Reaching for the Top in Motorsports (F-1: The Initial Phase)
The drafting of detailed layouts for the prototype RA270 engine was started in August 1962, and by June of the following year the team was ready to test its performance. Their prototype F-1 car, which, like the Cooper Climax on which it was modeled, was covered with a steel space frame, was tested in Arakawa on February 6, 1964.
Mr. Honda and Yoshio Nakamura, assistant director of the research center (later becoming the first F-1 team manager), drove the metallic-gold car two laps around the course. The RA270 recorded 8,500 rpm in fifth gear, with a maximum speed of 175 km per hour. The following week, on February 13, the RA270 tested at 210 horsepower with 11,800 rpm, exceeding the 200-horsepower mark for the first time. Fujiya Maruno, an engine design engineer who witnessed the test, made this entry in his notebook: "The Old Man is happy."
The notebook of Maruno, in charge of engine design. The entry for February 13, 1964, reads, "The Old Man is happy."
"The Old Man (Soichiro) had been racking his brains. He used to come to the design room and tell us we should do this and do that before going home. Then, he would come back the following morning and ask us what had happened. Of course, by that time he had a different, better idea with him. He wasn’t getting enough sleep, either. It was like that for a long time, so it was no wonder he was so happy that day," says Maruno.
The test car’s chassis was built at the research center, but the center also had to devote its resources toward the development of passenger vehicles.
Nakamura discussed the matter with Mr. Honda, and it was decided that they would build only the engine and have European teams use it in their own chassis designs. Nakamura flew to Europe in summer 1963, visiting several F-1 teams and promoting Honda's engine.
Finally, Lotus was selected to be their partner. However, in January 1964, when they were ready to ship the engine, the partnership collapsed due to a situation that had arisen on the Lotus side. Honda had to build the chassis by itself after all. Of course, they were plagued with problems, from design and materials to parts and components, since the company had relatively little experience in auto manufacturing, not to mention racing machines. Each day, their designs were changed following rebuttals by the shouting Mr. Honda.
All these efforts, however, were rewarded when the first race-ready F-1 machine, the RA271, was finally completed. The body was painted ivory white, and the front nose donned a vivid red circle symbolizing the Japanese flag.
The first attempt was the German Grand Prix held in August 1964. The driver was Ronnie Bucknam. Regrettably, the RA271 crashed out of this highly anticipated debut race, only three laps before it was to cross the finish line. However, the car was running in ninth position when it retired, and it gave great confidence to the team after a disappointing qualifying round in which the RA271 could not complete a single lap.
The August 1964 German Grand Prix, the initial F-1 race in Honda’s first phase
That year, the RA271 competed in three races, but ended up retiring in all of them. The team’s staff was not at all pessimistic about its performance or prospects, though. Instead, the thinking was on how to make use of the knowledge acquired from those three races, and apply it to the next season.