A day at the races

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SGMW members went behind the scenes with Honda’s most successful racing team during the first race weekend of 2016

It’s an important year for Honda’s official BTCC race team. Not only are they hoping to retain their team champion crown, driver Matt Neal wants 2016 to be the year he nails his fourth overall championship win, an achievement that’s only been done by one other driver, Andy Rouse.

SGMW Honda Day

Team coach transforms into a luxurious VIP area

The team are aiming to achieve all this in new Civic Type R cars, fitted with the latest K20R engines. So it was quite a surprise, and an impressive PR feat pulled off by Honda’s Simon Branney, when SGMW members were offered the chance to spend a day behind the scenes with the team during qualifying for the first race of 2016, and then to go out for dinner with the drivers to chat to them properly.

SGMW Honda day

Serious team talk in the pit garage

As the day unfolded we discovered Honda’s official BTCC team did other things differently, too. Instead of hiding the team’s pit garage away from prying eyes, Team Dynamics, which is the outfit behind 2016’s Halfords Yuasa Racing, builds a viewing gallery across half the back end of its garage so that anyone can see the team at work.

SGMW Honda Day

Matt Neal’s lap time board shows he’s on the pace

It doesn’t stop there, as Richard Tait-Harris, commercial director, with Team Dynamics, explained: “Other teams pay to have their cars worked up by our experts. For example, Matt Neal’s suspension engineer helps other newer and less experienced teams improve their cars’ suspension so they can become more competitive.

“We’re proud of our level of expertise, and are happy to share in this way because the championship needs to stay competitive to ensure it stays successful.”

This seems such a sensible, refreshing approach. Although I can’t see the bigwigs of Formula One being magnanimous enough to go down this route, in other areas of racing it could be a way of ensuring things don’t get boring if one team is leaps and bounds ahead of the others.

SGMW Honda Day

Shedden and Neal lead the pack at Brands Hatch

Another recent measure that has been brought in to spice up the competition is the introduction of weight penalties. Since 2011, the first race meeting of each year’s series is the only one in which all teams compete on an even playing field, then for every race afterwards the top 10 cars each carry additional ballast depending on their position in the previous race. The winner’s car carries 75kg of iron bars in its passenger footwell, the second-placed car 66kg, and a smaller amount in each of the other top 10 cars, shrinking down to 9kg for the car in 10th place.

It’s certainly not easy to be successful in this fiercely paced race series. Competition is red hot between the top teams, with just 10ths of a second between them on each lap, and the cars and drivers are improving amazingly quickly. For example, the car that was in 17th place on the grid in this year’s first race at Brands Hatch is as fast as the one that was in pole position at that race a year ago.

SGMW Honda Day

Pristine new vehicles on display outside Honda’s new hospitality truck

So it’s no surprise that the Honda team works so hard to achieve success. It employs around 54 people in total, with 14 of them working trackside on race weekends. They bring a truck for each racing car; the three trucks at the Brands Hatch weekend were crammed with more than 80 tonnes of equipment and more than 100,000 different components.

SGMW Honda day

Speedy Simon Branney in a golf cart

The team prides itself on its attention to detail; it is proud to count former and future F1 pit crew among its number. Just one of the snippets revealed on the day was that they can change an entire Civic Type R engine in 38 minutes.

All that determination certainly seems to be paying off. The day after our visit, Gordon Shedden and Matt Neal and claimed the first and second places respectively in race 2, with Neal at the head of the overall standings.

Claire Evans

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