The Top-20 #F1 Constructors who Failed to win a Championship – 4th: Honda

Brought to you by TheJudge13 chronicler: BlackJack’sBriefs

As with my series on drivers, I started with the Wiki ‘List of Formula One Constructors’ and quickly reduced 136 to 43 eligible constructors by removing the Champions, and those hopefuls who failed to last beyond two or three seasons, and also those who only competed before 1958. [See Part-20 – Intro for details.]

“Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

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Honda

As in my foreword to 5-Mercedes Honda also are not instantly easy to categorize. The Japanese company’s first foray into F1 was back in 1964, and lasted five years… followed by a fifteen-year gap until they returned in 1983, but only as an engine supplier for, in turn, Spirit, Williams, Lotus, McLaren, Tyrrell, Footwork, Ligier, Prost, Jordan, and BAR… either under it’s own banner, or as Mugen Honda – until 2005.

In 1998 Honda contemplated returning as a constructor, and commissioned Harvey Postlethwaite to design RA099 which was tested throughout 1999 by Jos Verstappen but, at one of the tests, Harvey suffered a fatal heart attack, and Honda withdrew.

In 2000, Honda engines fell off the Christmas tree for BAR, to the later chagrin of Eddie Jordan, and Honda also purchased 45% of the team – which perhaps Eddie had not been prepared to do. Towards the end of 2005 Honda bought out the remainder and raced from 2006 as: Honda Racing F1 Team.

After three dismal years, with an alleged $300m. budget and a staff of 700, Honda withdrew, citing international economics, and put the team on the market. Apparently interest was shown by Dave Richards/Prodrive, Carlos Slim, and the Virgin Group, but these were all beaten by a ‘management buy-out’, led by Ross Brawn and Nick Fry, and became Brawn GP.

Apparently the team cost Brawn the princely sum of £1… Honda withdrew it’s engines but agreed to help with finances for Brawn’s first year, and a quick deal for Mercedes engines was effected – is Ross not the best negotiator on the planet…? Any nearby donkeys should keep a good eye on their hind legs…

As a result of all this there are two distinct periods when Honda operated as a constructor in F1 – 1964-1968, and 2006-08, and I am unable to consider these as one and the same operation. We all know the second period was not a success for Honda but I have decided their original era qualifies here, and takes 4th place in this list.

Early days . . .

Only Lola (1962), and Porsche (1961), on this list, entered F1 before Honda… but where did they come from…? I can remember as a young paperboy when a new Japanese motorbike/moped screamed past, going up through the gears every two seconds, and wondering what would happen to ‘our’ traditional heavy, lumbering (in comparison) machines, which were also under attack from the Italian ‘scooter’ industry. It always seemed to me that, unless you sat side-saddle, and cried, “Ciao…!” to passers-by (as in a Fellini movie), scooters just weren’t ‘right’, in England… but these Japanese things were something else.

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Honda motorbikes had first raced at the Isle of Man TT races in 1959, and they were champions in 1961, so they only had a few years experience in bikes before their entry into F1.

Honda started, after the War, fitting small, surplus engines to push-bikes, before making his own machines in 1955. In 1960 an advertising campaign in the West: ‘You meet the nicest people on a Honda’, compared with the negative stereotype of tough, anti-social rebels, on Harley Davidsons, made Honda an international name.

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In the late-50’s Japan was searching for a cheap ‘people’s car’. Suzuki and Suburu obliged (with ugly, dated designs) but in 1962 the pretty little S360 was exhibited for the first time. With a 360cc, 4-cylinder engine my friends all laughed – how on earth could it ever be first away from the lights…? It was never marketed but, in 1963, was replaced by the 531cc, DOHC, S500, and the Honda car company took off.

However… and it is a really big however… how did Honda hit the international F1 GP scene just one year later, with a transversely-mounted, 1.5L V12, and a Honda 6-speed, sequential transmission, and an entirely Honda designed chassis, and all made in Japan…? when the rest of the circus were using V8 engines (although Ferrari had explored V6 and flat-12 configurations), and only Ferrari and BRM were making both engines and chassis…

The car had an aluminum monocoque, pioneered by Lotus in 1962, even though other front-running teams (Ferrari and Brabham) were still using tubular spaceframes. Although the car was heavier than most of its rivals the engine was believed to be the most powerful.

How were they able to do it….? That is still the unanswered question…

By 1964 I was delivering papers of a different sort, at university, and I just took it for granted. Now I find it astonishing.

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1964

In some ways it’s nothing short of a miracle. Honda arrived in the second half of the season, and entrusted their single RA271 to American Ronnie Bucknum, who also came from ‘nowhere’ (sports-cars in America) to qualify 22nd out of 24, but 20secs. behind the 21st qualifier (Giancarli Baghetti in a BRM) and almost a whole minute behind Surtees’ Ferrari pole time. Bucknum ran in the mid-field for much of the race, and was classified 13th – four laps down.

Honda missed the Austrian race but, at Monza, Bucknum qualified the car in 10th place… ahead of Jack Brabham (which made me sit up and take notice…!), and, this time, only three seconds off pole. He was running as high as 7th, with the works Brabhams and BRMs, before forced to retire with brake troubles, again after thirteen laps.

At Watkins Glen the car started from 14th place, within three seconds of Clark’s pole time, and this time managed to run for fifty laps before retiring with overheating problems. Honda also missed the Mexican GP, returning to base – to re-group.

With such a new and untried car, and an unheard of driver, I am still amazed they managed to turn up at all. Only one car was built and it presently sits in the Honda Collection Hall at the Twin Ring Motegi, in Japan.

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1965

The chassis for RA272 was not greatly changed (this was not uncommon in the 60’s) but the 48v, V12 was boosted to 230bhp at 13,000rpm and, despite still not being the lightest car on the grid had phenomenal accelleration, and was often in the lead from the standing-start off the grid.

While remaining loyal to Bucknum Honda also brought in Richie Ginther, whose reputation as a solid team-player as well as an excellent test and development driver, was what the team needed. Missing the South African GP Honda had a poor start in Monaco, qualifying 15th and 17th, and both cars retired with ‘drive’ problems. But, in Belgium, Ginther put his car in 4th on the grid, behind Hill, Clark and Stewart, and brought it home in 6th, to score Honda’s first Championship point.

In France Ginther was still up in 7th on the grid, while Bucknum was doing little to stay with his teammate, and was dropped for the next three races – both cars had retired early with ignition problems, and Honda needed to cut their cloth accordingly. At Silverstone Ginther had the Rising Sun shining from both eyes as he qualified his car in 3rd, behind Clark and Hill but now ahead of Stewart, Spence, Gurney, and Brabham.

Unfortunately this writer doesn’t have access to 60’s race-reports so I can only record Ginther retired with ignition problems.

At Zandvoort Ginther was again bettered only by Hill and Clark in qualifying, and this time was able to score another point for Honda, finishing in 6th place.

Honda took a break from the Nurburgring in order to bring two cars to Monza, with Bucknum back again, and qualifying 6th, whereas Ginther languished in 17th… and both cars retired again, with ignition problems. The race is (or was…) famous for its forty lead-changes, between Stewart, Hill, and Clark, with Surtees also leading for one lap.

At Watkins Glen, yet again Ginther qualified 3rd (and recorded the fastest speed on the straight) behind Hill and Clark. Although Hill led for 107 of the 110 laps, and went on to win, as Clark’s engine cried, enough, Ginther was denied what might have been his first podium by a revival in the fortunes of Brabhan and Ferrari, and also Cooper, who had retained Jochen Rindt and, after contact with Stewart, Ginther slipped back to 7th, two laps down.

And so to the final race of the season, in Mexico, which was also to be the last of the current 1.5L formula after five years. 1966 was to herald in new, ‘man-size’ engines of 3.0L (NA). Richie posted his fourth 3rd place on the grid, but this time behind Clark and Gurney – Brabham was fourth, followed by Hill, Spence, Bandini, and Stewart.

Ginther had another lightning start… and led from start to finish… Only Gurney was able to stay with him, and came home just three seconds behind. Mike Spence hung on and completed the podium (for the first and only time), one minute back. Ronnie Bucknam came good, qualified tenth, and scored his first, and only, points in 5th place. It was Honda’s first win, the first win in F1 GP for a Japanese car, the first victory for Goodyear. It was the only race this year not won by a British driver, or by a British car. And it was Richie’s first and only F1 victory.

Honda finished the year in 6th place in the Championship, Bucknum was classified 15th, with his two points, and Ginther took 7th, with eleven.

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1966

Whenever there is a change of formula there often seems to be one team who are ready for it, and several others who make one wonder what they had been thinking about since the new rules were announced (2014 was no exception…). In 1952 the FIA was obliged to run their World Championship for F2 cars, as only Ferrari was really ready with a F1 car. In 1961, again only Ferarri had done their homework, while the British teams and engine manufacturers had tried to get the new formula delayed… and again, for 1966, after two years’ notice, only Ferrari were up and running with a new engine.

The British teams, previously dependent upon Coventry-Climax and BRM, were rather taken aback when the former decided this was more than they could deal with, and withdrew… while BRM must have been out when the phone rang… and all the top British teams again scrabbled around for power.

Brabham made a clever move and got Repco to finance the renovation of a bunch of old V8 Oldsmobile blocks, adding their own heads, single camshafts and drives. The result was the least powerful of the numerous ‘solutions’ but was frugal, light and compact – and would also prove to be reliable.

Gurney produced his first Eagle car, and joined with Weslake to produce a state of the art V12, while Cooper looked to Maserati, and their V12. Meanwhile BRM played around with different solutions; a 2.0L V8, and a 3.0L H16. neither of which was really successful, and many teams reverted to the old 1960, 2.5L 4-cylinder Climax, bored out to 2.8L.

Considering 1965 had been one of the most exciting seasons ever, 1966 was one of the most disastrous – for some. Ferrari didn’t quite get it together but Jack Brabham took four wins in a row, out of nine races, to make history, and further his legend.

Meanwhile Honda had also had their problems. Having never made such a large engine before, it took them a while to get it together, and they missed the first six races, finally arriving at Monza with one RA273 for Ginther, who had been filling in time by having two drives with Cooper, scoring 2pts. from 5th at Spa. The Ferraris were supreme leaving Ginther to qualify back in 7th, but he did lead the race… before having a massive ‘off’ into the trees, and very lucky not to be killed.

In America he was rejoined by Bucknum (who, meanwhile, had managed to finish 3rd at Le Mans), who qualified 18th, but Ginther was 8th and, at the start, leapt to 3rd, behind Bandini (who had come from 3rd) and Clark, but slowly dropped back, and both Hondas were unclassified.

Returning to the scene of his success the previous year Ginther lost no time qualifying 3rd, behind Surtees and Clark. Clark and the BRMs all retired early and only Ginther was offering a challenge to Surtees but… the Honda wasn’t running properly and Richie slipped behind the Brabhams, finslly having to be grateful for 4th place, ahead of Gurney and Bonnier.

Honda dropped to an inglorious 8th in the Championship, with 3pts. from five race starts. Ginther’s 5pts. gave him 11th. With just three races it was a disappointment from what the end of 1965 had promised.

Ginther made a couple of early appearances in an Eagle in 1967, but then pulled out of F1 and, while trying to qualify for the 1967 Indy-500, suffered a broken fuel-line which sprayed him with an ethanol/gasoline mixture. Knowing first-hand the dangers involved with such accidents, Ginther walked away from motorsports. Bucknum also tried his hand in IndyCars for a few years, and won the 1968 Michigan-500.

“I’d never been to Europe. I’d never raced an open wheel car…the second F1 race I saw was the one I was in.” (Ronnie Bucknum, after it was over.)

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1967

This was the year when Ford behaved like the cavalry, riding over the hill with bugles blaring, as their Cosworth DFV arrived to see off the competition – rather as Climax had done in 1962… although it was ‘exclusive to Lotus until 1968.

Honda finally seemed to know what they were trying to achieve, and what they needed to do, to improve their chances of success. Cutting the team down to one full-time entry they also took on a top-class driver – John Surtees, who had been Champion in 1964, and finished 2nd in 1966 and, at the age of 32, was still ‘hungry’.

Honda appeared at the first event, at Kyalami on 2nd January, with basically their 1966 car, while a new contender was being developed by Eric Broadley’s Lola company. Surtees put the old car 6th on the grid, behind John Love’s even older Cooper-Climax. The Brabhams were dominant at first, although Surtees got the Honda up to 2nd, but all the fancied runners fell by the wayside, or just slipped back, and Love took over an incredible and unexpected lead. Apart from one appearance at Monza Love only ever raced in the South African GP, from 1962-1972, and this was the only time he ever shone, although he was the SA Champion from 1964-69.

However, Love eventually had a similar problem and was passed by Pedro Rodriguez, who scored his first F1 victory in a Cooper-Maserati. Love held on to 2nd, as Surtees brought the Honda in 3rd, one lap down.

Two months later, in the non-championship Race of Champions, Surtees put his car 2nd on the grid, between the Eagles of Gurney and Ginther, and diced with both during the two Heats… but retired from the Final .

Another two-month break (none of these cissy, two-week breaks we have now…) and the teams reformed at Monaco. Surtees qualified in 3rd behind Brabham and Lorenzo Bandini, who would later die from a ghastly accident when his Ferrari overturned and caught fire. The Honda was running in 3rd place until the engine gave up, after thirty-two laps.

At Zandvoort and Spa Honda failed to cover themselves in glory and again chose to pull back to re-group, missing the French GP, and returning at Silverstone where Surtees qualified 7th and kept the car going to the end, to finish in the points, in 6th place.

In Germany Surtees qualified 6th, and finished 4th… after which Honda missed Canada, in order to arrive in Italy with the new RA300, raring to go. Broadley’s ‘new’ design was based upon his IndyCar, and was referred to as the T130 – while the press (always looking for an easy quip) dubbed it the ‘Hondola’.

Surtees qualified in 9th but soon moved up to third in the race, behind Clark (having the race of his life) and Brabham (who was having another of his many ‘races of his life’…). Clark led for twelve laps until a puncture dropped him one lap down but, by lap 60, he had pulled back the whole lap, re-taken the lead, and continued to pull away, from Brabham and Surtees. But… on the 68th and final lap the Lotus’ fuel pump played up and he was forced to slip back to 3rd. Brabham rushed past into an unexpectedly recovered 1st place, and then ran wide, allowing Surtees to pounce and they crossed the line almost side by side.

It was Surtees’ sixth and final GP victory, and Honda’s second win, straight out of the box – it would be nearly forty years before the company won another GP.

Back again to Watkins Glen, and the Honda failed again. Surtees could only qualify 11th and was even lapped, before retiring with alterator troubles… and, in Mexico, Surtees got the car up to 7th on the grid, and brought it home, a lap down, in 4th.

Car and driver both took 5th place in their respective Championships.

Throughout the year the Lotus 49-DFV was in a class of it’s own but unreliability kept the Lotus’s of Clark & Hill
behind the Brabham duo, in a fast and reliable car.

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1968

For the first, and still too early, race in SAfrica (practice actually took place in the last two days of 1967…) Honda brought the RA300 which Surtees qualified 6th, still behind the two Lotus’s and the two Brabhams and, now, Stewart’s Matra… but he was only able to reach 8th at the end, five laps down.

For Spain Honda had their upgraded RA301, but Honda were also working on an air-cooled RA302 and the 301’s development suffered badly. Surtees qualified the car 7th, one second behind Chris Amon’s pole time, but the gearbox failed in the race. The car also retired in the next three races, after qualifying well.

For France Honda also brought their new RA302, which Surtees declined to drive, saying it was unstable and not ready to race. The media claimed Surtees asserted ‘safety issues’, although nowhere does it seem to be specified what these were. Honda offered the drive to ‘local hero’ Jo Schlesser, who was already 40, and had only driven in the previous two German GP, but in F2 cars. This was his first proper F1 drive, and he qualified the car on the back row, 16th out of 17… Surtees put his car in 7th and, eschewing unreliability for once, finished 2nd, two minutes behind Jacky Ickx’ Ferrari.

However, Schlesser crashed the new car on the third lap, the fuel tanks were ruptured into the straw-bales, the whole thing took light, and poor Jo didn’t stand a chance.

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A subdued team arrived at Brands Hatch. Surtees qualified 9th, and brought the car home 5th.

At a wet and foggy Nurburgring Surtees qualified 7th but was probably very happy when his ignition failed after three laps.

At Monza Honda fielded the spare 031 for David Hobbs, a popular ‘jobbing’ driver who has had thirty years in international motor-racing at many levels, but had no success in his half dozen F1 appearances. He quailified 14th but his engine expired at half distance. Surtees, however, managed to put his car onto Pole, recording Honda’s first, ahead of McLaren and Amon and in the race diced with both drivers for eight laps until Amon skidded on an oil patch and crashed heavily. Surtees also crashed, trying to avoid Amon.

Canada was a disaster for Honda but across the border Surtees was able to salvage a podium position, behind Stewart and Hill.

Finally, in Mexico, Surtees was again joined on the grid, by veteran Jo Bonnier, who had been offered the Honda spare when his BRM’s engine failed him in practice. Jo qualified a lowly 18th, out of 21, but just kept it going and, as all around him slipped away, including Surtees (who had started from 6th), he brought his new steed home in 5th place… which was the best Bonnier ever scored in six years of driving for his own private team.

The season ended with Honda in 6th place, with just 14pts. while Surtees finished 8th, with 12pts… and… Honda announced their retirement from F1. But, before setting off for home, the car was tested at Indianapolis. As Surtees didn’t have the necessary licence, Bucknum was recalled, and apparently lapped fast enough to have started the race from the front row.

soichiro-old-01-WSoichiro Honda is famous for his pithy quotes of which perhaps the most famous is: ‘Success is 99% failure.’ suggesting that failure, at times, is inevitable but, with perseverance, comes that small degree of success… and also an improved knowledge of how not to fail.

My own favourite, on the same lines, is: ‘Tomorrow we must try to make better mistakes.

Another, that many people are unable to recognise: ‘If you hire only those people you understand, the company will never get people better than you are.’

‘A diploma is less useful than a ticket to a movie.’

‘When Congress passes new emission standards, we hire 50 more engineers and GM hires 50 more lawyers.

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After Honda’s withdrawal from F1 they subsequently returned as an engine supplier for:

1983 – Spirit
1983-1987 – Williams
1987-88 – Lotus
1988-92 – McLaren
1991 – Tyrrell
1992-93 – Footwork
1994 – Lotus
1995-96 – Ligier
1997 – Prost
1998-2002 – Jordan
2000-05 – BAR
2006-08 – Honda
2006-08 – Super Aguri

. . . which included a short spell as an entrant following a buy-out of BAR… which was followed by the famous sell-out to Brawn. As is obviously well known Honda is about to return again, as engine supplier to McLaren.


Previously:

5th Mercedes

6th Hesketh

7th Porsche

8th March

9th Jordan

10th Shadow

11th Toleman

12th Toyota

13th Alfa Romeo

14th Sauber

15th Arrows

16th Stewart

17th BAR

18th – Surtees

19th – Lola

20th – Dallara

22 responses to “The Top-20 #F1 Constructors who Failed to win a Championship – 4th: Honda

  1. I was feeling very sad, nostalgic and introspective today. your brilliant piece filled a void needing some good thoughts I expect few could truly understand. thank you BlackJackFan!!

    • I feel humbled… but happy that I might have been able to help.
      When I feel down I watch pre-Hayes Code comedies from the early 30’s, on YouTube… Sometimes works…

  2. You do just seem to get better and better. I like your mention of regulation changes, sounds like it might be a series as well…..

    • This sounds like a great idea. The major regulations changes over time and the teams who benefited (and if known, why they benefited).

    • What, with you and Bruznic [see above], I don’t know when I get to sleep… 🙂
      How about: ‘Top-20 Race Circuits that the corrupt Bernie/Tilke monopoly had nothing to do with.’ ??

  3. At a time when F1 has hit the financial rocks, when hundreds of people have seen their hard work go down the crapper and face an uncertain future – I read this and wonder how the fuck did Nick Fry walk away a millionaire?

    • I think they just spent enough on the team to win the title, and then pocketed the rest, leaving Mercedes to pick up the pieces…

  4. 1968 FRENCH GP.

    Choosing A Magnesium Chassis Added To The Carnage.

    Yet Again, The Favorite And Hypocrite F1 ‘Safety’ Measure After A Serious Accident – Lets Dump This Track – It Is ‘Unsafe’.

    BIG BALLS BACK WHEN !

    • As nice as Rouen, Clermont-Ferrand, and Reims were, they were always going to be replaced by a Paul Ricard, or Magny Cours (a purpose built track) in time.. Charade is like France’s Nurburgring/Solitude!

  5. Honda – the Power of Dreams. beautiful, thanks for that. such a lovely carmaker with such a vast and inspiring background and heritage.

  6. @BJF
    Love the article – as always.
    And a bit extra for you.
    In 1965 Richie Ginther was able to take the lead at the start of both the British and the following Dutch GPs from 3rd on the starting grid – certainly made me sit up and take notice when that happened!! And that was before the Mexican GP win.
    The exhaust pipe system for the Honda RA273 was truly mesmerising – tangled spaghetti comes to mind!

    • Thanks, Cassius, for these additions – it seems almost impossible to get these details from the web… and my magazine library dating back to 1958 got lost when I got married… It was in the loft ‘waiting to come in handy’… How was I to know I would need them thirty years later…?
      And when I was divorced the magazines didn’t automatically return… 🙂
      It takes a special kind of artisan to make exhaust systems like that. Unsung heroes – like Mediaeval gargoyle sculptors…

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