Honda’s “coffin on wheels”

For years the FIA has somewhat disingenuously heralded the road relevance of F1 cars.

The manufacturers themselves put out various figures showing the marketing value their F1 teams generate for road car sales. We constantly hear the cliché, “win on Sunday – sell on Monday”.

Honda’s 1968 RA302

None of that, however, is really new. Car manufacturers have long used motor racing as a way to sell their products – whether there was road relevance or not. What was new and different was that in 1964 a company used F1 as a vehicle to introduce to the world their commencement as an automobile manufacturer.

And that company was Honda.

Today we know of Honda as one of the largest car manufacturers in the world. Their involvement is storied as both a works team and as an engine supplier in F1.

What is generally not know is that Honda are relative newcomers to automobile design and manufacturing, not producing their own cars until 1963. Prior to that they were a motorcycle manufacturer.

This is a story of how Honda used F1 as a way to introduce its cars to the world through F1 and ultimately pulled out of the sport at the end of 1968 through corporate greed and disregard for the safety of their drivers. 

Soichiro Honda

Soichiro Honda, the founder of Honda, began his first foray into business as a component supplier to Toyota during WW2. After the war Honda began assembling motorized bicycles from components that he purchased. 

In 1949 the Honda Motor Co. was legally established and in that same year their first motorcycle using an in-house designed frame and engine was introduced. By 1964 Honda was the largest manufacturer of motorcycles in the world.

Soichiro Honda in the early 1960’s realized the growth limits that being solely a manufacturer of motorcycles had. He had seen the growth Toyota had exporting cars all over the world and decided it was the route that Honda should take.

Honda has also seen the growth in motorcycle sales, particularly in Europe, when he entered into the World GP motorcycle championship in 1960. He firmly believed that motorsport and the sales of his products could be coupled together.

When Honda introduced their first four-wheeled vehicles in 1963, he had already decided to use Formula One as a marketing strategy to sell them around the globe. The advent of satellite TV also reinforced his conviction that Honda could be shown to produce state of the art cars to a global audience.

When work started in late 1962 on Honda’s first F1 car, the company decided it would be an all-Japanese effort, in fact the red circle of the Japanese flag would be prominently displayed on the front of every Honda car.

Engine, gearbox and chassis would all be designed and manufactured in-house, something at the time only Ferrari and BRM did in F1. Honda wanted the world to know this was a Japanese car and Honda was the Japanese leader in-car technology.

That was what Honda hoped would happen. The only non-Japanese component was the driver, Ronnie Bucknum, who not surprisingly was an American, as Honda viewed the US market as one with major export potential for them.

Ronnie Bucknum

The first car introduced for the 1964 season, the RA271, was late, slow, overweight and unreliable. The RA272 which debuted in 1965, along with a second driver, another American – Richie Ginther, was at times fast, but still overweight and unreliable.

It did win the last race of the season in Mexico but overall was miles off the performance of Lotus, BRM, Ferrari, Brabham, and Cooper.

In 1966 when the 3 litre engine formula was adopted, Honda largely got it wrong.

The RA273, which was a development of the previous car, was still overweight. When their new 3 litre V12 engine was ready it didn’t fit into the car.

It wasn’t until the Italian GP that Honda finally got the car race ready. When it finally showed up at Monza it was 200 kilo’s over the minimum 500 kilo weight limit and dreadfully uncompetitive.

It wasn’t going the way Soichiro Honda had hoped. At the end of the 1966 F1 season, Soichiro Honda had some big decisions to make about his team.

They were woefully uncompetitive and turning out to be a waste of time and money promoting Honda’s car line. He could pull the plug and walk away or admit that Honda’s engineers didn’t know how to make a competitive F1 car and look for help in Europe.

He swallowed his pride and opted for the latter. 

New beginnings

1967 Honda RA300

The changes were quickly made. Ginther and Bucknum were dropped. John Surtees who had won the 1964 F1 drivers’ championship with Ferrari was signed.

But the most important change that occurred was to hire Lola Cars to design Honda’s new chassis. 

While Honda would dubiously try to claim the 1967 car, the RA300 was a collaboration between themselves and Lola, the fact was the car was actually based on Lola’s T90 design which had raced at the Indianapolis 500 the previous year.

Many in the motor racing press would dub the car the “Hondola”. When the 1967 season started the new car was late again. Lola was forced to refine the previous year’s RA273 to make it more drivable, and while it was still relatively uncompetitive, Surtees had to make do with it until the Italian GP when the RA300 was introduced. 

The RA300 would finally debut at Monza, which was the ninth race of the season. The 1967 Italian GP was like a fairy tale for Honda. The RA300 won in its first race.

Honda had proved to the world once again that they could produce a winning F1 car. The reality was a lot different. Surtees had qualified only ninth and through his driving skill and attrition had worked his way up to third on the last lap.

On that last lap Jim Clark, who was leading, fell back with a faulty fuel pump. Surtees caught Jack Brabham, nursing an engine problem, just before the finish line to win.

Though the RA300 had won on its maiden race, it had led a total of just a single lap. While the RA300 wouldn’t fare as well in the last 2 races of the season, Honda saw the Monza victory as proof the team could produce a winning F1 car on one of Europe’s most famous race circuits, and also boast that they had tied Ferrari for fourth in the Constructors Cup.

He would then order his engineers to design as radical a car as they could for 1968. Honda wanted to win at any cost. For the 1968 season, Honda would take a two-track design approach as they knew their new radical car wouldn’t be ready for the season opener in South Africa.

The RA300 chassis was tweaked and some aerodynamic work done, such as adding a rear wing. That car would be designated the RA301 and the work done by Lola.

It would be nothing more than a stop-gap until the new radical design was ready. That car would be the RA302

Honda’s “coffin”

Soichiro Honda now believed his engineers had learned the complicated process of designing a complete F1 car.

The RA302 would revert back to being an all-Honda design. There would be no more Hondola jokes. The design philosophy was balance and lightness.

To balance the car, the driver and engine were moved far further forward than was done by any of the other F1 car designers. With the driver and engine moved forward, weight distribution was significantly improved.

There was one major flaw in the design. Moving the driver forward had put much of his legs ahead of the front axle line, which in the event of a frontal crash would almost certainly have resulted in very serious leg injuries.

To lighten the car two things were done. Honda would design, on the orders of Soichiro Honda himself, a 3 litre V8 air-cooled engine. Honda believed their experience in high-revving air-cooled motorcycle racing engines could be transferred to F1.

The engine itself was lighter than a water-cooled F1 engine from Cosworth or Ferrari and not having to use radiators and hoses to move coolant around saved even more weight.

The second area where Honda lightened the car was to construct the body from thin sheets of magnesium rather than aluminum. The extreme flammability of magnesium was well known to the designers, yet they disregarded the fact of a potentially catastrophic fire in their quest to reduce weight, just as they had also disregarded the safety of the driver by moving his driving position forward to gain better balance.

When the car was finally finished it weighed in at just under 500 kilo’s (500 kilo’s was the FIA set minimum), and the 3 litre V8 air- cooled engine produced around 425 HP, which was similar to output of a Cosworth DFV.

It was now ready to test. When Surtees finally got to put the RA302 through a test at Silverstone, the car proved to be a huge disappointment. Immediately Surtees noticed the car lacked stability and was difficult to control entering and leaving a corner.

At the end of the first test lap the engine developed a massive oil leak. With the oil leak fixed Surtees headed out again only for the engine to over-heat. After two more laps Surtees pulled into the pits and pronounced he would drive the car no further. He told the Honda team the car was undrivable and that unless they removed the magnesium body and replaced it with aluminum he would never drive it again.

The combination of those two factors made the car he believed a deathtrap.  Surtees later would tell reporters,

“You’d drive out of the pits and it would feel quite sharp, but it was impossible to drive any distance with it performing as it should.

“Mr. Nakamura (Honda team manager) told Japan we could not take this to a race.”

With the French GP only weeks away Honda found themselves in a bind. Their ex-world champion star driver refused to drive the new car, while Honda France had been heavily marketing the new F1 car and its air-cooled engine in tandem with promoting Honda’s new road car, the 1300, which also had an air-cooled engine. Honda scrambled to find a solution.

What transpired over the few days before the French GP sealed the fate of a French diver and Honda’s F1 aspirations. 

The 1968 French GP was held at Rouen-Les-Essarts. The circuit which was constructed in 1950 was mostly purpose built, with a small section using public roads. The circuit featured many elevation changes and some gradients over 10%. This would be it sixth and ultimately final French GP. 

Soichiro Honda happened to be in France attending a trade-show during the week of the French GP. He had privately met with Surtees who told him in no uncertain terms that he would never drive the RA302 and if forced to he would leave the team.

Honda had also met with executives from Honda France, who were adamant that with all the marketing they had done, the RA302 had to race. Honda agreed with his French executives, to not race would be an admission of defeat and ultimately bad for Honda’s image and business.

Honda’s black mark

Honda France had come up with a plan. The RA302 would not be entered as part of the regular Honda team, but as from Honda France. They even had a driver selected, a popular 40 year old Frenchman named Jo Schlesser.

Honda France would foot the bill for the cost of running the car and pay for the driver. Honda agreed and gave the plan his approval. Neither Surtees nor the rest of the Honda team were informed of the plan until an hour before the start of the first practice session.

Jo Schlesser was at 40 years old in the twilight of his racing career. He had raced several times at Lemans and had been part of the Matra F2 team. He was a capable driver, but clearly not anything special. He was also good friends with Guy Ligier, who it has been rumoured was one of the people who recommended Schlesser to Honda France.

But he was likeable and French and that fit the bill for Honda France.

For Schlesser this was likely to be his last big opportunity to break into F1 and do it with a major works team. He jumped at the opportunity. During practice, Schlesser clearly struggled to come to grips with the car, while Surtees in the year old RA301 was able to stay close to the leaders. In qualifying, Surtees would place seventh, while Schlesser would be 16th and second to last.

The race had an uneventful start but on lap two tragedy occurred. Schlesser while negotiating the downhill bend know as Six Freres while almost flat out, ran wide in the bad handling RA302 onto a grassy embankment. The car flipped over and the fuel tank ruptured, spewing nearly 50 gallons (200 litres) of race fuel on to the car which then caught fire.

The fuel fire then ignited the magnesium monocoque which created an inferno so intense French fire-fighters couldn’t put it out. Schlesser trapped under the car was incinerated. 

Ultimately the race was won by Jackie Ickx in a Ferrari with John Surtees in the year old RA301 finishing second. Tragically Surtees was proven to be right all along. The RA302 was a death trap.

But the story doesn’t end at Rouen.

Schlesser’s car had been completely destroyed in his accident. On the orders of Soichiro Honda a new RA302 chassis was built, still with a magnesium body, and by the Italian GP it was ready.

When Surtees arrived at Monza he found the car there and the Honda team begging him to drive it in the Italian GP. Surtees refused again. Word leaked out to the press that Honda were trying to force Surtees to drive a car that was now known as a death trap and the person responsible was none other than Soichiro Honda himself.

The negative publicity that was created for both Soichiro Honda and the Honda company was enormous. Honda finally realized the damage that the RA302 had created for company and shortly after the Italian GP announced they would be completely pulling out of F1.

The memory of Jo Schlesser would, however, continue to live on in motor racing.

When his good friend Guy Ligier started a sports car team he would designate every new model design starting with Schlesser’s initials JS.

When Ligier bought the assets of the Matra F1 team and renamed it Equipe Ligier he continued that tradition with every F1 car he built. 

Ultimately, what started out as an attempt by Honda to showcase their technology and engineering strength, turned into with the RA302, a case of corporate greed, where the pursuit of cars sales by Honda and their French subsidiary justified putting a driver into a car that was known to be a deathtrap and when tragedy occurred, showed no remorse for what happened.

The fact that Honda would build another car for Surtees with a magnesium body for the Italian GP, reinforced the belief that Honda had complete disregard for their driver’s safety and that car sales and the image of Honda was all that mattered.

This story remains a black mark for Honda to this day.

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