THREE-time British Touring Car champion Matt Neal says the scale of the transition to the new Honda Tourer took him by surprise.

The Pershore team have switched from their trusty Civic to an estate for the new campaign, starting at Brands Hatch this weekend.

Neal, winner in 2005, 2006 and 2011, admits it has been difficult to get used to.

“It’s a big challenge for us. I didn’t realise quite how big a challenge it was going to be,” he said.

“It’s not as easy as the hatch to drive, but it’s got some positive points as well. We’re making massive steps forward every time we hit the track, so I am looking forward to it.

“It’s heavier, the rear weight bias is a lot more and the rear centre of gravity is a lot higher — those are big things we’ve got to cope with.”

The 47-year-old, one of seven former champions in the field, has seen his preparations hampered by a broken toe, as well as the hand injury he suffered last season.

Neal said: “It could be better with my hand and I broke my toe a couple of weeks ago. I’m just trying to get all my injuries out of the way at the start this year!”

As well as team-mate Gordon Shedden, Neal will be joined on the grid by past winners Jason Plato, Colin Turkington and defending champion Andrew Jordan.

Switzerland’s Alain Menu and Italian Fabrizio Giovanardi, both former double champions, have returned.

Evesham’s Rob Austin, principal of Pershore’s Rob Austin Racing, is relishing being involved.

He is embarking on his fourth BTCC season and will be joined by Hunter Abbott in the team’s Audi A4s.

“To have seven champions and to be on the grid in such a strong season, the BTCC is back on the up so to be involved is really cool,” Austin, 33, said.

“To win a race this year is going to be even more special so I look forward to doing it.

“The car feels brilliant and we can’t wait to get to Brands. It’s the first time we’ve had pre-season testing and we’ve learned so much.

“When we’ve got to circuits before, we’ve been tweaking and it’s a bit of a stab in the dark.

“I’ve got it wrong a few times so hopefully this time we’ll get it right more often than not but we’ve certainly made progress.”