It was on the Slovakiaring in 2013 that Honda had a monopoly on the podium during race one and went on to win the WTCC championship after their first full season. So it’s no coincidence that this was the venue chosen to showcase just what the new, feverishly anticipated Civic Type-R was capable of.
This morning I established that ordinary roads aren’t really an adequate stage on which to get the best out of the Type-R. Now, in 86 degree heat, I’m in the right time and place to find out just what the Red Badge can offer.
Type-R. Remember, R is for “Race”.
I love driving, I mean really driving, not just sitting in a car and going down the road. I’m pretty boastful that I can thread my Audi along a familiar back-road quickly, confidently and safely after years of careful practice. However, despite its advancing years I know that the limits of my car are beyond my ability to deliberately reach.
An afternoon on the track should give me an idea of what I can do, if I’m given the right tools for the task. Can the Type-R release my inner driving God?
A girl fourteen years my junior would soon put me in my place. With more championship titles and cup wins under her belt than I’ve had disappointing McDonalds meals, Gabriela Jilkova was the woman for the job. With me anchored firmly in place and helmeted lest we invert, she chaperoned me watchfully onto the track, initially for a sighting lap and then for a bit more, er, explorative work.
The sighting lap just went in one eye and out through my arse. I’m not sure I learnt a thing, apart from that the braking points were marked with two cones and the apexes with single ones. There’s a lot of lap on the Slovakia ring, each trip round is a shade less than 3.7 miles, and there are 14 turns to remember. I tried, I really did.
I was probably an embarrassment to the Type-R which, of course, responded patiently to my every command, no matter how misguided. Gabriela gave excellent hints and tips, never saying anything disparaging. I was here to learn, anyway, and one thing I was soon to notice was that I was nowhere near as rough with the car as I should have been. No, scratch that, I was nowhere near as rough with the car as Honda wanted me to be.
“You spend too long on the clutch” she told me, which is correct. I believe in smooth clutch movements that don’t give passengers whiplash at every gearchange, but this robs me of vital seconds per lap. She’d rather me drop the clutch and bang the gearbox through the ratios. I apologise and tell her I’ll try harder. OK, then, next lap, I’ll do that.
So, turn one, 185kmh showing, braking point, braking point, brake, brake, BRAKE… my racing line went to shit because I was concentrating on going down through the gears and showing no signs coasting on the clutch, steering became a secondary concern. What a tool. Still, the power of the Civic meant that we still made it through the corner quite quickly, if raggedly. There was understeer involved here, but not of the “hopeless car” kind.
Understeer is a much maligned phenomenon. It is the result of either a badly set up car or an idiot driver. This car certainly fits into the latter category. The Civic Type-R sits on 235/35/19 tyres designed specifically for the Type-R by Continental and christened ContactSport 6. They suit the car well, as you might expect, and certainly hang on when you need them to. If you achieve understeer in a 2015 Type-R it’s because you’re being stupid. Too much entry speed and the wrong approach angle are the main culprits.
Though it’s become a bit of an internet buzzword I’m pretty confident that understeer isn’t a problem on the Type-R. During development a pre-production Type-R was exercised on the Nurburgring. It was a production-spec car albeit with a roll cage (which was fitted via bushings to the hardpoints so as to have no effect on torsional rigidity until an impact occurs) and a few things removed to account for the added weight. Everything else was standard, including the tyres and those astonishing brakes.
It turned in a 7:50.63, taking the crown of Fastest FWD lap ever. This rather quenches the glowing embers of any arguments from understeer or turbo-lag citing naysayers. This package is capable of wonderful things, if driven properly. Do a bad job and the car will show you. Garbage In, Garbage Out.
Under supervision, I was far too slow to probe the limits. I was driving the car far harder than I would my own, and was enjoying every minute of it. The gearstick that I had initially found too precise for the cloddish Haining hands, was snicking from slot to slot with speed and dexterity. The brakes were effortless in their ability to blot big numbers from the speed accounts as if they were never there, time and time again without fade, fear, fuss or fire.
My problem was not knowing how much abuse the Type-R was capable of suffering. I tend towards mechanical sympathy, yet here I was being instructed to push harder, brake harder and hold onto the gears up to the redline. I already felt like I was going fast, I must have been somewhere near pushing the envelope, surely? The noises the car made certainly sounded I was. Honda proudly state they haven’t resorted to “piped music” for their exhaust sound like certain other marques, everything you hear is a result of something mechanical going on in the engineroom. It’s fair to say it lacks the melody of the former Normally Aspirated VTEC four, which is a shame. But it could blow a raspberry it needed to for all I’m concerned.
As long as the noises are genuine and necessary, I’m down with them. I’d be disappointed to find that, though the noises are “all natural”, Honda have deliberately played around with the resonators to make things louder. It was probably the loudness of the car – which I perceived as signs of strain and that it was being worked too savagely – that limited just how hard I pushed it.
On lap three, acutely aware that my track knowledge would grow no more thorough, Gabriela invited me to press the “+R” Button. This is a new and exciting addition to the Type-R DNA, engaging it reduces power steering interference, increases the adaptive damping effort by 30% and remaps the ECU for a “more aggressive” torque delivery. It works, too.
I immediately find myself better able to place the car on the track. Apexes can now be hunted down with sniper precision and mid-corner adjustability is more boldly written on the menu. It feels yet more gigglesome than it did before, which is going some. If you can live with the increase in ride stiffness (which still doesn’t make things intolerable for me) you’ll be running this car in +R the whole time, especially as it makes the instruments light up in red instead of white.
When my five lap stint was at an end, I sulked in the pit lane heavy hearted that I had made such a poor track showing. However, I felt that I had improved by orders of magnitude over how I was at the beginning. It occurred to me how good this car was as a training tool. The Royal Air Force run Primary, Basic and Advanced training aircraft to drag candidates from C152 to F-35 levels of air fitness, it strikes me that the Civic Type-R is the only car you would need to gradually hone yourself from a bumbling road imbecile to a fearless track-warrior.
As if to cement this theory my next appointment was in the passenger seat of another standard, unmodified Type-R, this time driven by Honda Yuasa Racing team driver Gordon Shedden, who was on hand to provide demonstrations of just what the Type-R can do if you let it. Joining the fun in another Type-R was his BTCC teammate Matt Neal, veteran of the British Touring Car Championship for 25 years. Basically, during their highly choreographed and completely scintillating display of trackwork, it was established that you can basically just chuck the Type-R into any corner at any speed and it will find a way of dealing with it.
That’s how it feels, honestly. Understeer can be dealt with by either lifting off, or changing your line, or adding more power and then changing your line, or downshifting, or seemingly any combination of the above. Shedden and Neal’s approach is to grab an armful of lift-off oversteer and drift the thing round at above 100mph. Seems to work well. Also, violent gearshifts at what seem like stratospheric rev counts are perfectly OK. The noisier, the quicker. When I mentioned the new tyres to Shedden, he calmly replied “Yeah, I didn’t expect them to last half as well as they have”.
Bottom line is that I am beside myself with admiration for this car. As we saw earlier, it does the useable-and-bloody-quick in the real world bit rather well, and it’ll turn in a sub-eight ring time, and it’ll do 40mpg, and you can have it for thirty grand. This is one of those times that you just don’t want to hand the keys back.
A key question is whether this is it better than the FP3. The answer is no, it isn’t. Only one car drives, feels, sounds and looks like the original, and that IS the original. FP3 stands alone. However, there is no doubt that this car shows what Type-R can achieve today. Its measured performance is way beyond the original. Gone is the delicacy and simplicity of old, in place is outright grunt, fury and brutality on demand. In an ideal world you would own both, they’re so very different. Realistically, the new one is pretty much all the car you’ll ever need.
The Type-R nameplate seems to be in very good hands. Welcome back to the machine.
(Full Disclosure: Honda UK were so keen to show what they had done that they flew me and several dozen UK based hacks to Bratislava for the time of our lives. To be honest they could have put us up in damp tents in Luton and my review conclusion would have been the same. Also, they let me keep my racing balaclava;
I look awesome wearing it in my own car)
(All photography copyright Chris Haining / Hooniverse 2015)