Since its glory days with Lotus in Formula 1, the Firestone tyre company has become low profile. Quite literally, both in its wares and support of motorsports. Under Bridgestone’s Japanese ownership, Firestone sports policy has drifted toward the production classes. It backs the Firehawk series in the USA and until recently supported a British production saloon championship that enforced use of its products in a series which acts as an effective link between club fun and aspirant saloon car racers of more international ambition.
For the 1991 British Firestone finale at Donington Park, Motor Sport was offered a chance to sample the front-drive 160 bhp of a 1990 Honda Civic, quite a change from the 500 bhp turbocharged Sierra with which this reporter had competed in the Vecta Fast Ford Challenge.
This black 1.6-litre Honda won the Firestone series outright for Meltune and young Piers Johnson, the promising son of Meltune proprietor Melvyn. Who are Meltune? In saloon car racing, it’s simply sufficient to know that, a decade ago, the Watford-based concern prepared winning Metros for Steve Soper, who escalated from one marque racing titles to become the only Briton currently racing (and winning, for BMW) in the prestigious and lucrative German Touring Car Championship. In tin-tops, the Monaco-domiciled Soper ranks as the Nigel Mansell of the discipline; to draw a monoposto analogy, Piers Johnson has achieved the equivalent of winning a significant single seater series, such as Formula Renault.
We could tell we were to play in a rather more public pen than usual by a chance remark from Melvyn Johnson. As we settled to the task of acclimatising to the Honda – at Silverstone’s national circuit, rather than the unavailable Donington 10-lap race venue – the 1979 founder of Meltune quipped: “We know you’ll be new to the series, but who is this bloke Ian Botham in a Cosworth?” The point was well made, the England and county cricketer was to be surrounded by autograph hunters and charity sales personnel for what materialised as an absolutely disastrous weekend. With Botham around, nobody but the puzzled cognoscenti would want to know that champion Piers Johnson, was not at the wheel of his regular car, in which he scored nine class victories from 12 races in the two-litre division, secured eight lap records and grasped 11 pole positions. By the way, those cubic capacities are correct, the compact Honda cedes approximately 400 cc and defeats machines such as Vauxhall’s similarly dohc 16-valve two-litre Astra GTE in production championship trim.
On one occasion, a wet Brands Hatch saw the Civic challenge for the outright lead against the turbocharged Cosworths and 2.3-litre BMW M3s that comprise the overall victors in this series, finally finishing second after a spell in the lead! What makes the Civic so fast? I could not miss the opportunity to find out, but a look at the standard specification that it brings to racing should give us clues beyond the genuine talent exhibited by its 21 year-old driver.
The basic racing attributes of the Civic VTEC (variable valve timing and electronic control) lie in the light and low body, plus an engine that generates virtually 100 bhp per litre in showroom trim. A look at the standard specification reveals a roof height that corresponded to that of its obsolete CRX coupe stablemate, allowing a low centre of gravity by saloon car standards. Meltune follows normal production racing practice and makes full use of the allowance of a one inch drop in ride heights, plus much uprated damping (from Bilstein or Spax): the Honda is served by substantial 19mm/16mm front/rear anti-roll bars. The VTEC is braked by a quartet of disc units (lacking the ALB system of 1991 models) and has a kerb weight of less than 1000 kg, which helps. We raced at 969 kg, a power to weight ratio of 168 bhp per ton.
This allows a Civic VTEC sizzling showroom statistics – nearly 130 mph maximum and 0-62 mph in 7.3 sec. The cockpit was largely standard, bereft of as much heavy and flammable trim as allowed. I was advised that the engine, standard save for a Mugen-supplied electronic control unit, could be expected to generate 160 bhp. It had not been blueprinted and felt exactly like those in the press demonstrators of all VTEC ages that I have tried. However, it was happier at the advised 8000 rpm (do not adjust your magazine you just read that correctly) limit than ticking over in the paddock. Whatever I did, the water temperatures stayed cool and the provision of a six-point safety harness, Sparco competition seat-and ltalvolanti steering wheel allowed the driver simply to drive, rather than fight the inevitable forces generated on a circuit by standard 5.5×14 inch alloy wheels and Firestone Firehawk 690 195/60R tyres.
We used a variety of tread depths over the three days (practice Silverstone, official practice Donington, 10 – lap Donington GP circuit race) and these made the most difference to the car’s behaviour. Utilising fresh rubber at the rear allows a surprising degree of oversteer that gradually diminished as depth decreased and grip increased. Yet the baby Honda never degenerated into the ploughing understeer and tyre scrub that the Golf and Astra deviants displayed in battle. Driving technique was simple to say, hard to execute. My basic approach was to imitate the set-up and uncompromising cornering attitude that had taken the younger Johnson to his success. The 1991 Firestone victor was on hand throughout to offer concise and useful encouragement. I soon discovered that to lap within 1.5 sec of Johnson required a demon shoe change (we suffered a fatigue failure of a hi-tech lace) and delicate, but contrarily late, application of the brakes. Very high rpm – 6000 to 8000 seemed best – hardly needed the rev-counter, for the cockpit engine note changes from rasp to wasp as the VTEC allows deeper breathing from 5500 upwards; if there is no enraged rendition of “Flight of the 16v Honda Bumblebee”, forget competitive acceleration.
The usually slick quality of the gearchange had succumbed to the pressures of racing changes, feeling vaguely crunchy throughout. Donington was cold but dry throughout the weekend, but Meltune generated its own team temperatures as regular second team driver Dave Cox (a former leading light in Renault 5 turbo racing) had a tyre deflate on the fourth gear approach to the Old Hairpin Cox and dented (but easily repaired) VTEC ended axle-deep in what is fashionably called the kitty litter. Both the Meltune Hondas were in the same second bracket, and about a second shy of pole position man Tony Lanfranchi, the veteran racing an Astra 16v. The problem was that there were 14 class rivals, most also lapping around the 72-73 mph (2min 2sec) mark and I finally understood why Meltune was so keen to squeeze the last 0.5sec even from a guest driver. Without a top three grid position, it is very hard to overtake in these comparatively low powered racers, especially with the complication of some of the slower larger capacity cars in the way, which are naturally possessed of greater straight line speed. Typical of these would be poor Botham, who was right at the back and never looked as though he had been prepared for this racing weekend. I did not laugh – imagine being selected to play quality club cricket and facing up to Botham’s batting and bowling with only schoolboy memories as defence. . .
Again, I rediscovered the facts of small capacity racing the hard way. All talk of a sub-3000 rpm start disappeared as the lights changed. I hung too many revs on the unit in first, realised the wheels were spinning and whipped the gear lever back . . . into fourth! The pack, Botham et al screeched away and I sorted second from the floppy selection on offer. It could have been worse. When I looked up I realised that all was not lost my 27 grid companions were mostly congregated around the results of a spin and subsequent collision from David Weir and Michael Woodcock in the inevitable Cosworth Fords. As some of the stragglers spluttered away from the dust and debris, I found that the turbocharged Ford could be passed (temporarily) and that I could get amongst the Golfs and Astras that formed the bulk of our class. To recover ground on my classmate Cox, I worked the brakes less (they fade badly by the end of 10 laps anyway) and teetered through the left-hand entry to the Craner Curves with throttle depressed, brakes untouched and morale boosted to the point where I could overtake two class rivals on that lap.
After the Cosworths had finished cavorting in that first corner incident, the BMW M3 representatives scored a 1-2-3 result, Guy Povey winning from Frank Cundell who set the fastest lap (1 min 56.31sec/77.37 mph). I gained a bit of ground from towing along behind Del Delaronde’s M3, which finally finished 16th after recovering from an earlier incident, a place adrift of Cox’s sister car, which was dented once more. My brain whirling with the usual images of wheel-lifting saloons in unlikely situations that always seem to be framed in palls of dust and flying stones, the Honda took me from last away to to 18th of 26 finishers, and seventh of 13 class competitors still running. An analysis of the lap times showed me 1.13 sec from the new class record and 0.75 sec slower than the best from the Cox car.
I went home as satisfied as I had sometimes been in the 500 bhp Ford, for you really have to push yourself to leave the Honda brakes alone and conserve momentum at all costs. Of course there is not that addictive surplus of rear-drive power to slingshot up to 146 mph that I was blessed with in the big white Ford during 1991, yet the Honda, whistling into the downhill Craner Curves at speeds the bigger cars could not match, will be one of the memories to savour from a 15-race 1991 season, standing honourably alongside TVR Tuscan, Porsche and RS500. — JW