First to roll out onto the West Circuit is the Golf. Race mode is engaged, ESP disabled and the gearlever tapped to the left for full manual control. Initial impressions are good, with strong traction out of the hairpin and a gloriously measured, well-oiled feel to the steering. Yet there’s an underlying softness that effectively undermines the Golf’s bid for circuit supremacy as you up the pace. It simply feels a bit lost here. On standard passive dampers the R rolls and pitches more than you’d expect, and the Bridgestones’ strong initial bite melts away, particularly through the fast turn of Palmer and quick direction change of Pif-Paf, forcing you to wait before you get back on the throttle. The Golf gives up its best time of 1:27.7 on the first flying lap, subsequent laps seeing times spiral up as tortured tyres and wilting brakes cry ‘enough’.
Instantly the Renault feels like a more focused proposition, its meaty steering weight, taut ride and flat cornering stance sending all the right track-honed messages. With the four-wheel steer on high alert in Race mode, the Renault initially feels a handful, as the combination of cold tyres and aggressive rotation from the rear axle give the impression you’re permanently on the brink of turn-in oversteer disaster. It calms down a little with some tyre temperature, but that sensation of the rear end getting involved never goes away. However, once you trust that the grip is there, the Renault carries eye-widening speed through corners (it’s the quickest through Beckham Esses and O’Rouge). It has its advantages through the slow stuff, too, where the Mégane nails a higher minimum speed and straighter exit, allowing its limited-slip differential to work more effectively, finding traction where the Honda spins an inside front. It never feels totally natural (there’s a curious sense of detachment right at the limit), but a 1:26.3 lap proves it’s fantastically effective.
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The Honda feels like a track natural the moment you hunker into that low-slung driving position. A lazier early throttle response means it doesn’t feel as initially eager as the others, but beyond 2500rpm the Civic accelerates with intent. Yet it’s the chassis that makes the Type R special. It’s not quite as keen to change direction as the hyperactive Mégane, but it’s not far off and its steering is more measured. More importantly it communicates more, telling you just how much grip you’ve got, which is lots. Factor in brakes that bite hard throughout and it’s no surprise the Honda turns in a blistering 1:25.9. A time you feel it’ll happily nail lap after lap. Remarkable.