The Honda RA271 raced in 3 GPs in 1964
The Honda Technical Research Institute started out in a wooden shack in 1946, making motorised bicycles known colloquially as bata bata for the noise they made. Honda made their first motorcycle in 1949 and within a decade had become one of the most successful motorcycle manufacturers in the world. They had also enjoyed success on the track, with Mike Hailwood taking their machinery to victory in the 1961 Isle of Man TT and 250cc World Championship. When in 1963 they produced their first road car, it seemed a natural progression to also venture into racing on four wheels and they decided to start right at the top.
Ronnie Bucknum makes his and Honda's debut at the Nurburgring 1964
Honda had an engine developed by Tadashi Kume but lacked a chassis and so chief engineer Yoshio Nakamura set out to study the leading technology of the day; shipping a Cooper-Climax over to Japan. Formula 1 at the time was very much a V8 formula but Honda had favoured more cylinders in the interests of greater power. It swiftly became apparent that Kume's radical V12 engine would not fit into the Cooper chassis and so Honda committed to producing both car and engine. They ended up with a unique package in the form of the Honda RA271. In their chassis design they looked to incorporate the ground breaking innovations of Colin Chapman, whose aluminium monocoque Lotus 25 was dominating the '63 season in the hands of Jim Clark. The Honda RA271 was a semi monocoque design with a tubular rear sub-frame for ease of maintenance. Its V12 engine was unusually mounted transversely.
Honda entered just three Grands Prix in 1964 with a single car driven by American Ronnie Bucknum. Both Honda and Bucknum made their debuts in the German Grand Prix at the Nurburgring; the most daunting baptism imaginable. Having qualified last, a minute off the pole time of John Surtees' Ferrari, Bucknum suffered steering failure and crashed on lap 11 of 15 but was classified in 13th place. Honda also contested the Italian and US Grands Prix of 1964, racing well but ultimately retiring from both.
Ginther lines up alongside Graham Hill and Jim Clark at the 1965 Dutch GP
In 1965 Honda pursued a more extensive race programme, entering two cars for Bucknum and fellow American Richie Ginther, who had joined from BRM, with the two drivers contesting 6 and 9 rounds of the championship respectively.
The car first appeared in the second round at the Monaco Grand Prix but failed to get off the grid. At the next race in Belgium however, Ginther qualified fourth and finished sixth to claim Honda's first points. Retirements followed in the French and British Grands Prix but at the Dutch Grand Prix, Ginther once more finished sixth having qualified third. Honda sat out the German Grand Prix and struggled in Italy with both cars retiring with ignition problems. Ginther again qualified third for the penultimate round at the US Grand Prix but dropped back after a collision with Jackie Stewart's BRM to finish 7th.
Honda's performances in only its second season had been impressive. Its V12 engine was the most powerful on the grid although it was also the heaviest. Yet it was also on-the-whole reliable and a commitment to extensive testing ensured that in the final race of the season, in the heat and high altitude of Mexico City, the Honda triumphed. Ginther qualified third alongside Jim Clark and Graham Hill, whose rivalry had defined the season. The two British drivers both suffered engine failure however, leaving Ginther to cruise to Honda's first Grand Prix victory. It would be the only win of his career. Bucknum finished 5th for his only points finish of the season, having suffered poor reliability throughout. The British stranglehold on the 1965 season had been broken at the last and in only their 12th race, Honda were a winning constructor.
Ginther on his way to victory in Mexico City 1965
A change of engine regulations from 1.5 to 3 litre engines saw Honda sit out most of the 1966 season whilst they developed their new 3L V12. They finally made an appearance at the Italian Grand Prix with the RA273, essentially a development of their previous chassis. The car was a heavy, unwieldy beast and the only success of the season came once more in Mexico where the two Hondas finished 4th and 8th.
Honda continued into the 1967 season with the RA273 whilst outsourcing development of a new chassis to Lola. The team elected to run only a single car for 1964 champion John Surtees, who managed to finish on the podium in his first race for the team in South Africa. Three retirements followed before points finishes in Britain and Germany. The new Lola designed chassis, adapted from an Indycar design and dubbed the Hondola, was ready for the Italian Grand Prix. Surtees was running second behind Jim Clark when Clark developed a fuel pump issue with two laps to go and dropped back. Surtees then battled with Jack Brabham for the lead before taking the last victory of his career. This was to be the last victory for Honda as a manufacturer in their own right until Jenson Button's win in the rain in Hungary in 2006.
John Surtees beats Jack Brabham to victory in the 1967 Italian GP
For the 1968 season Honda had big plans. They were developing an all new car and engine in-house. The RA302 featured a light weight magnesium monocoque and an air cooled V8 engine. This was not ready at the beginning of the season however and so Surtees continued with the V12 powered RA301 introduced at the Spanish GP. He endured a miserable string of retirements leading up to the French Grand Prix, at which the debut of the RA302 was eagerly anticipated. Surtees however, having driven the new car and found it an unstable handful, was also dubious about the wisdom of constructing the monocoque from highly flammable magnesium. He branded the RA302 a potential death trap and refused to drive it.
Honda did not press the issue but neither did they heed Surtees' concerns. Instead they decided to enter the RA302 as a separate Honda France entry and hired experienced sports car driver Jo Schlesser to drive it. Soichiro Honda attended the race with hopes high but tragedy ensued just as Surtees had feared. On the second lap of the race, with a full race-distance's load of fuel on board, Schlesser lost control and the car slammed into an earth bank and immediately burst into flames. The magnesium body burned so fiercely that there was no possibility of freeing Schlesser from the car and he was killed.
John Surtees in the RA301 at the 1968 Italian GP
This tragedy combined with Surtees' continuing refusal to drive the RA302, even with modifications, prompted Honda to withdraw from racing in Formula One at the end of the 1968 season. Reliability for the RA301 remained dismal and a podium finish at the US Grand Prix was the only result of note in the remainder of the season. It was a sad end to a promising and innovative venture although Honda would return to the sport as an engine supplier in the 1980's and enjoy enormous success with Williams and McLaren. Whether they can repeat such feats remains to be seen.
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Images used are public domain to the best of my knowledge