An American unknown riding the honour of Japan
- Mattijs Diepraam
- 8W May 1999 issue
- Honda - Honda: How it all started, by Thilo Figaj
1964 German GP
In 1999 the premature death of Honda R&D UK boss Harvey Postlethwaite shifted Honda's plans for the new millennium from going it alone to become BAR "development partner" (note that the spin doctors have also reached Japan). While Postlethwaite's death might have dealt a big blow to the development team, the behind-the-scenes opposition against the new light-weight V12 the Japanese were rumoured to have on the test bed will probably have been the main reason for the Honda's sudden change of mind. It is said that Mercedes in particular had been lobbying against the V12-with-V10-characteristics, promoting a V10-only engine rule with the FIA, supposedly to keep a level playing field and to control costs. Given the fact that Honda's semi-secret work had apparently also set Ferrari back on the V12 trail you can spot the hidden agenda from miles away - and it also made Ron Dennis' harsh words on Honda copping out rather hypocritical, as his political moves were likely to be the main reason for the Japanese coming back on their intentions.
Even in the sixties the V12 was close to Honda's hart, an engine configuration which also was to provide the 'BMW of the East' with numerous race wins in the eighties. A 1.5-litre version (still non-turbo of course) first turned up at the 'Ring on board the RA271 design, unknown American Ronnie Bucknum driving. Oddly enough, at the time Honda wasn't known as a car manufacturer but had already seen many successes as a motorcycle factory, taking FIM championships by storm in the early sixties.
Only in 1962 Soichiro Honda, an avid engineer and speedway racer himself, hence the nickname 'Commendatore of the East', decided to branch out into motorcars, with his first design, the pretty S800 sports coupé, coinciding with the launch of his F1 project. Motorcycle technology formed the core of the first Honda car engines and to this day extracting lots of power out of small, light-weight, high-revving engines has remained one of Honda's fortes.
For their F1 endeavour Honda developed a compact 60-degree V12 engine unit, which was mounted transversely to the chassis. This led to the bulky chassis design, but the new-rule 1.5 litre engine capacity was well to Honda's liking. The F1 team was led by Honda's development engineer Yoshio Nakamura, who convinced the Great Soichiro to enter four-wheel competition. Strangely, the team base was set up in Holland, of all places, with the testing done at Zandvoort.
Finally, at the 1964 German GP, the RA271 made its debut, as did Californian Ronnie Bucknum, driving a single-seater race for the first time in his life! The American retired with a fright, his car suffering steering failure while 11th but Ronnie managed to rock the establishment's boat slightly by holding 5th at Monza before the V12 overheated.
For 1965, fast American Richie Ginther was hired to partner his countryman in the new RA272. With the car showing lashes of speed on fast circuits but suffering from poor reliability throughout, Ginther's end-of-season victory in Mexico, leading from start to finish no less, really shocked the European teams, who had to accept the first GP win for a Japanese constructor. For Bucknum, the season had gone less well after endless miles of pre-season testing at Suzuka. In one of his testing shifts the Honda again suffered a steering failure, sending Bucknum into the barriers. With a broken leg as the result, Ronnie's 1965 season was spent as the clear number two to the mercurial Ginther.
Then the new 3-litre formula was introduced. This meant Honda had to ditch its promising 1.5-litre V12. It was replaced with a new one double the engine size - which probably meant to the Japanese they had to double the weight as well! Although very powerful, Honda's initial 3-litre was about 200 kgs overweight and seriously hampered the handling of the RA273. This was a big blow to ex-champ John Surtees, who had joined Nakamura's camp for 1966. Then, at Monza, the RA300 appeared, a British design incorporating Honda's big V12. With Lola involved on the construction side (Lola in fact internally codenamed the car T130) and assembly done at Surtees' own factory in Slough, the car was dubbed 'Hondola'. Ultimate success came at the 1967 slipstreamer at Monza, Surtees to some extent inheriting the win by taking Jack Brabham in the last dive into Parabolica after passing the stricken car of Jim Clark, who had run out of fuel after a heroic drive through the field to take the lead with a few laps to go. Meanwhile, Ronnie Bucknum received fair reward by getting the RA273 for the final two Grands Prix of the season.
In 1968 the Anglo-Japanese RA301 became victim of the underdevelopment of the V12 by Honda, the Japanese factory instead concentrating on its new air-cooled V8, for which it designed the RA302 itself. It was to be an ill-fated design as Surtees found it hard to drive, the car then handed to Honda France for Jo Schlesser to drive at his home GP at Rouen. Sadly, the event turned into a nightmare as Schlesser slammed off the track, the full fuel load of the car immediately catching flame. The Frenchman died in the cockpit.
At the end of the 1968 season Honda pulled out of F1, but not before they had given David Hobbs a one-off ride, to return in the eighties as an engine supplier, first tentatively with the small Spirit outfit, hitherto its partner in F2, then full-force with Williams and later McLaren, contributing to a total of six consecutive Honda-powered constructor titles.
And how did Ronnie Bucknum fare? Well, his Honda F1 adventure was really just the start of his racing career which really began to blossom in CanAm and USAC, taking his Eagle to victory in the 1968 Michigan 500 - only his second oval race! Only Nigel Mansell and Juan Pablo Montoya can claim a similar rookie performance. For 1969 and 1970 Bucknum remained in USAC (here seen posing with his Eagle before the 1969 Indy 500). In the seventies Ronnie transfered to TransAm and long-distance racing for Roger Penske, teaming up with Sam Posey in the NART Ferrari. In 1992, Bucknum died under the strain of diabetes, aged 57.