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Speed Week: Honda Civic BTCC vs Seat Leon Cup

  1. Reality sometimes gets skewed at Speed Week. I mean, it’s enough of a head-scrambler that we have both the P1 and 918 at our beck and call for a week, but down at the far end of the pitlane an entire touring car team is hanging out. There are laptops and air jacks, tyres by the score, neatly pressed team uniforms and talk of scrubbing in and diff settings. This is Honda Yuasa Racing. They’ve won 22 BTCC titles. Matt Neal is here, and so is his car. Which
    is an estate. Ace.

    If that weren’t eye-rubbing enough, next to it sits another chunk of hardcore hatchery, the Seat Leon Cup Racer. You can buy one of these for £75,000 if you so wish, and if you spent a chunk more on it, I suspect you could make it road-legal. Or head in the other direction and compete in world touring cars. Or leave it as a bonkers track-day weapon. Seat says it’s 30 per cent roadcar, but the only bit I recognise inside is the DSG gearlever. It looks worryingly incongruous.

    It seems odd that just about every car in the pitlane produces more power and will later get a chance to prove it by hammering these two in a straight line. Corners, though, are another matter altogether. And not an entirely straightforward one. You see, one of these behaves as you’d imagine a touring car to behave. The other doesn’t. The only thing predictable about it is its unpredictability.

    Photography: Rowan Horncastle

  2. I clamber into the Leon. There’s a brake bias dial, some toggles for the ignition and many buttons on the steering wheel. The only one I actually need switches the cabin fan on and off. It gets hot in racing cars. It has 330bhp, which ought to be a lot for the front wheels to cope with, but is tamed by a hooky differential, punchy track widths and a broad expanse of slick rubber. Keen and smooth and grippy, it gives you a genuine flavour of racing without any intimidation. Well, a little intimidation - even when the rear tyres are warmed through, they’ll give you a gentle nudge into oversteer if you chicken out mid-corner, and the DSG gearbox is a bit… softcore.

    But it all holds together, the familiar 2.0-litre turbo gets its point across effectively, the brakes are mighty and there’s a cheeky scuff from the front splitter through a couple of the more twisted corners. And just like the best racers, the Leon then breaks down when we drive it slowly for tracking pictures. The next day, a man with a laptop comes. It makes no odds - the engine has had a strop. No laptime. This is a shame, as I’m 100 per cent sure it would’ve been faster than Matt Neal’s racecar. With me driving, at least.

  3. And this is Matt’s actual racing car, not a demo or development car, and the process here is more complex. Matt has to warm it up and scrub in a new set of tyres. I have a lesson, during which I learn the Civic has a very active front diff and that I mustn’t fiddle with the buttons, plus notice that the engineers and mechanics appear to be even more apprehensive than I am. They demand I wear race overalls, but, short of stripping Stig, the only set available belongs to Matt himself. So I’m not only driving his car but wearing his clothes. Matt is 6ft 6in. I look like an Oompa Loompa. I couldn’t care less. I’m about to drive a front-running BTCC car, and if it drives as simply as the Leon, this will be a walk in the park.

    Jeepers. Corner one: massive rear-end skid - no heat in the rear tyres. Corner two: I do one thing with the steering, but, when I get back on the power, the car chooses a different direction entirely. Corner three: I turn the steering wheel, and nothing much happens. I panic and throw more lock on, at which point the front end bites abruptly and the rear slides again. Corner four, the hairpin: a repeat of corner one. Corner five is a heart-in-mouth fast left-hander onto the back straight. I’m so cowed, I’d have been faster in the Caterham.

  4. Clearly, there’s a lot going on here: the chief culprits being tyre temperature, a hilariously mobile rear end and a front diff that’s too clever for its own good. I’m amazed how quickly - and noticeably - heat builds in the tyres, and lap two is a bit calmer. But the harder I go, the more aggressive the rear steering gets and the busier the diff. I have many methods of steering the car, only one of which is the wheel in front of me. That, the diff, the rear end and brakes can be used in any combination you see fit, all at the same time - and I’ve never been much of a multitasker. Everything affects the car’s trajectory; it never seems to take the same corner the same way on any two laps. My brain struggles with the data bombardment.

    It starts to gel eventually, but if this Civic has taught me anything, it’s just how ridiculously tricky it is to set up a touring car to go fast. You could spend days tweaking diff lock-up, damper rebound, rear camber and all the rest. After a few more laps, I decide that this would be a very good way to spend a few days. It’s absorbingly tricky to drive fast. Bit like the P1. My reality has been skewed again.

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