Fifty years ago this month, Honda won its first Grand Prix. Not as an engine supplier as it is now, but a constructor in its own right. Nor was this any fluke occasioned by everyone else in the field falling off the circuit. It is true that over the half the grid retired and that Richie Ginther’s Honda RA272 scored neither pole position nor fastest lap, but so too is it true that he led every one of the 65 laps of Mexico City’s Magdelena Mixhuca circuit, aided in part by his fuel injected engine working rather better at 7,500ft than his carb-fed rivals, and also his Goodyear tyres. It would be the first win for not only Honda, but Ginther and Goodyear too, as he held off Dan Gurney’s similarly shod Brabham to win by less than 3seconds after over two hours of racing.
Since then it has won just two more – one in Hungary in 2006 where Jenson Button used all his renowned changeable weather skills to win and, previously, the 1967 Italian Grand Prix, courtesy of John Surtees and the RA300.
This was one of the most extraordinary races ever held, in which the Big John’s win was overshadowed by one of Jim Clark’s greatest drives. Jimmy lost an entire lap replacing a punctured tyre and then, in 46 mesmerising laps, overtook the entire field to lead again only to be cruelly denied the victory he so richly deserved when the fuel pump on his Lotus 49 quit on him on the very last lap. He was relegated to third at the flag, allowing Surtees to win by, get this, 0.2sec from Jack Brabham’s BT24. For fans of motor-racing trivia, the RA300 won the Italian Grand Prix on the only lap of a race it ever led, a feat never achieved before or since in F1.
But was it really a Honda? It was conceived in desperation, when it became clear that Honda’s own RA273 was too heavy to ever have a chance of winning anything. Surtees was not only its one and only driver, he was its technical adviser and, using all his powers of persuasion, he talked Honda into ditching their own car and adapting a Lola IndyCar chassis to take Honda power. The car was designed and built in Slough in just three weeks and it gained three names: Honda called it the RA300, Lola called it the T130 while posterity knows it only as the Hondola. And a while back, I went to Honda’s Motegi racetrack in Japan with the intention of driving it.
Which is a bloody long way to travel only to discover you don’t fit. But, however hard I wriggled into a cockpit designed for the famously diminutive Surtees, my 6ft 4in frame was not going to be accommodated. I was saved only when its engineers agreed to do what I’d previously been told was impossible: they removed the cockpit surround which would mean I’d look like a giant in a pedal car, but at least I could drive. Right then I wasn’t too bothered by appearances.
History holds that, in 1967 there was only one engine to have in your car and it said Ford Cosworth on its cam covers and was known to all as the DFV. Less well known is that it was almost certainly not then the most powerful motor on the grid, its huge benefit instead being the fact that it could be rigidly mounted and used as a fully stressed chassis member. In fact the Weslake V12 in Gurney’s Eagle was probably more powerful by the end of the season but even that didn’t quite have the grunt of the Honda V12 now firing up mellifluously behind me – about 420bhp from a 3-litre capacity almost half a century ago.
Bizarre though it still seems, given that only one Hondola was ever built and I was sitting in it, I drove it as fast as I reasonably could. The day had been laid on to shake down all the cars and bikes Honda was bringing to Goodwood and everyone else blessed with a drive or a ride was making maximum use of the available equipment. So I did too.
I remember three things: the towering poke of the V12 on Motegi’s long straights, the absurdly benign nature of its Lola chassis, which just begged to be hoofed around on the throttle and, most of all, the faces of the engineers as I drove back to the pits once it was all over. Until then, theirs had been a brooding unsmiling presence; no one said that they could do very well without having to shoehorn this vast hack into their precious car, but no-one needed to. I knew it from the moment I arrived. But now their demeanour changed completely: every one was grinning from ear to ear as they helped me out of their car and for the rest of the trip nothing was too much trouble. They even took me to the secret warehouses where they kept all their two wheel Grand Prix winners, a sight I can never forget and will write about another day.
For now however, spare a thought for Honda as it endures the fires of hell to get its F1 engine programme on track. These guys are as passionate about racing as any Italian team and as dedicated to their craft as any German. They will come good and sooner than most expect. And I for one will be delighted when a Honda, even if it’s just an engine, wins its next Grand Prix.