Big in Japan

It took time to squeeze him in, but Andrew Frankel revelled in the Honda RA300 at Motegi know that feeling you get when something quite wonderful isn't going to happen?

I have memories like this stretching back to early adolescence when, on the first day of a new term, the most beautiful girl in the school came running towards me, arms outstretched. I remember the elation, the fear, the sheer disbelief, the hope that all my mates were watching — and then the utter desolation when she continued straight past into the unseen embrace of her boyfriend standing behind me.

Well, I had it again this morning. As I write I am in a Tokyo hotel room, waiting to catch the first flight home tomorrow. But this morning I was standing in the pitlane of the Twin-Ring Motegi circuit, looking at the Honda RA300 I was apparently about to drive. And the feeling came. Something seemed less than real, just as it had when Sarah Laughton came sprinting towards me: however much I wanted it to be true, the disbelief would not go away. I could not conceive that I was about to become the first journalist to drive a Honda Formula One car. I'm lucky, but I'm not that lucky. Instead of grinning inanely, I could be found pacing up and down the paddock muttering "too good to be true" under my breath.

All old grand prix cars are legitimate slices of the glorious history that made you pick up this magazine, but few can call themselves unique. The Honda Racing Automobile 300, however, is one of them. Winning your maiden race is not a freak occurrence and, somewhat surprisingly, there have been seven World Championship F1 races with winning margins closer than the 0.2sec that separated John Surtees's RA300 from Jack Brabham's BT24 at the line of the 1967 Italian Grand Prix. But it is, to date, the last Honda to win a World Championship round and, amazingly, the only grand prix car ever to have won a race by leading only the last lap of the only grand prix it ever led. And it's rare, even by the absurdly scarce standards of 1960s Honda F1 cars. Its chassis plate describes it as RA300/1; there is no RA300/2 and never was. What you're looking at is the very car that did all those things and, shortly, I was going to drive it. Apparently.

When growing up, I often heard of this weird machine called the Hondola and was never very sure what it was. In fact it was a knee-jerk response to the demonstrable fact that its predecessor, the RA273 which was meant to contest the 1967 season, was so heavy it was never going to amount to serious competition for the Lotus 49. By now Surtees was not just Honda's one and only driver, he was also its technical advisor. He persuaded the company that what was needed was a new car, and that Lola's T90 Indianapolis chassis should provide its basis. Honda's engineers duly installed themselves in Slough, where both Lola and Team Surtees were based, and between them the RA300 — though Lola would call it the T130 — was created in just three weeks.

And despite the apparent haste with which it was conceived and born, the baby itself was unusually beautiful, even in its era of unusually beautiful grand prix cars. It appeared at a time when F1 car design was at its purest and competed in the last season where aerodynamic efforts were directed entirely to avoiding, rather than exploiting, the airflow. By the end of 1968 F1 cars had started to sprout wings and their shapes would never be as clean again. Seen next to Honda's other '60s F1 machines—the RA271, 272, 273, 301 and the innovative, ugly and lethal 302 — it is startlingly clean of line. Unfortunately for me, the car was also designed to fit Surtees, a man as short on physical stature as he is long on raw talent, guts and commitment. Adding to my pitlane misery was the memory of the previous day's seat fitting, which had ended up simply as a seat removal. But even sitting on the car's aluminium floor, I had doubts I could drive it. My shoulders were clamped by the windscreen surround, forcing my body down and my feet against the pedals.

All around me Japanese stars such as Shinji Nakano leapt effortlessly in and out of other Honda-powered racing machines to the collected gasps of the 5000 fans who had turned up to this supposedly private test session to shake down the cars for Goodwood. By comparison, the outsize Englishman would need to be crammed into the cockpit and looked likely to crawl around and return shamed and pained at the end of one lap to the deafening silence of the crowd.

And then, just to really brighten my day, the RA300 broke. Very wisely, Honda sent out a test driver to make sure the RA300 was up to the challenge of having me at the controls, and it was clearly not happy. Gouts of flame spat from the mighty 420bhp, quad-cam, 48-valve V12 motor as any number of cylinders fired save the requisite 12. Every one of the dozen other machines, from a 1961 125cc motorcycle to Senna's mighty McLaren-Honda MP4/4, ran beautifully all day. By contrast, the RA300 stayed silent for hour after hour, save for the clank of spanners as two Honda mechanics laboured to get its ignition timing back on track.

Eventually they cracked it and the test driver was sent out again. Now it sounded perfect, the rich, savage, deafening blast of its unsilenced 3-litre F1 engine an almost physical presence as the RA300 shot down the pitlane.

When it came back, I saw the mechanics taking their tools to it one more time, on this occasion to do what I had been told was simply not possible: they removed the windscreen surround.

As you'll see from the pictures the result somewhat spoiled the lines of the car but I cared not at all: climbing aboard, I felt I was in a different car, one I could occupy in something approaching comfort. And I knew, at once, that I'd be able to drive it.

Drinking in my surroundings, it was clear the RA300 subscribes very much to early 3-litre F1 thinking. Walking around the car I'd already clocked the suspension, a thick upper rocker with lower wishbone at the front, trailing link and reversed lower wishbone behind. The engine is not a stressed unit like the DFV Cosworth, but is carried conventionally on a separate subframe, driving through a five-speed gearbox with a dog-leg first. In the cockpit now, gorgeous Smiths instruments looked back at me, a rev-counter twisted so the 10,000rpm red line pointed due north, flanked by gauges measuring the pressure of oil and fuel, the temperature of oil and water.

Desperate not to stall in front of the 5000, I lifted the clutch just enough to see the treads on the fat Firestones blur before raising my left foot while lowering my right. And there it was!  Simply and easily I was driving a Honda grand prix car.

You have to have confidence doing this, even if it's manufactured. This car may be nearly 40 years old but it's still an F1 machine: it will sense any hesitation, it can smell fear. The engine is truculent below 6000rpm and suspicious of part-throttle usage. So before the end of the pitlane I had fired the stubby gear lever in the general direction of second and was surprised and grateful to feel it slot instantly home.

On my first lap I stooged around, learning the track and discovering the cross-gate lunge from third to fourth was a lot further than I'd expected. The brakes seemed adequate and the suspension surprisingly soft, even for its age. But, aware that time was not on my side, I cut the foreplay short as the pit straight appeared and, with a firm foot and a deep breath, I gave it everything.

You forget, or at least I do, just how bloody fast these cars are. The temptation is to see them as nice old things, quaint relics from another age. In fact the RA300 has a power-to-weight ratio no road car has ever approached. A Maserati MC12 has an impressive 630bhp but weighs nearly three times as much as the 590kg RA300; it would need well over 1000 horsepower to match the old Honda's power-to-weight ratio. But Honda's V12 has so much torque from 6000rpm there's no last-second bang in the back. Power arrives in a great, elastic torrent and is not as frightening as the statistics suggest. The main straight at Motegi is long, long enough to use all of fourth and a bit of fifth too and, crucially, long enough to savour the sabrous snarl of the V12. If this were the last thing I ever heard, I'd die with a smile splitting my face.

The arrival of the 150-metre board jolted me out of dreamland: I needed to be two gears lower and 100mph slower in a hurry. I jabbed the lever forward into fourth and then back to third, failing to give the engine enough revs. So it kicked me, gently but there was enough of a wriggle for me not to misunderstand its message: a bit more respect, chum, if you'd be so kind. Which is what it had for my remaining laps. By the end I was driving it as hard as I could without taking risks, using five-figure revs and finding that sweet spot where relaxation and concentration come as one.

It understeered a little when I was too ambitious with my entry speed but in the main it was a pure delight: no vices, no hidden agenda, nothing between me and the best time I've had in a car for years.

But the best was yet to come. Bringing the RA300 down the pitlane for the last time I saw Honda engineers grinning at me and as I climbed out, shaking hands and gabbling thanks, I was aware that something quite wonderful had actually happened, something no-one could take away. I'd driven a Honda F1 car, the same car that, on the fastest GP circuit in the world, had beaten every other in a straight fight.

So at last I got the girl and the only thing left to do now is to ride off into the sunset. She'll not be with me but I can wait the few days until I see her again at Goodwood. The plane leaves in two hours.

***

TestSpec -- Honda RA300

Engine:

All-alloy water-cooled quad-cam V12, mechanical fuel injection. Capacity 2992cc.  Max power 420bhp @ 10.500rpm

Transmission:

 Five-speed, dog-leg first

Chassis:

 Type: Alloy monocoque with tubular-framed engine cradle.  Suspension: front lower wishbone, upper rocker, inboard coil-spring; rear trailing arm, upper link, reversed lower wishbone. Weight 590kg

Running gear:  Brakes outboard discs all round.  Steering rack and pinion

***

John Surtees goes east of Edenbridge

You'd have got rich quick betting that John Surtees would win at Monza in 1967. Not only was this the Honda RA300's race debut but he'd qualified it ninth, exactly halfway down the 18-car grid and some distance behind Jim Clark's super-swift Lotus 49 and Jack Brabham's quick and reliable Repco-powered BT24. But Monza was so stressful that, by the last lap, over half the field had retired through mechanical failure, leaving victory to be decided by a last-corner fight between Surtees and Brabham.

"I led with Brabham right in my slipstream and I knew it would all come down to the Parabolica," remembers Surtees. "This was complicated further by the fact that Graham Hill's Lotus had blown up earlier and left oil all down the inside of the approach. So my choice was to defend the line, go onto the oil and hope that the cement that had been put on top would give enough grip, or to take the usual fast line and hope Jack would take the bait and put himself on the oil. What made me decide was the fact that the one thing you knew about Jack was he always took the bait."

Brabham duly dived up the inside and slid instantly wide on the oil, allowing Surtees to duck back inside the slithering BT24 and just outsprint it to the line by one fifth of a second.

In the immediate aftermath things looked promising for the rejuvenated Japanese constructor and its wily driver, but history proved otherwise: after Monza '67 there would be no more F1 championship wins for either.