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Track report: Barber Motorsports Park in Caterham 620R


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Barber Motorsports Park is located in Birmingham, Alabama has 15 turns and is 2.38 miles long. Easily one of my favorite tracks to visit. They have a museum that overlooks the track and houses primarily vintage motorcycles. I took a quick peek inside the museum but did not have time to go through it.

 

 

Unlike my home track in Joliet, IL (Autobahn) which has little elevation, Barber has some very engaging turns up and down hill. The Caterham 620R was well suited to the task but the performance envelope of the car is well beyond my capabilities. I have done 14 events and more than half in the Caterham, although some were in the CSR which I started HPDE events with in 2015.

 

 

I would characterize the 620R as a momentum car that has the ability to keep up with high horsepower cars in the straights. Yes, you can drift it and I am sure that much closer to the limit the car is more like an open wheel racecar like the Star Mazda, without more extreme g forces of lateral acceleration. At my home track it is certainly more in line with that grouping, my own driving skills and locals with such cars considered. The sequential gearbox requires some real effort to change gear (strength to pull and push the shifter) but allows virtually continuous power and is a very strong reason I went from the CSR to the 620R (although the added 50hp is also great)! I find that flat shifting is easier to control with the sequential and less footwork vs heel-toe shifting, resulting in faster lap times.

 

 

Since there is really just one short straightaway, Barber is a great test of cornering ability and finding the powerband at the right time and place. Since the Caterham is so light there is a natural advantage with late braking. One tricky thing about driving such a lightweight car like the Caterham is that since you can “point and shoot” the car where you want it to be at high speeds there is a tendency to drive to the track out point. This is where I started to learn from an ex-IMSA driver who imparted this dangerous advice: let the car take you to the track out point. That means even more speed which can be jarring, brutish and downright scary. This happened to me going up the hill on turn four the second day and while it was unsettling trusting that at this speed the car could be controlled, it is moments like these that need to be revisited to really harness the 620R.

 

 

Unfortunately, on day one the car sustained some minor damage when I spun out and on some slippery grass rolled back into the guard rails. Fortunately, the car was able to continue running safely by tapeing on the right rear wing (fender) and removing the rear tow and fog lamps. In another one of my cars this could have been much more catastrophic. The tube frame underneath the Caterham gives me comfort that had the situation been worse, I would still have walked out of it.

 

 

Conditions were damp the first day and threatening to rain on the second day (luckily, it didn’t) and despite two other cars in pieces on the track, the crew at Barber was expedient in cleaning up the incident and allowing the next run group on. Plenty of corner workers in well placed positions, too. The facilities at Barber were wonderful as I brought my RV to tow the Caterham and they had power hookups, clean bathrooms and decent food all right there with some great vistas from the surrounding road and tiered parking lot. Overall, a great experience that I look forward to repeating.

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In '03 or so, Autombile Magazine did a comparison of the best track cars at Barber. The hottest version of the Caterham back then, the SVT Zetec powered Superlight, was the giant killer, knocking off the Viper, a Ferrari, and a Noble among others. I think the lack of straight stretches played to the Cat's strengths. With almost double the power, your Cat wouldn't suffer as much on tracks with long straights.

Glad to see you out there mixing it up! Sorry to learn of the spin/damage! I did the same thing at Mid-Ohio last year. Much harder on my ego than the car tho. I was able to continue in spite of the rumpled rear end. I still haven't fixed it, it is a reminder of what happens when my "talent" is not equal to my car.

You should consider joining us at NJMP for our annual 2-3 day event! It has RV sites as well as great race tracks.(Update: whoops, now see you are planning on coming to NJMP, great!).

Edited by Kitcat
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A wonderful write up on Barber. While I have been to the collection and wandered around the track fringes, I have not driven there. One day...when I can get enough free vacation time.

 

To help visualize it from a driver's point of view I borrowed a video of our old track buddy MikeG from this forum who has been there.

 

 

 

 

It really does wind around with no long straights which would allow a small light car to make a bigly mess of larger heavier cars. I never really appreciated that until now.

 

This was a great read with my morning cup! :D

 

Two questions:

1) Which operator was running the track day?

2) Putting aside the obvious gearbox differences how does the handling compare between 620R and CSR? (not that I am planning to upgrade!)

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MikeG's video helped me prepare for Barber along with sim racing the track on iRacing and my SimXperience rig for it!

 

 

Croc - Glad you enjoyed the write up. It helps me to do a track report and think about what I learned and where I can improve....

 

 

I went with Chin Motorsports (now Chin Track Days), they were very professional; great instructor and lead instructors. They have a neat format where they run a mixed session at the end of the day. No matter your experience if it is the first time at the track you are a novice. Then, you can qualify for solo driving if the instructor feels you can do it. That started for me on the second day. Well, the novices here would be intermediate or advanced with any other group. They were great about point bys (required in all groups) and while day one I was passing a couple Porsche GT3s and Vettes during the mixed session I was being passed by the Ginetta LMP3. =] The Caterham was a draw for guys in GT3 RSs or older M3s... Chin drivers were a social and welcoming group.

 

 

Now for the tough question: CSR vs 620R handling. The CSR was more streetable by a LARGE margin. I prefer the seats in the 620R but its very rough trying to drive the car back from the track at my home track, especially in traffic for over an hour after having the car beat you up during an event. I would rather tow and have room for tools and gear.

 

 

My take is that the limit is harder to find on the CSR (I had one way adjustable Nitrons put in) and seems to be one notch higher in handling ability (roughly CSR 8/8 vs 620R 7/8), but once exceeded harder to manage. I honestly think the tires help the 620R a large amount vs CSR and I am actually switching to a set of AVON slicks and wets. If I was going to go really crazy I would also have a set of street tires. But I have too many other cars and sets of tires around for those, too, I would need another garage rather than having bits at different places to house everything.

 

 

I think this is the key: my impression is the CSR could handle sweepers better but the 620R is better in a succession of turns and also I am faster to get on the throttle upon exit in the 620R. However, it's hard to say because I think I would need to be in it again as I have become a bit better of a driver. How about giving me a ride along at the NJMP event?? That could be definitive. =]

Edited by spc_cwby
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I honestly think the tires help the 620R a large amount vs CSR

 

Interesting. I too felt the wheel/tire combo on the CSR was holding it back so put myself through the pain of converting the brakes/hubs to take a 13 inch wheel. It fixed the problem beautifully and as a bonus tweaked the final drive gearing just enough to make it perfect for NJMP.

 

I still think it is too softly sprung with too much travel in the rear but I live with that.

 

But I have too many other cars and sets of tires around for those, too, I would need another garage rather than having bits at different places to house everything.

 

A garage? Nope, not commenting....not at all! :rofl:

 

 

I think this is the key: my impression is the CSR could handle sweepers better but the 620R is better in a succession of turns and also I am faster to get on the throttle upon exit in the 620R.

 

Yes I think I know what you mean. The CSR IRS is relatively softly sprung and longish travel so loading up in a sweeper and putting the power down it would work well but it is then compromised in the tight esses.

 

 

How about giving me a ride along at the NJMP event?? That could be definitive. =]

 

I think that is a very good idea!

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nice car! and nice writeup too. I'd like to drive Barber someday!

 

I'm a driver coach and have students from Novices all the way up to guys who hold racing licenses and are looking for that last 1 sec to put them at the pointy end of the field. when I train Novices and Intermediates, I teach the 'slow in fast out' method for most corners; get all the braking done in a straight line, finishing the braking at the turn in point, aiming for a nice clean precise apex, while gently rolling on throttle progressively more and more til the track out point is met. typically, there is some amount of 'drive to the track out point' involved.

 

when I've got a sufficiently skilled student (high Intermediate leaning towards Advanced) I start to teach the 'fast in fast out' method (but in tiny steps; a little bit at a time!). this entails feathering up off the brakes before the turn in point is reached, and carrying in more speed entering the turn (while being sure to still hit the apex very precisely!); then rolling into the throttle even earlier and carrying much more mid corner speed and out to the trackout point. often it means turning in a touch earlier than the traditional DE late apex method. when carried out properly, the car WILL drive to the trackout point on it's own; it has no choice; physics and geometry insist that it does haha! the issue here is that if one carries too much speed, or misjudges the turn in point, or especially if he/she misses the apex by a bit, then the result is - running out of track and driving off at the exit of the turn.

 

to illustrate, here is a short clip of me from a longgg time ago up at Watkins Glen. I was volunteering with the RTR PCA and was instructing, plus was shaking down my 1995 Honda Civic and getting it ready for that years racing. the RTR PCA Red Instructor Group is one of the faster PCA groups, filled with lots of nice go-fast track oriented cars. that day, I was shaking down a new engine build and a different gear ratio for my transmisson. I was running some garbage toss-away test tires (you can hear them screaming for mercy haha; they were way past their prime!). most/many of the cars in that rungroup should have been able to out corner/handle me that day, but very few were driving anything but the 'slow in fast out' line and most were not using all the trackout room at their disposal (thus the total domination from the back of the pack by a little Honda Civic. must have been a bit embarrassing for all those poor P cars!). I was running the 'fast in fast out slightly early turn in' lines that I use when racing; since it was a DE I was waiting for signals, and probably driving around 95% capability with a little bit in reserve. please forgive the noises and video breaking up slightly when running over the curbing; this was from the days of VHS-C minicams!

 

 

your 620R on slicks driven in such a manner would probably be 15 secs a lap faster than I was circulating in my lil Civic.

 

Todd

 

PS Watkins Glen is NOT a good track to start practicing that line! you want a track with plenty of run off room, in case you make a mistake in judgement. NJMP would be an excellent such track! :)

Edited by d15b7
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Todd - Thanks for sharing that video and your 'fast in fast out' approach! You have explained the danger of this additional challenge!

 

Part of the issue for me is feeling such speed in the car, it is a bit terrifying but I am approaching it slowly and the more I get out there and push the more I can become used to it.

 

COTA and Sebring are coming up in April and as of now I am planning on taking the Caterham but I am kinda wary of getting it up near top speed as I have seen the video where the prototype 620R lifted up the front wheels at 155 mph. The COTA straights are long and while I think I can keep up I have never been above 125-130 in the 620R. =]

 

Sebring is its own monster, I have heard it is very rough on cars since the pavement is quite old. And also the brakes... good thing the Cat is light on consumables vs my other cars.

 

I would be RV-trailering the 620R to both, one right after the other, and I really hope I can take it through the paces and furthermore provide some more track reports on here.

 

Also, Kitcat -- thanks for the heads up about the RV sites there... are there full hookups? Look forward to meeting you there.

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Todd: Great illustration of technique and using all the track, esp the curbing, while not over-driving. It's such a fine line. What is clear is even a little underpowered Honda is faster then a heavy weight, overpowered Porsche IF the Honda is on the gas whilst the Porsches are coasting or braking:)! What WAS surprising is they never seemed to pull away from you, even on the straights! Had to be a humbling experience for all of them.

SPC: I think the RV sites at NJMP are just electric, Tom or Croc can chime in. I look forward to your COTA and Sebring reports!

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In '03 or so, Autombile Magazine did a comparison of the best track cars at Barber. The hottest version of the Caterham back then, the SVT Zetec powered Superlight, was the giant killer, knocking off the Viper, a Ferrari, and a Noble among others.

Be interested in reading that -- especially how they felt the Noble compared to the Caterham.

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The 2004 article does not seem to be posted on line but from reading a few forums moaning about how their favored car lost (LotusTalk, Porsche, Viper...hehehe), I picked up the results:

 

Acceleration 0-60 mph :

 

1) Noble M12 GTO-3R : 3.8 sec.

2) Dodge Viper SRT-10 : 4.2 sec.

3) Porsche GT3 : 4.3 sec.

4) Caterham Super 7 Superlight : 4.4 sec.

5) Ferrari Challenge Stradale : 4.7 sec.

5) Mitsubishi Evolution RS : 4.7 sec

7) Lotus Elise : 4.9 sec.

8) Honda S2000 : 5.6 sec.

9) Dodge SRT-4 : 6.1 sec.

 

Braking 70-0 mph :

 

1) Ferrari Challenge Stradale : 160 ft.

2) Caterham Super 7 Superlight : 163 ft.

3) Noble M12 GTO-3R : 165 ft.

4) Dodge Viper SRT-10 : 166 ft.

5) Porsche GT3 : 168 ft.

6) Lotus Elise : 170 ft.

7) Hona S2000 : 171 ft.

7) Mitsubishi Evolution RS : 171 ft.

9) Dodge SRT-4 : 185 ft.

 

Lap Times (2.3 mi. Barber Circuit) :

 

1) Caterham Super 7 Superlight : 1:41.7

2) Noble M12 GTO-3R : 1:42.0

3) Ferrari Challenge Stradale : 1:42.8

4) Porsche GT3 : 1:44.1

5) Dodge Viper SRT-10 :1:45.3

6) Lotus Elise : 1:46.9

7) Mitsubishi Evolution RS : 1:48.2

8) Honda S2000 : 1:50.8

9) Dodge SRT-4 : 1:52.4

 

 

 

One important point I saw - the Caterham was on ACB10s - a Formula Ford race tire that happens to be DOT. Thats worth a bit of grip over some sport street tires.

 

The other things I found was the relative performance chart over the lap:

 

http://www.lotustalk.com/forums/attachment.php?attachmentid=1900&stc=1&d=1083632228

 

 

A couple of observations:

- If those straights were any longer then the Ferrari or Noble would have had the faster lap times.

- The gap between the Lotus Elise and the Caterham is not as large as I might have expected.

- What the hell happened in turn 1 with the Caterham? Fast in and slow out? Or just a coast into turn 2?

- There are a few other corners where the Caterham was braking earlier than the other cars (e.g. turn 5 and turn 7)? Bit strange...maybe it is the rhythm of the track? Edited to add - its relative track position not braking point. So top speed differential has an effect before the Caterham claws back the amount it is behind.

Edited by Croc
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I won't be driving the Barber track this LOG. I think my track driving is over. That said the one time I did drive Barber was in my BMC powered 1958 Series 1. At the speeds I drove I had a lot of time to spend looking at the track. For me turn 1 was much more of a turn that it looks on the map. Turn 2 falls away down hill, you stay in the middle of the track until you see the flagers station then turn in. I never felt comfortable in turn 2. Turn 6 always surprised me (I can be a slow learner). There was a lot of compression and the rear drive shaft coupling would hit the transmission tunnel loop and make a big racket (A little know feature of the early Sevens and clubman versions of the XI) causing me to ease up on the turn. Turns 7 through 13 are pretty fantastic. The straights between 13 and 1 then between 3 and 4 were pretty boring at 60mph or so. The elevation changes and landscaping make things interesting. There are a few places with restricted sight lines.

 

This LOG I will be driving Talladega, the auto-x and the skid pad. I'm contemplating taking the windshield and front bicycle fenders off the car to get a bit more speed at Talladega. That and a totally reworked engine (60 hp rather than 40 and another 1,700 allowable rpm) should let me go fast enough to stick to the banking at Talladega.

 

The pro instructor that I know says that if your aim is to learn car control the one thing you need to experience is the skid pad. It is supposed to be very humbling.

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