The Honda V8

Shortly before the French Grand Prix at the beginning of July a brand-new Honda Grand Prix car arrived in England direct from Japan. It was new from stem to stern and contained many interesting features and bore little or no resemblance to the V12-cylinder Hondas that Surtees had been racing. When the first 12-cylinder 3-litre Honda appeared in 1966 it was very clear that it had been designed and built on the assumption that development work would produce 500 b.h.p. With Honda racing motorcycle engines developing an easy 160 b.h.p. per litre, the idea of a 500-b.h.p. 3-litre engine was reasonable, so that the massive proportions of the Grand Prix car looked to be aimed for a long-term policy. It was assumed that the V12 would give well over 400 b.h.p. to begin with, and when this was proved wrong, and the expected 450 b.h.p. was not produced with development, let alone the 500 b.h.p., it became very evident that the whole car was outclassed. Surtees did his best, together with his associates, but the task was hopeless and they were really only scratching about on the surface of the problem. It was very clear that the whole conception of the car was wrong, and making bits and pieces lighter was only time-wasting. When Colin Chapman tackled the Indianapolis problem for Ford in 1964/5, he set up a requirement of an engine giving 1 b.h.p. for every 1 lb. of weight, and said that without that it was not worth starting the project. This was a very fair demand, and he got a 350-b.h.p. engine weighing 350 lb. If your basic power unit does not start at this level, then lightweight chassis frames, wheels, suspension units and so on are a waste of time. They all help, but they do not solve the problem.

When Honda started racing their 4-cylinder motorcycles they copied the N.S.U. backbone frame, which was already out-of-date and superseded. They soon found that their machines were lacking in handling, and straight away cut their losses and started again with a double-loop Norton, Gilera-type frame, rather than waste time trying to improve something that was fundamentally wrong. Presumably the same thinking prevails in their Grand Prix design team, and last winter they abandoned their basic thoughts on the V12-cylinder car and started on an entirely new conception, leaving Surtees to play with the 12-cylinder car. The new car was shown in Japan before being flown to England and was designated the RA302.

The engine was a 120-degree vee-eight, with four valves per cylinder, torsion-bar valve springs, two overhead camshafts to each bank of cylinders, and all the castings covered in cooling fins, for there was no water anywhere. The inlet ports were on top of the engine and the exhaust ports underneath, the exhaust pipes curling up round the sides of the car and over the back suspension. A five-speed gearbox was attached to the back of the engine and the whole power plant was bolted to the rear bulkhead of the chassis “monocoque”. However, from the rear bulkhead another “monocoque” structure extended rearwards over the engine, in the vee between the inlet pipes, and this ended in a sheet-metal cross-member attached to the gearbox, and which carried the rear suspension pick-up points and spring loads, the lower suspension units being mounted under the gearbox; so, in effect, the engine and gearbox were hung from this backbone member. At the front of the “monocoque” which formed the cockpit, a bulkhead carried the front suspension, and the pedals were mounted on a tubular outrigger structure forward of this, the bulkhead having an opening through which the driver’s legs protruded. The front suspension was by rocker-arm and inboard spring units, as on the 1966 and 1967 Honda V12, and forward of the pedals was a very thick oil-cooler. Behind the driver’s right shoulder was a large oil-tank and undoubtedly a lot of the engine heat was dissipated by the oil, as on Porsche air-cooled engines, the important thing being to have a high rate of oil flow and good oil cooling. On each side of the cockpit were scoops to take air into the vee of the engine, while the sparking-plugs on each cylinder head were covered by another duct, with air being fed in at the front to blow across the valve gear and cylinder head. To the left and behind the driver’s head was another small scoop that channelled air down into the crankcase, where it mixed with the crankcase oil mist and was then sucked out by a de-aerator which retained the oil, and the air was expelled from a rearward-facing vent on top of the backbone over the engine.

Bore and stroke of this new V8 engine were 88 x 61.4 mm., giving a capacity of 2,987 c.c., and on an 11.5-to-1 compression ratio first publicity estimates were 430 b.h.p. at 10,500 r.p.m., but later, when the car was run, only 380 b.h.p. was claimed and little over 9,000 r.p.m. The overhead camshafts were driven by a gear chain from the rear of the crankshaft and there were ignition distributors on the rear end of each inlet camshaft, each supplying the sparks for its own hank of cylinders. The wheelbase was 92 in., the front track 59 in. and the rear track 57 in., the car looking very short and squat, although the engine looked big compared to a Repco V8 or Cosworth V8. No attempt was made to cover in the mechanical components aft of the cockpit, and the all-up weight was quoted as being within a pound or two of the 500 kilogramme (1,102 lb.) minimum weight for a Formula One car.

After a brief test at Silverstone by Surtees, who was surprised to see the car, not expecting it to be ready until about August or September, it went to Rouen and Surtees intended to try it in practice but not to race it. Mr. Soichiro Honda was in Paris on trade business and decided the car should run in the French Grand Prix, so he got Honda-France to nominate Jo Schlesser to drive it, leaving Surtees with the V12 Honda. The outcome was the tragic death of Schlesser, when he crashed on the third lap of the race, in very wet conditions, and the car was completely destroyed by fire. The whole episode of the Honda V8 was an unhappy one, and only time will tell as to what the outcome will be.—D. S. J.