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Honda: how it all started

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Who?

Richie Ginther

What?

Honda RA272

Where?

Magdalena-Mixhuca

When?

1965 Mexican GP

Why?

Richie Ginther wins the last Grand Prix of the 1.5-litre formula and Honda's first.



It is one of those many true episodes that John Frankenheimer uses for his 1966 epos Grand Prix. Only the location of the grand finale in this American Dream is relocated from Mexico to Monza. It is James Garner alias Pete Aron who finally wins the championship. Even the details are correct. Like Garner in the movie, Richie Ginther was also at BRM before he was hired by Honda. However, Ginther was not Honda's first GP driver. This honour belongs to his American fellow driver Ronnie Bucknum. It was he who was taken on by Honda for the first tests in 1964. Sportscar driver Bucknum was not well known in the scene, not even experts had heard of him until his first GP on the Nürburgring.

Soichiro Honda's motorcycles ruled the scene in the beginning of the sixties, taking many championships. Honda himself was a passionate car driver and engineer and he wanted to step into Formula 1. At the age of 22 he had built his first racer himself. He used a V8 Curtis Wright plane engine and with this vehicle it propelled he set a Japanese speed record. After a heavy accident with this car, Honda had to promise to his family never to race again. So he decided to enter the racing scene as a constructor and entrant. At this time, his first road car, the S800 sports coupe, came onto the market.

Honda formed a project team under the supervision of his development engineer, Yoshio Nakamura. A person with the same name is one of the characters in the movie Grand Prix. The team bought a 1962 Cooper chassis for close examination. In order to be near enough to the European racing community, Honda set up an own basis at Zandvoort. Work with the Cooper chassis reached a dead end and so they decided to develop and built a chassis of their own. Negotiations with Brabham (at first) but also with Lotus for co-operation led to nothing. This prompted Honda in building its first own test car which was tried out at Zandvoort. A special feature of the engine was the way it was built into the chassis. Honda used its motorcycle technology to good effect and constructed a lightweight, high revving, small 12-cylinder engine for competition in the 1.5-litre class. The engine was mounted transversely into the chassis.

From this prototype the first GP car was derived named RA271. This car was entered in its first GP at the Nürburgring. Ronnie Bucknum qualified 22nd and last, one minute off Surtees' pole and 20 seconds off his next rival. But he made a good debut and got up to 10th place in the race. On lap 12 (of 15) the steering broke and this forced Bucknum into an accident and, subsequently, retirement. It was his first race in a single-seater!

In Monza Honda appeared with a new chassis (02). There were raised eyebrows as Bucknum qualified 10th, ahead of Jack Brabham! He then drove up to a very good fifth in the race until he has to call it a day due to fading brakes. Chassis 271/02 got its last chance at the US GP but this time the loud little high-revving engine overheated after 50 of the 110 laps at Watkins Glen.

Honda passed by on the last outing at Mexico, instead continuing with further development of the car. The 271 was a quick car, no doubt, but it had to be more reliable to be really competitive. And with its humpback, it wasn't a particularly pretty car. So well into the 1965 season Bucknum was at the track driving endless testing kilometres. In one of these tests at Suzuka the steering broke again. This time Bucknum wasn't so lucky, injuring his leg severely. It forced him to pause in the middle of the season.

Richie Ginther had been hired at the beginning of 1965. He was a good driver and had scored 23 world championchip points the year before for BRM. Actually he was the most experienced driver Honda could get at this point. Ginther had raced in sportscars together with von Trips and Phil Hill for Ferrari and could look back on 39 GPs, 7 of them for Ferrari, for whom he also used to work as a mechanic/driver. However, most of Richie's GPs were with BRM. At BRM Ginther was overshadowed by Graham Hill, and although he had scored the same number of points as Hill in 1964, he lost 5 of them because of the points deduction rules in force those days. Otherways he and Hill would have been joint second in the championships. What Ginther needed for his career was a victory and he hoped to receive it with Honda.

The new, slimmer, RA 272 was ready for Monaco '65. The narrow streets of the principality did not fit the car, so Bucknum and Ginther were at the back of the grid. Ginther had problems with gear selection and retired before the end of the first lap, while Bucknum was out soon, too, also with gearbox trouble. More retirements follow in the course of the season - the RA 272 didn't seem to get into its swing. In the middle of the season Bucknum was forced to pause due to his broken leg suffered at Suzuka. There was some hope at Spa and Zandvoort where Ginther finished the race sixth, gaining Honda's first points. In the Netherlands he even briefly led the race for two laps ahead of Clark and Hill, after qualifying fourth. But then he spun the lead away, twice, indicating that the Honda had a problem to hold the road under a full load of fuel at the beginning of a race. Another spin followed at Silverstone, where just one car was entered, Ginther qualifying next to Clark and Hill on the front row. But the car at least showed its potential on these tracks. By the end of the season the Japanese technicians could claim 240bhp at 11,000rpm, stating that it could hold 14,000 revs for a short time without being destroyed.

In that respect it was the strongest engine of F1's 1.5-litre era which had begun in 1961. In those days even the Ferrari Dinos had 80bhp less. A remarkable increase in power over this five-year period, without the use of turbos of course. The reference engine in these years was still the V8 Climax from Coventry, used by the British works teams Cooper, Lotus and Brabham, simultaneously. Together with the Honda engine, Ferrari, Climax and BRM only 4 different engines were fielded in most of the 1965 GPs. The usable bandwidth of revs was very narrow in the Honda though, so that was naturally a disadvantage on narrow courses.

Honda did not enter for Germany, instead going to Italy. In Monza they showed better form and the returning Bucknum qualified sixth, having recoverd from his accident. However, both cars retired in the race. At the Glen Ginther finished 7th after he had started the race from 3rd place. Finally, the car was strong enough to cover a race distance, so even Bucknum gets classified 13th.

October 24th, 1965: the last Grand Epreuve of the 1.5-litre era. It is only for the fourth time that a Grand Prix is held at the high altitude of Mexico City. Engine and carburettor/injection settings (Honda used an own development of injection after having tried 6 (!) carbs for 12 cylinders in the beginning) are difficult to find for the engineers at this altitude of more than 6,000 feet. Even the Mexicans take special notice of the strange white Japanese car with its black anodized suspensions, contrary to the chroming of the english cars. One witness of the time recalls that local hero, Mexican Moises Solana was offered Bucknum's ride but refused to take the car because of its looks and preferred to take the Lotus which he reckoned to be more esthetical...

Richie Ginther qualified his RA272 in third, Bucknum was 10th (behind Solana). Clark sat on pole, with Gurney in the Brabham next to him. Innes Ireland's perfomance was so bad that he got fired before the race. Another local hope, Pedro Rodriguez in a Ferrari is only 13th. On the morning of race day Richie Ginther swops his car with Bucknum's chassis because it handled better, clearly showing that Ginther was regarded the No.1 in the team.

At the start, Ginther managed to take the lead immediately and got ahead of his strongest rival in the field, Clark, who by now was World Champion already. The Scot had secured the title as early as the Nürburgring. Then Clark's car developed engine trouble and after nine laps in pursuit of Ginther the champion had to call it a day. Brabham, Hill and Gurney remained as Ginther's hottest competitors. Brabham's car suffered from an oil leak since lap 40, with Hill's BRM also breaking down near the end. With only the attention of Dan Gurney remaining Richie Ginther fought of his countryman's attacks to take victory after 65 laps with the narrow lead of only three seconds, in a race he managed to lead flag to flag. A convincing performance of car and driver. Bucknum also profited from the retirements and earned a fifth place, one lap down but ahead of the Ferraris of Pedro Rodriguez and Lorenzo Bandini. The claim in this newspaper clipping is wishful thinking, actually Bucknum was ahead of Solana. Those two points remained the single achievement of his Formula One career.

After crossing the finish line the Honda (and all the other 1.5-litre cars) were obsolete on the spot. The sensation was perfect, however. Nobody dared to talk of Honda as those motorcycle people. The small Japanese company had finally taken its ticket into the GP circus and was determined to stay there as a respected manufacturer/entrant in the years to come. But things did not develop as brilliantly as expected, neither for Honda nor for Ginther or Bucknum.

For the 1966 season Honda constructed a 3-litre car, as did all the others, but could not get it ready for the curtain raiser races. Ginther went to Cooper-Maserati and finished the first races as an also-ran. The new Honda only appeared towards the end of the season (Monza) and was definitely too heavy. The RA273 (90 2992cc V12) showed 740kgs on the scale, with the weight limit at 500kgs. The engine developed a good 400bhp right from the beginning but this did not pay off because of the overweight. A new car had to be designed, so Honda started it all over again. In co-operation with Lola they produced the new RA300 ("Hondola") one year later, towards the end of 1967. The new master in the cockpit was former world champion John Surtees and he managed a Monza victory in a fotofinish duel with Jack Brabham. This victory was overshadowed by the hero of the day, Clark, who had put in one of his most sensational drives ever, working his way back into the lead after a pit stop for tyres, being one lap down. In the final lap his car ran out of fuel due to a miscalculation of the team and he finished a disconsolate third. But Honda had claimed its second GP victory with an engine producing some 412bhp by now.

What had happened to our heroes of Mexico? Both had appeared in two 1966 races in the RA273 in the US, and again in Mexico (Ginther finished 4th, and Bucknum 8th). These were both their last GP entries. Bucknum later raced in US sportscars, quite successfully, and also at Indy (15th 1970). His son Jeff is an active driver today in US "Star Formula Mazda" series. Ronnie Bucknum died in 1992.

Richie Ginther was entered for one more GP, but in the end he missed qualifying for Monaco 1967 in Dan Gurney's Eagle-Weslake. Days before he jumped out of his cockpit during Indianapolis qualifying and hang up his helmet for good. It is said that he could not cope with the ever increasing commercialism of racing. Anyhow, the rest of Richie Ginther's life wasn't crowned by success, to say the least. He died in 1989, shortly after paying a visit to England, where he had been invited by BRM to celebrate their 40th anniversary. During his last years Richie had lived in a trailer. In Mexico. Irony of fate?

In 1965 a co-operation between Honda and Brabham was started but only for Formula 2 cars, because Jack Brabham was contracted to Australian engine supplier Repco for F1. Honda delivered its first F2 engine to Brabham in England, but this showed a weak performance. But from 1966 on the Japanese supplied Jack with a great new 1000cc powerplant that showed many new construction features. It was implemented in Ron Tauranac's new design, the BT18. With it, Denny Hulme and Jack Brabham won each and every F2 race that season, with one exception.

John Surtees' new F1 team mate for 1968 was Jo Schlesser. After Jo's fatal accident in the cockpit of the Honda TA302 on lap 4 of the French GP, Honda withdrew from F1 as an entrant by the end of the season.


Honda's F1 record