Honda’s RA302 car was a while in the making. The Japanese giant arrived in F1 in ’64. It brought with it a transversely-mounted V12 motor. A complex masterpiece of engineering, it was the talk of the GP world. It took Honda nearly two seasons to make it to the top step of the podium. The first win came in Mexico – in the final race of the 1.5-litre era. If Honda thought they had cracked it, they were ahead of themselves. In ’66 and ’67, results were lacklustre. At the time, all F1 engines were heavy. Honda’s exotic V12, though, tipped the scales at 100lb more than its rivals. Not ideal!
Thankfully for Honda, John Surtees was on the driving roster. By the start of the ’68 season, he had helped develop the RA301 car. It was tidier of design than its predecessor. It was also more powerful. Surtees was assured that a lightweight V12 was on its way. At that point, head honcho Soichiro Honda threw a spanner in the works. Well, it was his works, to be fair! Honda-san’s priority was selling N600 saloon cars. Their engines were still air-cooled. Honda’s increasingly successful motorcycles were also on Soichiro’s mind. They, too, were air-cooled. For Mr Honda, bread and butter business trumped motorsport. He instructed the race department to come up with an air-cooled motor – to match the roadsters’ powerplants. The lightweight V12 Surtees had been promised was mothballed.
In due course, Soichiro got his air-cooled F1 car. Parked in Silverstone’s paddock, the Honda RA302 looked a dream. Light and compact, its 120° V8 sat snugly at the back of a monocoque chassis. When the time came to fire it up, Innes Ireland was at the wheel. The erstwhile Lotus legend was now a journalist. Ireland was about to take the RA302 out for its first test-drive. When he returned to the paddock, it was not with good news. Handling-wise, he said, the new car was all over the shop. Surtees’ mood that day was already testy – and Ireland’s report did not improve it. Surtees had not even known the car was coming, until the last minute. Never mind that it was already entered in the upcoming French GP. Surtees declined to have anything further to do with the RA302 – which was clearly way underdeveloped. Honda France duly stepped into the GP breach. Jo Schlesser – looking to move from F2 to F1 – would do the driving at Rouens. Come race day, the French weather was dreadful. Schlesser – and the RA302 – started towards the back of the grid. Surtees, meanwhile – driving the RA301 – was vying for the lead. On only the second lap, Schlesser’s new air-cooled engine let go. The RA302 careened into a bank and caught fire. Tragically, the French ace died in the blaze. Later that year – in the Italian GP, at Monza – Surtees did finally drive the recalcitrant RA302. But, to no avail. At the end of the ’68 season – perhaps chastened by the RA302 experience – Honda withdrew from racing. It did not return until the Eighties!