The ill-fated debut of the Honda RA302 took place against a background of strong opposition from lead driver John Surtees. He had been expecting an improved V12 for his existing car, and was thus surprised when the all-new RA302 was delivered to Honda’s UK base at Slough. Its 120-degree V8 engine was air-cooled, fed by ungainly scoops on the side of the cockpit and at the front of the engine. It was a mobile test bed to showcase the sort of technology Soichiro Honda wanted to use in his new road cars.
“I tried it at Silverstone,” recalls Surtees. “You’d drive out of the pits and it would feel quite sharp, but it was impossible to drive any distance with it performing as it should. Mr Nakamura told Japan we could not take this to a race.”
Soichiro Honda was in France on a trade mission that week and, perhaps influenced by his local representatives, he decided to enter the RA302 under the Honda France banner, with a French driver. Surtees, and even team boss Nakamura, didn’t know of the plan until 7.30am on Thursday, the first day of practice.
“It was not run by the existing Honda team,” says John, “but people who’d previously worked with us were brought over from Japan. They worked as a totally separate unit.”
Surtees can shed no light as to the cause of Schlesser’s crash, but acknowledges the circuit is tricky at the site of the accident, describing it as “the sort of place on the circuit where you were fully occupied”.
It’s generally thought a misfire or complete engine cut-out caused Schlesser to lose control. Honda acquired film showing him getting into a tank-slapper before going off – but there were never any official conclusions.
Engine designer and future Honda boss Nobuhiko Kawamoto was in Japan that weekend. “I thought the cause may have been a transmission seizure,” he says. “After three months, the residuals came back small amounts of steel parts, the engine and transmission, but we found it was really clean. The cause was not revealed.”
Surtees would briefly drive a second RA302 in practice at Monza, but by then it was academic.
“The episode of that car and the accident brought Honda’s whole Formula One programme to an end,” says John. “The fact that it didn’t work meant there weren’t the resources to go back to what we were originally going to do.”