Soichiro Honda believed in the beauty of dreams. And no sooner had his company’s motorcycles won World Championships in 1961 and 1962, than his mind turned towards conquest in another sport: Formula One.
Yoshio Nakamura was a key man in Honda’s technical department. Fluent in English, and with an engineer’s outgoing and inquisitive nature, he acted as an interpreter in an interview with Automobile Year editor-in-chief Gunther Molter and Autocar writer Harry Mundy in October 1961. When Molter asked if Honda were interested in F1, Mr. Honda replied that they would be in it within a year.
Typically, he went about his new project diligently. Facilitated by the legendary F1 journalist Gerard ‘Jabby’ Crombac, Nakamura visited Brabham, Cooper and Lotus in 1963. Crombac thought that the Brabham meeting had been the best, but Nakamura thought Chapman’s company had the greatest promise, especially since he had introduced the impressive aluminum monocoque chassis. And Chapman reacted the fastest, seeing the possibilities and getting Crombac to arrange a visit to Honda the following month. There, Mr. Honda agreed to form an engine supply partnership for 1964.
Ferrari and their 190 bhp 1.5-liter V6 engined ‘Sharknoses’ had been dethroned by the new V8s from British teams Lotus and Lola (with Coventry Climax power) and BRM (who built their own engines). These new V8s produced around 200 bhp, and with development that would rise to around 205 by 1964, when Honda officially entered F1, and 210 by 1965. Chapman had been very impressed with Honda’s vision, which was very different. Their engine would have 12 cylinders, arranged in a 60-degree vee, each cylinder based on the 125 cc of their successful motorcycle engines. It would develop 220 bhp in 1964, and 230 the following year. To keep the wheelbase within apposite limits to ensure good weight distribution and handling, it would be mounted transversely.
When he first viewed the plan, Ferrari’s 1961 World Champion Phil Hill, who had a very keen interest in cars and their technology, immediately saw its inherent greatness.
“The unspoken thought was, ‘Well, here we go again. Honda is going to put a stack of motorcycle engines crosswise in the back, and run off from all of us.'”
The plan was for each group of four cylinders to be set-up so that it acted in a slightly different way to its brothers, each complementing the others to ensure not only a smooth power curve all the way up the rev range, but the means of adjusting the engine to perform at its optimum on different types of track. Engineer Brian Hart described its complex exhaust system as “looking like an octopus being sucked out of the engine.”
An aluminum mock-up of the RA271E engine was sent to Lotus early in December, but the deal never happened. Crombac would come to believe that Chapman used the engine as a bargaining tool to get Coventry Climax to focus on what was a stillborn flat-16. Ron Tauranac – Brabham’s partner and designer – believed that Chapman deliberately delayed things so nobody else could avail themselves of the Honda engine.
According to Nakamura, Honda had built a Lotus-like test car in order to run the engine at Suzuka. Mr. Honda had announced the project in the in-house magazine on January 30, 1964, and a photo of the test car had appeared elsewhere on February 15. When Chapman sent a telegram around that time to say that Lotus could not, after all, proceed with the deal, Mr. Honda took the decision to build his own car. Nakamura thus modified the RA270 test car, and it became the RA271.
The F1 world was excited by this newcomer from a country hitherto not involved in the sport, and well aware what they had achieved in motorcycle racing. But the choice of driver was a surprise. Californian Ronnie Bucknum was a surveyor who was quick in US west-coast sportscar races, but not a recognized international star. Honda wanted an American, and Nakamura said that Phil Hill had been the only driver to show interest. But as a former World Champion he was not only more expensive, but had a much higher profile that would draw attention to Honda as they found their feet. If an unknown showed well, it would reflect more on the car.
After a test session at Zandvoort on July 25th, the RA271 was ready for its race debut. Of all places this came at the famed Nurburgring, the toughest circuit of them all. Bucknum had never seen the place, got in only five laps of practice due to the engine overheating, and qualified on the back row of the 22-car grid with a lap time just under a minute slower than poleman John Surtees’ Ferrari. He crashed out of the race when the steering broke in the Karussel, but not before he had climbed to 11th place and battled with BRM driver Richie Ginther.
Honda missed the Austrian GP while a second car was assembled, but they were ready for the Italian GP at Monza. Bucknum was delighted when Jim Clark said he was impressed to see him qualify in the fourth row with the same 1m 40.4s lap time as Ginther, on his first visit to the track. Surtees was again on pole, but now his Ferrari was only three seconds faster. Even then, Honda’s power was evident on such a fast circuit.
Bucknum retired once again, this time with brake problems and a water leak, but not before he had climbed to fifth. The car overheated again in America when he had again shared his grid row with Ginther after qualifying 14th, but the overheating persisted in the race and resulted in another non-finish. Rounding out the year, Honda withdrew from the race in Mexico and focused on 1965. Now they felt ready for a higher-profile driver. Bucknum had lobbied hard for Ginther, who gratefully switched from his perennial job as number two with BRM to lead Honda’s effort in the new RA272.
Things started badly in Monaco, where they shared the back row, and retired early. But in Belgium Ginther qualified fourth and scored Honda’s first World Championship point with a respectable sixth. In France ignition problems stymied them, but in Britain Ginther spectacularly put the RA272 on the front row of the grid, splitting the works BRMs of Graham Hill and Jackie Stewart, and getting within half a second of Clark who took pole position. He put the Honda in the lead for the first time, as far as the Hangar Straight, but a fuel injection problem put him out of the race. But by now many teams were warily eyeing the white car with the red dot on its bodywork.
Honda ran just Ginther at Zandvoort, where he finished the Dutch GP sixth after again qualifying on the front row, three tenths off Hill’s pole position and with the same lap time as second-fastest Clark. Better still, he had led a Grand Prix again when he made the best start before Hill overtook him on the third lap. He finished sixth again.
They elected to miss the German GP but returned at Monza, with two cars. Bucknum qualified sixth, but Ginther was only 17th. Once again, ignition problems stopped both cars. At the US GP at Watkins Glen Ginther qualified fourth, missing pole by just 0.15s. He finished seventh, Bucknum a distant 13th.
Then came Mexico, and the great day.
Ginther qualified third, 0.31s behind Clark, but leapt ahead of both the Scot and Dan Gurney’s Brabham at the start and was never thereafter headed. After 65 laps the ginger-haired Californian scored his, Honda’s and Goodyear’s first Grand Prix victory, by 2.89s over Gurney. And he had done it from the front, controlling the race. Adding to the celebrations, Bucknum was fifth.
Nakamura sent a telegram to Tokyo: “I came, I saw, I won!” But sadly that race brought down the curtain on the 1.5-liter formula. For 1966, as 3-liter engines promised a much-vaunted Return to Power, Honda had to start all over again just as their extraordinary progress in just over 18 months of racing had put them on top.
They stayed with a V12, but this time the 90-degree engine was installed longitudinally, with the power take-off from the middle of the crankshaft. The new RA273 was undoubtedly powerful, with 385 bhp at 10,000 rpm, but at 743 kg it was well over the 500 kg minimum weight limit, and it didn’t make its debut until the Italian GP, the seventh of the year’s nine races.
Ginther was in the fight for the lead until the 17th lap, when the Honda threw the tread on its left rear tire and crashed into the trees at high speed. He was very lucky to escape unharmed, and though the car was wrecked Honda managed to have two RA273s at Watkins Glen for him and Bucknum to drive in the US GP a month later. Ginther burst through to snatch third place at the start, from eighth on the grid, but later faded to finish 27 laps in arrears, while Bucknum’s engine failed.
Once again in Mexico Ginther came through to lead at the start, but unlike 1965 he could not sustain the pace and slipped back to finish fourth behind the victorious John Surtees’ Cooper-Maserati, and the Brabham Repcos of new World Champion Jack Brabham and Denny Hulme.
Change was in the air again for 1967, as Honda employed former motorcycle ace Surtees to drive a modified version of the RA273. Now Honda had the star driver they needed, and he ran the small satellite team, which featured Honda mechanics, out of a compact factory in Slough.
He fought for second place in the opening race in South Africa, but slipped back to third with differential problems on a day when victory was possible. He chased the Eagles of Dan Gurney and Richie Ginther in both heats of the non-championship Race of Champions at Brands Hatch, but retired with a seize throttle in the final, and likewise chased the Brabhams of Brabham and Hulme at Oulton Park to finish third overall.
Monaco saw him running near the front before the engine broke; in Holland he spun off with jammed throttle slides; and in Belgium the engine broke again. They missed the French race in order to regroup, finished sixth in Britain, and then took a much-needed fourth in Germany.
Since Zandvoort, the Lotus 49 and the new Ford Cosworth DFV V8 had redefined design parameters at a stroke, with a light chassis and a light and powerful engine. Surtees knew that the RA273 needed to go on a crash diet, and came up with the idea of mating the V12 with a modified Lola T90 Indycar chassis. Work started on the project after Silverstone and was completed as the other teams headed to Canada for their inaugural Grand Prix. The new car, the RA300, was significantly lighter at 608 kg, though still not in the Lotus 49 class, and he qualified it ninth on its debut at Monza.
The usual slipstreaming race there saw great attrition, and in the closing stages the battle was between Clark, who had remarkably made up a complete lap after suffering a puncture early on, Surtees and Brabham. Surtees had slipped ahead of Brabham on the 65th of the 68 laps, then at the Lesmo curves on the final tour Clark’s Lotus suffered fuel starvation, and slowed. Brabham briefly grabbed the lead back from Surtees as they raced down to the final curve, Parabolica. But Surtees had obliged him to pass him on the right, where there was oil. As Brabham slid wide in the corner, Surtees cannily ducked back behind him, grabbing the inside line and retaking the lead. Sensationally, Il Grande Gianni as the tifosi called him, revved the engine to 12,000 rpm and kept it in third gear to win by a dramatic two-tenths of a second, giving Honda their second F1 victory and the RA300 success first time out.
Designer Derrick White created a revised version of the RA300, the RA301, for 1968. It featured a redesigned engine which boasted 430 bhp, but weighed 649 kg.
Surtees was a superb second in the rain in the French GP (where sadly the experimental air-cooled V8 RA302 crashed), fifth with a broken rear wing in Britain, and third in America, his 12 points leaving him eighth overall. But it was a year in which he could have been a serious title contender. He ran well in Spain until the gearbox failed; likewise at Monaco; led in Belgium and set the fastest lap before a rear wishbone mounting broke; was delayed by wet ignition and then alternator failure in Holland; suffered ignition failure early on in the wet German GP after overheating during a prolonged delay prior to the start; crashed heavily at Monza after taking pole position for the Italian GP and leading; been in the mix in Canada until early gearbox failure; and led just after the start in Mexico – something of a Honda tradition! – before falling back and retiring with overheating.
Sadly, it transpired that was the end of that exciting first chapter for Honda in F1, but if ever there was an example of tackling challenges head-on and fighting with that archetypal Honda spirit to climb to the top in the highest form of automobile racing, this chapter was it.
Surtees admits that when he joined them in 1967 his feeling was, “Honda had done it all on bikes, so I thought here we are at the beginning of something. And in fact, when you analyze how far we progressed on a very limited budget that was certainly smaller than our main opposition’s, and despite all the problems, we didn’t do too badly. If you add up how competitive we were and if we hadn’t had those silly problems, we could have been champions that year. Derrick White had drawn up a good chassis and Nobohiko Kawamoto had promised us a new lightweight engine and gearbox for 1969.”
The compact new V12 would have had a conventional power take-off at the rear of the crankshaft and 490 bhp @12,000 rpm, according to Kawamoto. But the increasing focus on emissions and development of the S360, T360, and S500 road cars obliged Honda to cut their budget, and the F1 project was cancelled.
“I understood why, of course, but I really believe that Honda’s later situation in Formula One could have come sooner,” Surtees said. “The 301 was the right car, and with the new engine and gearbox it would have been shorter and much lighter… Instead, it was a case of what might have been…”
Many years later, when Honda was winning F1 championships with Williams, Tadashi Kume sent Surtees a telegram. Kume had been a senior engineer helping out on the RA301 in 1968, now he was the boss of Honda Motor Company. “None of this would have been possible without your investment,” his message said.