On your marks, get set: The Radical SR1 Cup was significantly revised in 2017 with dramatic new styling, improved aerodynamics and updated electronics. With detailed on-track tuition and Radical Sportscars support, is this the best racing series out there?
If you have even a trace of petrol in your veins, chances are you’ve idly wondered what it would be like to enter a race. But the high-profile stuff like Formula 1 is a billionaire’s dream, and the dozens of lower-league formats all look a bit involved – like you’d have to remortgage your house, spend every weekend covered in oil and continually explain why you’re commuting in something with a roll-cage and stickers. Thankfully, there is another way.
British specialist carmaker Radical offers one of the most fully formed beginners’ race packages around: a 12-race (six weekend) series with full garage support, with no previous experience necessary. In fact, you can only take part if you’ve been racing for two years or less. Called the SR1 Cup, it revolves around Radical’s ‘baby’ racer, a track-only lightweight that’s included in the price of entry. You can sign up for the whole series for £44,500 +VAT (garage support is extra) or, if you’re in your second year and already have the car, pay per race (£1,050 per weekend or £5,200 for the season). With none of the hassle of storing and transporting the car yourself, Radical is at pains to show just how simple it can be to get into racing.
And so it is on a sunny day in early June I find myself at Brands Hatch, squeezing myself into the hard plastic passenger seat of a Radical SR1. There’s so little legroom I have to take my trainers off and wriggle my toes underneath the steering linkage. The driver gets more space, thankfully. His name is Joe and he’s the one tasked with introducing me to the car. After a few sighting laps we switch over and it’s my turn. It’s fair to say that I am quite nervous.
For starters, the SR1 is a proper racing car – if that wasn’t obvious from its looks. It’s got a steering wheel the size of a saucer, which is mercifully free from F1-style buttons, and a basic dash full of important-looking switches (including, reassuringly, the big red one I pull if anything catches fire). Best of all is an F1-style light system to tell me when to change gear. It has 175hp from a converted Suzuki motorbike engine, but weighs only 490kg, so will do 0-60 in 3.5 seconds and 138mph flat out.
There is so much to learn even just to make it move: how to put it in gear, for example (you shift down into first using the clutch, then it’s all done with paddles after that.) Are the oil and water at the right temperature? Is the ignition on?
Add to this the fact that I have never driven at Brands Hatch before and that the track is full of other people who have, and I hope you start to see why I was feeling a touch apprehensive.
All that, however, is overridden in the first 20 seconds: this car is fantastic. It doesn’t matter that I’m treating the throttle like a Ming vase, upshifting halfway through the revs, and getting overtaken by – well, everyone. It’s so direct: brakes, steering, gears – it responds to your every touch. The noise is raw; not sonorous like a V8 but aggressive, rising all the way. At low speeds it’s actually not difficult to drive at all; but when you build up speed there is no room in your brain for a single other thought. Cars like this are what people call “a bit bitey” – they don’t give you a hint that things are going wrong until – snap! – you’re facing the wrong way at 85mph (I will learn this first-hand later).
A big part of the driver tuition laid on by Radical is learning to anticipate when the car will need steadying, and how. Less steering? More throttle? Lift off? By the end of the day I’m allowed out on my own and, while I’m still slow, it feels sublime. Brands Hatch has some very flattering corners, and when I step out of the car (and all the way home, and all evening), I’m absolutely buzzing. But I’m not even a racing driver yet.
Fast-forward a month – during which I clock up zero miles in the car – and I’m at Rockingham Motor Speedway near Corby. The confidence with which I left Brands Hatch has vanished. To enter the world of motorsport is to submit yourself to a barrage of new experiences. Taken alone they are trivial; wearing fireproof underwear and race boots, learning the procedures for signing on and scrutineering, or attempting to toughen up your hand muscles after a day of gripping the steering wheel. But together they make up a whole new world.
On a race weekend, there are multiple events taking place, so a couple of dozen pit garages are in use, and the trackside is jostling with engineers, mechanics, technicians, drivers, team managers and the occasional photographer. It’s decidedly professional – this is taken seriously, and rightly so – but with the easy camaraderie among the drivers that comes when there’s only pride at stake.
While everyone else may be non-stop busy, for drivers a race weekend involves a lot of waiting around. I try to learn Rockingham from video footage of Radical’s motorsport and engineering director – and, more pertinently, ex-GT3 driver – Alex Mortimer.
We get a couple of brief practice sessions on the Friday ahead of racing on the Sunday. They represent my only chance to learn the track, but I embarrass myself at the earliest opportunity, spinning out on the first lap and bringing the entire session to a standstill. Not the kind of start I’d hoped for, but no harm is done and we’re soon back out there. At the end of the day I’m bruised physically and mentally – racing feels like a mountain to climb – but at least my lap times are falling. Building up race pace should be done gradually, like applying layers of paint. What I am attempting to do is the equivalent of pouring out a whole pot and hoping the end result is suitably smooth.
Sunday comes. Breakfast may be a long way from F1 in glamour or diet (Holiday Inn fry-up at 7am sharp) but once I’m at the track, it all feels undeniably special. There’s a commentator, the race is being filmed – there are even a few spectators! And more focus on me than expected – it turns out that I will be the very first person to drive the new-look SR1. It’s a genuine honour (although I’d have happily chosen not to stand out so much on the track), and given that only two such cars exist, cause for even more nerves.
First up is qualifying, which will determine our places for both of the day’s races. It’s not false modesty when I say I would have been happy with anything better than last place, and I’m almost incredulous to learn I’ve come in 8th of 12.
More waiting ensues while other races take place. More time spent with Radical’s infinitely helpful analysts Rob and Alex. Sitting in the trailer playing back videos, poring over details of our best laps – this is what you pay for, as much as the adrenaline blasts on track. My performance is dissected, broken down into dozens of metrics – when did I brake? Where am I reaching peak speeds? Could the lines be better? Where in the lap are those extra tenths? I feel like my driving has improved just by hearing it explained.
There are two races, each lasting 20 minutes. It’s all very proper – we have a formation lap, then assemble on the grid. There has – yet again – been a lot to take in, which is my excuse for completely fluffing the standing start. Nevertheless, I give a good account of myself; the car is starting to feel like home and some of the tips are definitely sinking in.
Conquering fear is a big part of it, and when I build up courage to take Rockingham’s big banked turn faster and faster each lap, it feels incredible. Most life-affirmingly of all, I manage a nice clean overtake on a more experienced rival, and finish 7th. I’m elated.
Race number two is less exhilarating; another fluffed start sends me to the back but I’m not alone, and a few spins by others soon mean there are a few of us tussling together. By the end of the race I’m confident enough to attempt a downright reckless overtake which sees me hop a kerb and drop a place, ending up 11th overall. It’s over so quickly, and despite my tiredness I just want more. I’ve come a long way in a very short time, and absolutely got the racing bug. Time to start saving up for next year….
Acquiring your racing licence
Before you get behind the wheel on a race day, you need a licence. Specifically a National B race licence, although it’s often referred to as your ‘ARDS’ after the body that administers the test (the Association of Racing Driver Schools). There’s one at just about every circuit in the country. Unlike the one you took as a callow youth, this can be done in a day, although some swotting up is essential and a bit of track experience definitely advisable. You’ll be required to display perfect knowledge of the racing flags and near-perfect recall of safety regulations and race protocol. Then, a kindly man will pop you in something like a Peugeot 308 GTi and ask you to drive him around for a bit. He’s not looking for Niki Lauda here – just showing that you understand track etiquette, the racing line, can control a car at high speed and keep an eye on what’s around you. If you’ve done a few track days, it should come naturally, but if (say) you find yourself in an unfamiliar car at an unfamiliar circuit, surrounded by tuned-up BMWs practising for the weekend’s race meet, it can be a tiny bit nerve-wracking.
The SR1 Cup full package price is £44,500 + VAT; event only price is £650 + VAT per event. The SR1 Cup incorporates 12 races over six weekends, stretching from March to November