Tiff Needell's column

29 Mar, 2007 1:00am I'm currently

Civic Type R takes on rival hot hatches and also Honda Fireblade on track

It's funny how some ailments are always blamed on the same thing, no matter what might have been their real cause. Apparently, I have 'tennis elbow' despite not having played a game, set or even a match since I left school. Yes, I've got the right symptoms - it hurts like mad when you stick a finger into the top of my forearm or take a jab at my elbow - but tennis is not the reason.

I think I can challenge the doctors here and tell them what I'm suffering from - it's "opposite lock" elbow! And it's courtesy of all those years of controlling cars around some of the world's fastest race tracks. Having awoken from the slumber of the quiet winter months with a couple of days gazing at the futuristic concepts that stole the limelight at Geneva's glamorous Motor Show, it was back to Britain with a bump and a full-on group test of the growing ranks of new hot hatches.

Following its eagerly awaited arrival, it was time to put Honda's latest Civic Type R through its paces against all the other manufacturers' hottest models, including the Vauxhall Astra VXR, Ford Focus ST, VW Golf GTI Edition 30 and Renaultsport Mégane 230 F1 Team R26. Of course, Auto Express is ahead of the game and has already delivered its verdict. But with my Fifth Gear television show not back on air until 30 April, we had a bit more time in hand to go and drive the cars individually and together.

Before it faced the four-wheeled opposition, we took the Civic Type R to Cadwell Park circuit in Lincolnshire to compare it with another sporty Honda production model with a lot more Rs to its name - a CBR1000RR Fireblade motorbike! As this is a machine with two wheels fewer than logic tells you is sensible, I was to drive the car while World Superbike Championship leader James Toseland rode the bike.

With Toseland on board, the Fireblade has about half the power-to-weight ratio of a Formula One car and nearly five times as much as the Civic, so there was never going to be much of a competition in a straight line. But the real question was: could it stay ahead in the corners?

On public roads, it's unwise to follow any vehicle closely, let alone a biker on a mission. But to head into a series of bends glued to the back of a former world champion was a moment to relish. Quite how those boys stay on their machines at the limit is beyond me.

The big hot hatch test culminated in a shoot-out at the Rockingham circuit in Northamptonshire, which is where I must have picked up the 'injury' I mentioned earlier. You see, the best fun you can have in a front-wheel-drive hatch is playing with lift-off oversteer. However, to instigate and control this condition requires a lot more effort than a plain old rear-wheel-drive powerslide. To start with, some models need a little touch of a Scandinavian flick - nudging the steering the 'wrong' way before turning it the right way as you enter a corner. This nicely loosens up the rear.

And, if you've entered the bend with plenty of speed, as you lift off and transfer weight to the front wheels, a responsive chassis will allow the nose to tuck neatly into the apex while the rear slides out. Then you rapidly catch the back end with opposite lock before you find yourself going in the wrong direction!

So I've already turned the steering in three different directions and now, with the power fully back on, I have to be prepared to twirl it back the other way as the inevitable understeer comes into play on the exit of the corner.

Repeat a few hundred times in a busy day's filming and what do you get? Opposite-lock elbow of course! Ouch...

Tiff Needell is a presenter on Channel Five's motoring programme Fifth Gear and is also a motorsport writer and commentator

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