Honda has always had a way of making small, magical engines. Ever since the company had won overall victory at the Isle of Man TT Race and started winning Grands Prix races in 1961, there was anticipation concerning Honda’s possible move into car racing. So it only stood to reason that when Formula One went to 1.5 liter displacement in 1961, it would give Honda a reason to jump in.
Oddly, many of the people on the team assigned to develop the car didn't know much --if anything at all -- about F1. In May 1962, Hideo Sugiura, quality manager at Saitama Factory at the time, received an unofficial order from Yoshihito Kudo, director of the research center, "We are planning to compete in F1. I want you to oversee the project." Sugiura replied, "What is F1? I have seen some photographs about it before, but I don’t know what it is. Please tell me what F1 is."
"I don’t know, either," replied Kudo. "It doesn’t matter. Everyone’s a beginner, at first.". Clearly. F1 was a foreign concept to Honda’s employees at that time. What little information they had came from an early 2.5-liter Cooper Climax F1 car, which the research center had obtained six month earlier.
"The target for horsepower was decided by Mr. Honda himself," recalls Akio Okudaira, who was in charge of engine performance. "Whether that horsepower could be achieved was not the question. He just told us we must produce this much power in order to win. For example, the code name for the engine, RA270, was assigned by Mr. Honda, who probably wanted to remind us that the engine had to produce 270 horsepower."
Thus was born the RA270 - Honda's first prototype Formula 1 car built completely by Honda. The car made its first tests in February 1964. The most notable feature of the prototype car is the 12 separate exhausts for the Honda V12 engine.
They quickly went to work to produce a race-ready version of the prototype. The new version - the RA271 was created by Japanese development engineer Yoshio Nakamura, who had already worked as development project manager on the RA270 F1 prototype the previous year. The new car was based on the RA270 prototype and was designed around a new Honda V12 engine, which was revolutionary in the sport at the time for a variety of reasons. Most teams were utilizing a longitudinally-mounted V8. The Honda engineers decided to use a V12, mounted transversely, instead. As was covered in our previous piece on the RC166 Grand Prix motorcycle, Honda engineers knew that, for a given displacement, more cylinders generally allow smaller and lighter moving parts, higher rotational speeds and thus a greater peak power. The 60 degree V engine was mounted transversely to keep the wheelbase smaller and more agile. It was these fresh ideas that the Honda engineers intended to exploit. Although the RA271 only contested three 1964 Grands Prix, its innovative, transversely mounted, 1.5 liter V12 engine was known to many as "the strongest engine of F1's 1.5-liter era" The twin-cam 1.5 liter V12 generated 230 hp at 11,500 rpm. Not Soichiro's target, but it was stout amongst the other cars – The strength of the engine formed the basis for their next car - the RA272.
The RA272 chassis was an evolution of the 271, which was an aluminium monocoque design - a concept pioneered by Colin Chapman and his Lotus team two years earlier. This was still a fairly unusual approach, with most other teams using an old fashioned tubular spaceframe set up. The Honda team did, however, use a tubular rear subframe to aid in access for repair and maintenance. The engine and heavy chassis weighed in at 1155 pounds, significantly over the minimum weight limit of 990 pounds. For perspective, the Ferrari 158 weighed just 1030 pounds. The Honda was at least 10% heavier than any competitive car in the field.
In addition to changes to the RA272, Honda also changed drivers, adding American driver Richie Ginther to pilot the car. The appeal was not only his driving skill, but that he was known as someone who could help them with car development.
Honda was still developing at the time of the South Africa season-opener, so they planned to debut the RA272 at the Monaco Grand Prix. Even though they increased output to 240 hp at 13,000 rpm in the RA272, they qualified towards the back of the grid, causing concern the new car wasn't enough of an improvement. Ginther managed a fourth place qualifying at the next round - the high speed Spa-Francorchamps track, which allowed the Honda to better stretch its legs. Ginther finished sixth in the race, scoring Honda's very first World Championship point in the process. Plus the Honda power was showing. Often off the standing start grid, the Honda would pull away aggressively. But reliability was still an issue for the team. Before the final round of the year, Ginther had only managed to finish in the points one other time.
The teams knew there were extensive rule changes looming for the 1966 season, most noticeably an increase to 3.0 liters of displacement. The last race of the season, the Mexican Grand Prix, was the last chance for the RA272 to show Honda's capability. The high-altitude track made the Mexican Grand Prix notoriously tough on engines. The Honda V12 wasn't as impacted as much as other engines. Ginther qualified third on the grid, then went on to win the race - Honda's very first Formula 1 victory in what was only the team's 11th Grand Prix. Starting 10th, Ginther's team mate Bucknum crossed the line in fifth, scoring his first points for Honda.
With that race, the Honda RA272 ended its career on a high in more ways than one. Honda not only won their first Grand Prix win as a company, but also the first for the nation of Japan.