24 Hour racing: The ultimate mechanic’s challenge
Motorsport is a frustrating thing to love, particularly if you become actively involved. At its the best, taking part in racing events can fill you with adrenaline, and an intense feeling of accomplishment; at its worst, it can break your pride and joy (the car), and sometimes it can break you too.
For drivers, engineers and cars, there is no greater challenge than a 24-hour race. And because a lot of people involved in motorsport can be suckers for punishment, there are plenty of teams that focus solely on long-distance racing.
One such outfit is Synchro Motorsport, a team comprised entirely of volunteers, who's day-to-day employment is at Honda's UK manufacturing plant in Swindon, across various different departments. The Synchro team are reigning champions in the Creventic TCE 24H Series, and we followed their progress for the Silverstone 24 Hours – a part of the aforementioned championship - last weekend.
The team's newly-developed FK8 Civic Type-R was taken to the Geneva Motor Show by Honda itself, and so they entered their previous-generation Honda Civic Type-R FK2 instead - a car that had clocked thousands of miles of racing action in its lifetime. Regular drivers Alyn James and Dan Wheeler were joined by British Touring Car Championship star Matt Neal, who has driven Honda machinery to three championships.
SEE ALSO: 9 of the coolest cars at the Autosport International Show
Synchro's aim with their endurance racing efforts is to prove what Honda's cars can do – as a consequence, 80% of this race car is left standard.
As the team prepared for racing on the Saturday morning, rain was falling. However, shortly before it was time to race, it stopped. And while the track was far from dry, the team opted to start on slick tyres, with the hope that it would dry quick enough for the gamble to pay off.
In the early going, starting driver Alyn James – a powertrain product development manager at Honda's Swindon plant – was some way off the pace, but continued to improve as his two hour stint continued. Despite a few rather hairy sideways moments, the car was delivered to the pits and the waiting Matt Neal in one piece, though ultimately the decision to start on slicks hadn't paid off.
An hour into Matt's stint, and the car was in the pits. The car's engine temperature was high enough to cause alarm, and the issue was traced back to a split fuel hose. The faulty part was replaced, and after twenty minutes, the Civic returned to the track.
Unfortunately, this would not be the last temperature/cooling issue the team would experience.
As the evening wore on, the team entered a good rhythm between the three drivers, and despite a few minor errors out on track, the Civic sat in a comfortable third place in the A3 class as the race passed the 12 hour mark at 10:30PM.
However, as the race's 13th hour was completed, alarm bells rang once more. The car was coming back in, and an engine change would have to be performed. Soon, Alyn James brought the Civic in, with the door open and smoke billowing from the inside of the car.
The team began working as a cohesive unit to replace the engine, with everyone aware of exactly what to do and how to do it – not once did anyone walk into each other or try and do the same thing as someone else.
33 minutes of work later, and the original engine had been removed from the car. Soon, the entire front end was practically bare, and a new engine was placed into the car just over 25 minutes later.
An hour and 21 minutes into the intense operation, and the new engine fired up for the first time. 14 minutes later, the car made its way back out of the garage to be refuelled and sent back out onto the track. The Synchro team had performed an engine change in 1 hour and 35 minutes, and had replaced the gearbox, two driveshafts, the radiator, the brake pads and performed a wheel alignment for good measure.
To put it into perspective, the phone that had begun charging just as the car came in was yet to get back to 90%. The team had completed an incredible feat.
Alyn James put it best: "The guys are brilliant. I believe we have one of the best pit crews for these moments." Indeed, another team took four and a half hours to perform the same operation as Synchro, further highlighting their ability.
However, fate is cruel. Just over half an hour later, at 1:30AM, the race was paused due to fog. For the next five hours, the garage was a place of slumber, as the car sat on the grid untouched, as per Creventic 24H Series regulations.
At 6:45AM, the race finally resumed, with just under four hours left to run. At this stage, the Civic sat fourth in class, some 23 laps down on third place. Now, it was simply about giving the old FK2 Type-R a finish in what could well have been its final race.
However, it was not to be.
With just over an hour left, the car was again experiencing engine issues – and this time, there was no coming back. After one last try at getting the car running with half an hour of the race left to run, the team had to retire. A mysterious cooling issue put paid to Synchro's efforts.
After the race, Matt Neal praised the team: "It's just a great bunch of guys with really good camaraderie. Moments like that engine change, it just epitomises teamwork, which I think comes from the Honda ethos. They work together, they play together, and though it's been a hard slog this weekend, I haven't seen a glum face on any of them. They have a great, glass half-full attitude.
"It's a shame we couldn't have the old FK2 Civic Type-R go out with a win, but it wasn't for want of trying."
Matt is quite right; Synchro's team is determined, often successful, and buoyant and positive in defeat. It was brilliant to see them in action.