BTCC 2014: Matt Neal and Gordon Shedden face unknown with new Honda Civic Tourer

David Hobbs
Neal and Sheddon
Neal and Sheddon

They may have more than 30 years of British Touring Car Championship experience between them but Matt Neal and Gordon Shedden admit the season ahead is a trip into the unknown for team, drivers and car alike.

Not since the mid-1990s has the UK's premier circuit racing series featured an estate car – the Volvo 850 – but this year the Honda Yuasa Racing team will be competing in the Honda Civic Tourer, the only model that the Japanese manufacturer is introducing into the UK market in 2014.

Honda have enjoyed huge success in the BTCC for many years; the past three have brought championships for Neal, Shedden and independent racer, Andrew Jordan, and all three won in the Honda Civic Hatch. So, the obvious question is why fix something that's not broken? Could Honda be opening themselves up to disaster or is it a bold move that will keep fan interest in the marque alive?

AOL Cars spoke to both drivers for their thoughts on the season ahead and getting used to all that extra space behind them.

Honda BTCC 2014
Honda BTCC 2014

"I think it's a really brave thing to do," Shedden told us. "The Tourer has just been released and has some fantastic attributes. As a manufacturer and a brand they've never been afraid to do something different. If you don't try you'll never know.

"The more that Matt and I thought about it we thought actually this is really cool, something different and is going to get a lot of excitement – it has already – and try and really capture people's imaginations. I think that's what it's all about, keeping it fresh, doing something different and rising to the challenge."

Neal agrees with his team-mate but admits that Honda weren't exactly sold on the idea at first.

"Originally Honda weren't into it, they just thought 'don't be stupid' but then they came back to us and wanted us to assure them that it wouldn't affect our competitiveness. They want to win. We were pretty confident we could have a good go in it and with the speed we've got out of it so far, it's really positive."

They may have got plenty of attention but Neal and Shedden both know they have to deliver results to give their paymasters the publicity they're more than accustomed to having. The whole dynamic of driving the car has had to be revised as they come to terms with an extra 24cm at the back. That might not sound like much but when car ride heights are measured in milimetres, you get a better idea of what the Honda team have been up against all winter.

"You've got a massive amount of rear overhang," Neal told AOL Cars. "There's excess weight which has shifted out the rear, the rear centre of gravity has gone right up in the air. These are all big factors we've been trying to work out."

Just sitting behind the wheel was a strange experience for both of them, especially when they looked in the rear view mirror. "Unnerving" was Neal's view while Shedden said: "It was the weirdest thing in the world the first day I drove it because the back window is so far back and you got a little bit of a slide on and you check the mirror and all of a sudden you realise the arse is a lot further out of line than you thought it was.

"Now it is of no difference at all to how the car felt last year. It feels great, like an old pair of slippers."

Although the Tourer is still based on the Civic chassis which the pair has raced in in its various guises since 2007 they have had to get used to a new engine as well as different bodywork. This year the Civics will also run Honda's V Tech system for the first time. Both agree the system is working well but took some time to bed in.

Honda BTCC 2014
Honda BTCC 2014

"Going back a month when we first started running it in anger both engine and chassis were quite a handful – challenging, to say the least," says Neal. "It was at that point I was thinking 'oh my, what have we done' and I still have that air of caution in the back of my mind. But the engine is working a lot, lot better now and the chassis much better. Every time we go out we're getting closer. We had a positive test at Oulton but we had a really good test at Brands. Everyone's a little bit more buoyant."

Shedden believes the car's development over the winter close season has been helped by the personnel at Honda Yuasa Racing.

"It was so different to drive that it really got the engineers and Matt and I thinking about different ways of doing things. It's actually opened up some really exciting avenues and opportunities to explore.

"Our strength will be in the team and in the continuity of the engine manufacturer. Matt and I are still there and there is a lot of continuity in the team to face these new challenges."

Both are confident that that progress has been made every time they've been out in the car and at the final test at Donington this week, Shedden ended the day second in the timings, 0.001s off reigning champion Andrew Jordan in a Civic Hatch and ahead of the Volkswagen Passat of one of the seven former champions racing this year, Alain Menu.

Will it be enough for the season ahead?

"I sat at the end of Brands last year just reflecting on the season," Shedden recalls. "I had a fairly turbulent year, five non-finishes while Andy Jordan had one and I only finished seven points behind. Everybody has their tales of ifs and buts and woes but I sat extremely disappointed not to have retained my championship but also full of confidence that this year I will be a genuine contender again.

"Hopefully we've made enough progress with the car that that turns out to be the case. It leaves me with a shout and that's all you can ask for."