a factor in an Academy Sprint. A handful of drivers were able to secure dry times before the heavens opened, but this did not include French (nor Macdonald, who had finished third at Aintree), leaving James Murphy to take the honours.
Murphy had finished second at Aintree and would run French closest all year, although he would have his own share of bad luck when the series moved to Brands Hatch for the inaugural race. The London based driver was lucky to make the grid following frantic work by Caterham’s trackside support team, after he clipped a spinning car at the bottom of Paddock Hill during qualifying extensively damaging his race car just a few hours before the race. Toby Clowes put his car on pole and would take the fastest lap, but could not hold off French for long. The future champion took the lead and ultimately an emotional win, following a brave overtake into Paddock. Clowes’ evident speed would pay off at Donington the following month though, where he would score his sole win of the year, whilst Murphy’s bad luck would strike again; a penultimate lap puncture following contact with Macdonald dropping him out of the results completely.
Normal service resumed at Snetterton and Rockingham, with French back on the top step. Matt Sheppard had looked as if he might challenge French at Snetterton briefly, but span away his pole position advantage on the first lap. Title secured, the pressure was off for French at Silverstone’s final round. Murphy had little to do to secure second and it came down to a who-crosses-the-line first fight between Clowes and 53 year-old Macdonald. Macdonald looked strong, but a dramatic high-speed spin put paid to his championship podium and Clowes took a well-deserved third place. Macdonald rounded out the year fourth, claiming, tongue-in-cheek that it would not have been right for the Caterham CEO to win the series and ensuring that he finished ‘just’ off the podium was a much harder challenge anyway.