Honda has been in and out of F1 for many years. But who really remembers how it all began?
It all started in 1964 - a mere four years after Honda first manufactured a car! In the early 60s, F1 ran according to a 1.5 litre Formula - meaning that small displacement, high-revving engines were required - ideal territory for Honda. They developed a V12 engine for the occasion and tested it in the RA270 prototype. It was painted in gold, and sported one exhaust pipe per cylinder - making the back end looking rather spectacular.
Sadly, no small scale model if this car exists - I’d love to have one.
This prototype was developed into the RA271 (with more conventional exhausts), which raced in 1964. By 1965, Honda already recorded their first win, with Richie Ginther driving in the RA272 at the Mexican GP. F1 returned to the 3.0 litre Formula for 1966, and the new RA273 turned out to have a very powerful engine - but it was hampered by a heavy chassis, which didn’t handle terribly well either.
So for 1967, Honda sought help from Lola. They developed the chassis for the RA300, which resulted in the car being nicknamed the “Hondola”. And this is the first model of a Honda F1 I could find - this RA300 made by Dutch company EFSI roughly concurrent with the actual car:
And it seemed to work - the RA300 driven by John Surtees won its first ever race! However, this result was due to luck. The car was running in third, when on the last lap Jim Clark ran out of fuel and Jack Brabham ran wide in a corner. The last lap of the Italian GP turned out to be the only lap an RA300 would lead a race...
The RA301 that followed in 1968 was just a further development of the RA300 - aerodynamics were starting to play a greater role. But Honda did not really want to spend too much money or time on this car, as they were developing the all-new RA302 simultaneously. The RA301 only managed one 2nd place at the French GP (more on that one later), and due to poor reliability, only finished three races overall that season. Here’s the RA301 by Zylmex (driven by a midget):
Which brings us to the RA302 - and the final chapter of Honda’s involvement with F1 for quite some time. For the 1968 season, Soichiro Honda himself had decreed that the next F1 car by Honda should be air-cooled! So all of the development went into the brand new RA302 (with the chassis again coming from Lola). It was also to be magnesium bodied - as opposed to the aluminium body of the RA301.
The car was ready for the 1968 French GP - but regular driver John Surtees refused to race it. Due to the combination of the unprotected fuel tanks and the flammable magnesium body, he labelled it a “death trap”. Instead, Jo Schlesser used it, while Surtees ran the RA301.
Surtees was proven right in the worst possible way. Schlesser’s RA302 crashed on lap two and immediately burst into flames, killing the driver instantly.
Honda built a second RA302 for the Italian GP, but once again Surtees refused to get in. He raced the unreliable RA301 until the end of the season, after which Honda withdrew from F1. It was a rather undignified ending to what was a very brave and daring enterprise by Honda. The surviving, never raced RA302 still sits today in the Honda factory museum.
The model above is a Tomica Limited - I also have the regular version somewhere, but couldn’t dig it up in time for today’s post. Just why did Tomica chose to produce this ill fated car years later? I don’t really know - it seems an odd decision for sure.