This isn’t unusual. Not many people who aren’t Matt Neal drive Matt Neal’s racing car, but the casual nature with which he hands it over is, in my experience, fairly standard.
Racing car drivers are more relaxed about their cars than their race engineers are. I suppose it stands to reason. Neal is used to taking his Honda Civic out in the middle of a pack of other British Touring Car Championship cars and it’s a series not renowned for upholding the mantra that racing is a non-contact sport.
We put the 306bhp Honda Civic Type R through its paces on the road and track
There is a very good reason that, in addition to an extremely wide rear-view mirror above my head in the centre of the cabin, there are mirrors by the side windows that do precisely the same as the door mirrors do. Because the door mirrors might not make it past the first corner.
Anyway, Neal’s briefing is… er… brief. I’m allowed to have a go in this car because we’ve prepared a video shootout between it, a McLaren 650S and a British Superbike Championship race bike and there’s just enough time for me to have a few laps of Silverstone’s Stowe circuit.
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What I want to know is just how different a BTCC car feels to a regular Honda Civic Type R. The shape is pretty much the same, after all, they’re both front driven with a limited-slip differential, and such is the nature of a modern hot hatchback that the Type R isn’t a million miles away on power from a BTCC racer (not that anybody really likes to tell you exactly how much power their racing car makes).
The first huge difference between road and BTCC car, as with so many race cars, is the driving environment. Race teams start with a production car, but take everything out, modify the body, lighten everything, weld in the cage, and only then start putting things back in again, although not necessarily in the same place they started. And not, obviously, the same things that they started with. BTCC regulations ensure that every team has the same front and rear subframe and suspension: proper adjustable double-wishbone kit. Gone are the days when you had to keep a derivative of whatever the standard car had.
There are pretty fierce controls over the engine specification, too. And if there isn’t an engine in the production range that suits the 2.0-litre turbo spec, then BTCC will sell you a control ‘TOCA’ engine, unbranded and built by Swindon Engines, although I suspect it offends a manufacturer’s ego to take one.
Honda, unsurprisingly, develops its own. Power of anything on the grid seems to sit somewhere around 350-370bhp and the regs produce such close racing that it brings in the punters and costs door mirrors on the first corner.
I’m slightly taken aback by the quantity and size of mirrors as Neal introduces me to the cockpit. You get a decent view backwards from a seat that’s much lower and a touch more central than in the production car, and there’s a space to your left for the success ballast that winning cars are given.
But – and this is pretty normal on race cars – the driving position means that the BTCC Civic, despite being little different externally from the regular car, feels an awful lot bigger, with harder-to-gauge edges. It doesn’t help that Neal is about 6ft 6in tall and these aren’t seats that slide on a runner. The team find me some padding but I still feel a bit like a toddler in a dodgem. Still, I can tell it’s a terrific driving position: floor-mounted pedals, wheel nice and close, with the lever for the sequential ’box (another standard BTCC spec) close to my left.
Talking me through it is where Neal is very relaxed. He lends me a pair of earphones so I can be called back into the pits, then runs me through the controls: there’s an electric master switch, ignition and start button; he tells me to use the clutch for getting away but ignore it afterwards, that the engine won’t overheat, not to worry too much about how many laps I’m allowed… and that’s about it. “Have fun.” Righto.
A thing I’ve noticed about race cars: the steering is often quite light, by road car standards. It is here, too; city car light. The clutch has a typical road-going sports car weight, the brakes want a relatively firm shove and the throttle has a linear, lengthy travel. Because the motor is turbocharged, response isn’t as whizzy as that of some racers.
It is strong, though. But with less than 400bhp and a minimum race weight of 1280kg, it’s not the straight-line speed that blows you away.
Not that it doesn’t feel fast in a straight line, mind you. Of course, it does. More so than you’d think, given the relatively modest output. It feels more urgent, for example, than a Mercedes-Benz A45 AMG. That there are straight-cut gears, presumably very little driveline friction, quite a lot of traction once there’s a few degrees of heat in the tyres, and few energy losses given away to body movements mean that it always feels strong. I guess if you’d warmed everything up, it’d be a four-point-something car to 60mph.
Because it’s turbocharged, quite a lot of acceleration is available through the mid-range, and the firm rev limiter is set at a modest 7000rpm. Unlike some turbos, it pays to take it all the way there, at which point Neal recommends a firm, quick pull back on the lever to make an upshift, because the throttle gets cut at the same time and it’ll stutter if you dawdle.
There’s no auto blip on downshifts. Unless you’re in a dead straight line on a perfectly smooth piece of track – and sometimes even then – there is oodles of torque steer. More than in any road car I’ve driven, up to and including a Mk1 Ford Focus RS. Which is, at first, quite disconcerting, almost making the car quite hard to place. Retain a firmer grip on the wheel and it’s fine, but the Civic is not a car to drive with your fingertips.
Some people say that it’s the braking that underlines the performance of a race car. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt that, probably because I’m not good enough at doing it. It’s the tyres that have the performance in them rather than the brakes, I think: a supercar on carbon-ceramics and with ABS gets so much efficiency out of its tyres that it’s quite remarkable. A race car, to me, just feels quite impressive until it locks up. Although, of course, if you’re a triple BTCC champion like Neal is, the Civic’s braking is remarkable, to the extent that he’ll adjust the brake bias mid-lap, perhaps a few times, to get it set up for slower or faster corners.
Corners are where I find the big road/race car difference is. Neal tells me that his Civic will go a bit light at the rear as you trail the brakes in, making the most of the rear tyres’ ability to add to the overall cornering force. I’ll be honest: during my laps, I feel the back end helping it turn only once or twice, because the amount of both tyre and aerodynamic grip takes a while to get your head around. Do it and the balance reduces the amount of lock you need to apply, which, in turn, helps put the power down again. And then it feels mega.
Finding that point a couple of times in a few laps feels like a win. Doing it every corner of every lap, when there are 29 other drivers around you and the top 10 are divided by less than half a second in lap time? No wonder Neal doesn’t think a few exploratory laps are a big deal.
BTCC Honda Civic vs McLaren 650S vs BSB Honda Fireblade
Just how fast, then, is a BTCC racing car compared with a fast road car and, for good measure, a BSB superbike? Not entirely by coincidence, we had all three at Silverstone’s Stowe circuit on the day I drove Matt Neal’s car. For the purposes of this test, though, Neal stuck to his own Civic, BSB riders Jenny Tinmouth and Dan Linfoot were on their respective Honda Fireblade superbikes, and I was in the road car, a McLaren 650S.
For what is an exceptionally habitable road car, the 650S makes for an extraordinary track machine. The small Stowe circuit has a number of short corners, which give more opportunity to brake into the apex as the McLaren prefers, to quell any understeer and provoke the rear, giving it a lovely, exploitable balance on the way out of corners. Its carbon-ceramic brakes are pretty much untouchable by road car standards, too. In my hands, it lapped the Stowe circuit in around 1min 9sec.
Next to the McLaren, Neal’s BTCC car is down on power, isn’t all that much lighter and is certainly no slipperier, so in a straight line the 650S pulls away. But what a road car can’t do is stop or go around corners like a BTCC car, particularly one with a triple BTCC champion at the wheel.
So even though I begin with a head start and on the circuit’s short straights can see the Civic receding slightly in the mirror, it takes only a few corners strung together for the Civic to loom large behind the McLaren. Such is the Honda’s ability to put its power down on the way out of corners that on the short straights it doesn’t get dropped much, either. It is around two seconds faster than the McLaren around the Stowe circuit as a result.
But neither can beat the motorcycles. Like the McLaren, they would also prefer a longer circuit, to deploy their 200bhp or so fully; but on slicks and racing brakes, the road-derived superbike is still - just about - quicker than the BTCC car. The car stops more quickly and retains a higher cornering speed, but over a lap of Stowe, there’s around a second in it.