Race of Remembrance 2019: our view from a Civic

Published: 22 November 2019

► Race of Rembrance 2019
► We’re in a Honda Civic with a CVT
► A memorial with a race attached

I’m stranded at the entry to Rocket. This is the hardest, most lethal braking zone on track and my stricken Honda Civic has suffered a total loss of drive. Mere minutes before, one of the lead Renault Clios was written off on this very corner – the icy, relentless rain and piercing darkness robbing precious reference points before our eyes. My fellow drivers stream past, the red rear lights of almost 40 cars smudging across my rapidly misting windscreen. This has not gone to plan.  

The gearbox failure would count us out of the 12hr race at little over 90 minutes in. Of the 40 cars that started, we were to finish stone dead last. In isolation, it sounds about as cruel and bitterly disappointing as motorsport can be. And yet, in reality, that couldn’t be any further from the truth. Read on to find out why. 

Race, Retrain Recover

The idea of running a remembrance service with a race attached either side is, as Mission Motorsport charity founder James Cameron, admits, completely mad. It has, however, worked surprisingly well since its inception, with the Race of Remembrance now rolling into its 6thconsecutive year. 

Aiming to commemorate the sacrifices made by service personnel and their families, it’s seen as a flagship event for the charity. Outside of the race, Mission Motorsport aims to aid in the rehabilitation of those affected by military operations by providing opportunities through motorsport and the automotive industry. Since 2012, they’ve helped over 2000 wounded, injured or sick beneficiaries and found employment for more than 170 using the charity’s training and placement schemes – hence the mantra ‘race, retrain recover’. 

One such beneficiary is Lionel O’Connor. Born in South Africa, he moved to the UK when he was 15 years old and joined the British Army at 20. Just over a year later, he was on a routine patrol in an armoured Land Rover when it ran over a roadside bomb. Lionel was left with an above the knee left leg amputation and severe shrapnel wounding in his right leg.  

Now discharged from the army, Lionel has been with Mission Motorsport from the start. A trained car control expert, he helps other injured service personnel on their road to recovery through the charity. Indeed, he’s something of a Race of Remembrance veteran, having competed in the event the previous two years. For the 2019 running, I’m lucky enough to call him my teammate. 

The car we we’re driving is a 1.5-litre Honda Civic hatchback with an automatic CVT transmission prepared by Synchro Motorsport, Honda UK’s factory motorsport team. And while it’s unlikely we’ll be seeing this sensible family hatchback line up at Le Mans anytime soon, there’s more to it than meets the eye.

Stripped out to save weight and fitted with a full racing roll cage, uprated suspension and Civic Type R brakes, it’s also been remapped up to ‘around 210bhp’. We already know these are sweet handling cars (they were designed from the ground up with the Type R in mind), so the only real concern is whether the CVT auto will withstand the rigours of a 12-hour race. 

Day one – Friday 8th November

We meet at the circuit for Friday practice and discuss tactics for the weekend. First priority is to bed the car in and get a feel for it out on track (this is the first time it’ll have been driven in anger as a racing car). It’s also the first time I’ve seen, let alone raced at Anglesey, so as far as local knowledge goes, I’m the least experienced alongside Lionel and Team Manager (and Welsh native) Alyn James. 

After four laps or so, I’ve got a decent idea of where the quickest line is. And, oh my, is Anglesey something special. Perched on the edge of the United Kingdom overlooking both the Irish sea and the snow dusted North Wales mountains, it’s packed with swooping bends, heavy braking points and about as much elevation change as a rollercoaster. Tracks such as Thruxton, Snetterton and Silverstone are steeped in history, but they’ve got nothing on the sheer drama and beauty of this snaking ribbon of North Wales tarmac. It’s properly breathtaking stuff.

And also rather lethal when packed with vastly varying speeds of car. See, the Race of Remembrance allows a diverse entry list, from Citroen C1s to a Caterham 310R or Lotus Elise – all on track at the same time. In the bright sunshine of Friday, our Civic was (as you might expect for a lightly modified road car on regular road tyres) was slower than almost everything bar the C1s.

Crucially though, it felt like it had the predictably and consistency that you want from an endurance racer. At no point during practice did it feel like I was battling the car, wrestling with a heavy steering rack or stirring a recalcitrant manual gearbox. Sure, we were getting understeer and the CVT was taking a bit of getting used to, but I knew that come the inevitable rain and wind (we were in North Wales after all) – our tin-top Civic would get its fair share of envious glances. 

It was, however, eating through a set of front tyres like a puppy with your favourite slippers, so relatively frequent pit stops were needed to keep an eye on wear. One man taking a particular interest in our rapidly degrading rubber, was former Royal Artillery soldier and London Ambulance Service paramedic James Eaton. 

James’ story is an unfortunately familiar one among ex-soldiers. Deployed to the Gulf War as part of Operation Granby, he was tasked with clearing out bodies from burned out vehicles on the Basra road. After leaving the army, James initially struggled with civilian life, yet still managed a successful seventeen-year stint as a paramedic until he was diagnosed with complex post-traumatic stress in 2018. 

Towering over me as we talk in the pit lane, James is mild-mannered, friendly and clearly a huge petrolhead, animatedly telling me how he’s now looking for an Alfa Romeo as his next project car. For him, Mission Motorsport is his safe place and he’s keen to learn more about the mechanicals of our two race-prepped Civics – all in aid of helping him achieve his NVQ level 3 light vehicle maintenance qualification. Even during our brief chat, it’s not hard to see what effect Mission Motorsport is having on people like James. 

Day two – Saturday 9thNovember

 Having qualified 31stand 28thin day and night qualifying respectively, our starting position is taken from the former, with Lionel taking the first stint behind the wheel. Morning practice had shown that our wet weather pace was strong, so we were hopeful of making rapid progress on the opening laps.

Standing by the Civic as Lionel readied himself for the start, I had the team umbrella perfectly placed so as to keep both me the inside of the car dry (any moisture could fog up the windscreen and wreck visibility when I get in the car). 

Sadly, said positioning meant that as soon as Lionel flicked the wiper switch, I was in prime position to receive what felt like a good half-a-litre’s worth of rainwater on my previously bone-dry team gear. We both laughed – him slightly more, admittedly – and the pre-race start focus was momentarily broken. I couldn’t detect any nerves, but I knew he wanted to do well – the wet conditions adding a glint to his eye that – regardless of the car’s abilities – he knew he could impress in conditions that would suit his experience with advanced car control. 

And oh boy, did Lionel fly. At the end of the 2nd lap, he made up nine positions to sit 22nd, seven places above the manual Civic that had started two spots above us. Over the next few laps, Lionel gained another three places and settled in for the rest of his 1.5-hour stint. The wet weather meant tyre wear and fuel consumption were reduced, meaning Lionel could keep pushing the Civic in its ideal conditions. All was going well, until lap number 16…

Lionel had dived into the pits over half an hour early. What was wrong – was it him, was it the car? No time to find out, I sprinted back to the team lorry to grab my gear in case it was the former. As I ran back in to the garage, Lionel was still in the car and it seemed like the problem was a frustrating – but not terminal – overheating issue. After a couple of minutes, we sent him on his way, the car now down near the back of the pack. It was crushing disappointment after Lionel’s incredible opening laps but sadly, it was to get even worse.

Having only just made it to the end of the pitlane, the Civic had now lost drive and had to be pushed back to our pit garage at the opposite end. Unsure of the culprit, we wheeled the car in and got Lionel out. He’d done brilliantly, but there was no point in keeping him in the car now. Narrowing it down to an issue with the CVT transmission, the team think they may have solved the problem, so send me back out with the track under safety car conditions.

With the field of cars trundling around at half speed, it’s an ideal opportunity to test whether the issue really has been solved, yet although I’ve made it out of the pits and around the entire circuit, something still isn’t right. The CVT is behaving erratically, shuffling ratios like a deck of cards and struggling to settle with the engine. 

The safety car comes in and I give it full power on the green flag lap – the sun now firmly below the horizon leaving dark, wet conditions over the Anglesey coastline. Immediately, I dive down the inside of a Caterham and 1 Series, the Civic’s monster brakes and fabulous front-end clawing into the greasy tarmac. I go past with ease, yet, approaching 60mph on exit the Civic is pinging off its rev limiter, seemingly unable to give me any more speed. I come off the throttle and re-apply the gas. Now there’s no drive at all, the engine revving away like we’ve slipped into neutral.

After stopping in a safe (ish) place, I try to stay optimistic and use the in-car phone to call the team. Over the next few minutes, we try everything to get the car running consistently, but nothing works. Towed off the track by a recovery vehicle, the decision is taken to retire the No.76 Civic. 

Back at the garage, the feeling of bitter disappointment was palpable. It appeared that the Civic’s transmission had been beaten by the rigours of Anglesey, a track more than capable of wrecking a factory endurance racer, let alone a lightly modified Civic family hatch. It was nobody’s fault, not least the team who had prepared the car so professionally and Lionel who’d driven it so well, but the end result was the same. 

We still had the manual car running strongly, (the fact it was 1stin class at the end of Saturday made our retirement all the more galling), so while car number 76 was out, there was still hope for a strong finish for the team.  

Day 3 – Sunday 10th December

It’s the Sunday where the entire race, what Mission Motorsport does and why it’s so crucial to the lives of the beneficiaries, all comes together. The sky is clear and the track is dry, meaning those who lost out in the wet conditions of the night before are desperately trying to catch cars punching above their weight – our manual Civic being a prime example. Quite how this was all going to come to an orderly halt right in the heat of the battle, I had no idea. 

Ten minutes later, all became obvious. Drivers, timekeepers, spectators, marshals and mechanics gathered in the pitlane. The cars that had been racing tooth and nail mere moments before were now almost silent, they too lined up on the grid to observe the ceremony. Looking around, the sheer number of people it takes to make a 12-hour race happen, was extraordinary. And while the race may have been what kept them occupied for most of the weekend, it was this Sunday morning observance that carried the most weight. 

As the service was delivered and the two minute’s silence observed, the eerie quiet of Anglesey was broken only by the waves lapping up to the rocks behind us, washing away any thoughts of what had and was about to happen on track. Amid the fierce competition, this momentary pause was all the more poignant. It was as if, just for a few minutes, time had stopped in our little corner of the world. 

The results

The race itself was eventually won by Rob Boston Racing, completing 351 laps in what was a lightening fast and unflinchingly reliable Lotus Elise. Our manual transmission Honda Civic meanwhile, came home a highly respectable 22nd, beating a number of quicker opponents thanks to the consistency of the car, drivers and team as a whole.

And while saying that the result really doesn’t matter might be the tell-tale sign of a sore loser, in this case, it couldn’t be truer. From a personal point of view, it was the most incredible, humbling and awe-inspiring event I’ve ever had the privilege to take part in regardless of our on-track troubles. 

What’s more, for beneficiaries like Lionel and James, success is more than finishing first, second or third. It’s about using the best that motorsport and the automotive industry as a whole has to offer, which, judging by this weekend, is limitless. 

By James Dennison

Head of automotive video for CAR magazine and our sister website Parkers.co.uk