Back in 1964, Honda became the first Japanese manufacturer to join the mad world of Formula One. Their arrival created something of an uproar in the traditionally European paddock. Not only was the team staffed exclusively by Japanese nationals, but Honda also designed and built its own engines and chassis. This was something which, apart from household names like BRM and Ferrari, no one else was doing at the time.
In only their second year, Honda’s RA272 achieved to the first Formula One Grand Prix victory for a Japanese car. Guided by American Richie Ginther, the car managed to win the last race of the controversial 1.5L era. A change to 3.0L engines in 1966 saw Honda lose its footing with a disappionting win-less year. But with the assistance of 1964 World Champion John Surtees and the upgraded RA300, the brand was back to its winning ways with first place at the 1967 Italian Grand Prix.
Richie Ginther and the RA272 on their way to victory, 1965 Mexican Grand Prix.
During their time in Formula One, Honda had been struggling with the relatively high weight of their cars. Frantically trying to find a solution for the weight problem, they turned to one of the most unconventional methods ever seen in the sport. The highly experimental air-cooled, magnesium chassis RA302 seemed to be a brilliant find.
Sadly the car’s lightness was only matched by its lethalness. A rushed debut at the dangerous Rouen Les Essart circuit in France took the life of Jo Schlesser in a tragic fiery accident. Honda’s image had been damaged beyond repair as a result, and the company decided to pull out of Formula One after the 1968 season after public outcry.
The 1968 disaster forced Honda to withdraw from Formula One.
The traumatic incident caused Honda to turn its back to the sport for 15 years. In 1983 the company found its way back in as an engine supplier to the small Spirit team. Honda used Spirit to develop their new RA162-E turbocharged V6 engine. The unit’s development went rather well, which lead Honda to top teams like Williams, Lotus and McLaren.
With Williams and most famously McLaren, Honda managed to reel in a total of 5 Constructors Titles and 5 Drivers Titles. Honda’s part in McLaren’s total domination and the rise of the legendary Ayrton Senna propelled it into the stratosphere. Business was booming.
Honda's engineering marvels dominated the sport for five years.
The exceptional successes achieved from 1987 to 1991 were great advertisements for Honda’s skill as an engine builder, but its engineers wanted to do more. In September 1992 the company’s announced plans to withdraw from Formula One as an engine supplier at the end of the season. According to Honda’s President Nobuhiko Kawamoto, the 5 seasons of domination had taken away the challenge from F1 competition. It was time for something completely different to keep their engineers busy and learning. He believed the challenge would be found in America’s CART championship, home of the Indycars.
Meanwhile, a small section of that same engineering team insisted on building their own Formula One machine, longing of the glory days of the 1960’s. Honda’s management was busy focusing its efforts on the construction of a new CART turbo V8, but still allowed for the construction of a Formula One chassis. Honda’s corporate policy at the time was to try and motivate its employees by allowing frivolous private projects.
As a result, a portion of the firm’s Research & Development budget was subsequently allocated to the project, with the clear understanding that it was in no way an official factory supported exercise. The car was to a hobby project for overexcited engineers, who chose to work on it in their own free time.
Honda's RA122-E 3.5L V12.
With this in mind, Honda’s engineers cooked up a traditional carbon fiber monocoque chassis. The chassis was clad in a simple but effective body, which resembled cars like the Lotus 107 and the Footwork FA13. As expected the chassis was built around Honda’s RA122-E/B 3.5L V12, as raced in the McLaren MP4/7A. The screaming unit was good for 764 horsepower at 14.400 rpm, one of the most powerful on the 1992 grid. A special in-house developed 6-speed sequential gearbox transferred power to the rear wheels.
The Honda RC100.
In all the machine managed to reach the 510 kg (1120 lbs) minimum weight. The design’s most defining feature was the lack of computer-controlled active suspension, a technology that had taken a firm grip on the 1992 championship for Williams-Renault. Another curiosity was its use of Bridgestone tires intended for the lesser F3000 category.
This was a response to proposed tire regulation changes for the 1993, which made them much narrower. As Honda’s hobbyists had little budget for brand new 1993 F1 tires, the F3000 examples were used as a stand-in. Designated RC100, the car was shown in relative secrecy to select media in February 1993. Just a month later, it was destroyed in a FISA-mandated crash test to determine its legality
Satoru Nakajima testing RC100.
Results from the crash tests were positive, which meant the design was effectively homologated to race in the 1993 Formula One season. But because the project still hadn’t attained an official factory status, this enticing idea was quickly scrapped. Instead a second, more refined car was constructed. Now dubbed RC101, the machine featured the same basic layout, but had been improved aerodynamically in key areas.
RC101 featured aerodynamic refinements like the altered nose and front wing.
Honda’s protege Satoru Nakajima was then brought in to test the new car at the company’s private Suzuka circuit. Nakajima had been bought into a Formula One seat by Honda in 1987, in exchange for its engines to Team Lotus. The 5-time Japanese Formula Two Champion had a hard time adapting to the top category of motorsport, and retired in 1991. During that time he narrowly missed out on a podium twice, finishing 4th at the 1987 British Grand Prix and 1989 Australian Grand Prix.
RC101 featured the same silky smooth lines as its predecessor.
After an unknown amount of testing kilometers with Nakajima at the wheel, RC101 was shown to the public during its first public testing session in January 1994. By then, the elusive car had already lost its fifteen minutes of fame to a younger, more attractive sister.
The lessons learned from the previous two cars had been applied to a new chassis, which received the name RC101B. The series of cars also gained an alternative and more official naming convention. RC100 was now also referred to as RC-F1 1.0X, with RC101 as RC-F1 1.5X and RC101B as RC-F1 2.0X.
RC101 setting off on a short demo run, Twin Ring Motegi.
The B designation seemed to indicate a mere evolution of the older car, but in the year that had passed much had changed in the world of Formula One. The glorious V12-engine configuration was slowly falling out of favor, giving way to the more compact and fuel efficient V10.
As a result the car featured a Mugen-developed version of 1989’s RA109E 3.5L V10 engine, dubbed the MF351H. The unit was less powerful than the newer V12, but still pumped out nearly 700 horsepower. Another improvement was the distinctive raised nose, a feature copied from Benetton’s B192.
Just three races into the season, the tragic accidents of Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna at the San Marino Grand Prix shook the world of Formula one to its core. In response the FISA hastily modified the technical regulations in a panicked attempt to slow the cars down. The Spanish Grand Prix saw the introduction of reduced front wing endplates and rear diffusers. In Canada holes were cut into the airbox and engine cover to reduce its effectiveness and bring the power down.
RC101B going for a spin, Twin Ring Motegi.
Finally, at the German Grand Prix, the FISA mandated the use of a so-called "stepped bottom". The design did away with the traditional flat floors used since 1982, and introduced a raised mid section. FISA's management hoped to decrease the cars speed further by blocking airflow under the car, reducing the slight ground effect a flat floor generated. FISA's countermeasures also forced the teams to adopt a higher ride height, further slowing the cars.
The cockpit of RC101B.
The changes were primarily intended prevented the cars from suddenly bottoming out, which at that time was believed to be the reason for Senna's crash. Adding insult to injury, the raised floor area was fitted with a 10mm wooden plank.
The slab of wood was designed to act as a skid plate, allowing FISA officials to easily check if cars were running illegally low. At the 1994 Belgian Grand Prix the plate took its first victim by disqualifying Michael Schumacher, denying him the win.
The stepped bottom and wooden skid plate found their way onto the RC101B
Honda's weekend warriors continued to follow these developments, and applied them to chassis RC101B accordingly. Their continued efforts resulted in the car receiving a 3.0L version of the Mugen V10 in in compliance with 1995 engine rules and the eventual adoption of grooved tires. The many technical changes during these turbulent years helped to keep Honda's eager engineers busy, but the car remained an unofficial after hours project.
Eventually Honda's appetite for Formula One began to build again, so the RC101B was left alone. The focus shifted towards preparing a brand new machine for the 1999 Formula One season. With the black ops projects having outlived their usefulness, they were set to be destroyed a number of times.
But each time Honda refrained from crushing their loyal employees' hard work. In the end RC101 and RC101B were donated to the Honda Collection Hall at Twin Ring Motegi Circuit, where they reside to this day.
RC101 and RC101B together at the Honda Collection Hall.
Honda's RC-F1 program was born from the pure unadulterated dedication and enthusiasm of its technical staff. The desire to build their very own complete F1 design was their sole motivator. In their free time, they managed to create some truly stunning machines.
Sadly, the nature of this rather expensive hobby by definition prevented their designs from reaching the competitive world they had been intended for. Honda's management toiled around with the idea for far too long, but made good use of the continued F1-involvement of its engineers. Keeping the RC101B up to date had given them a head start in designing their first official Formula One challenger in 31 years, the RA099.