Young Japanese startups Honda first started competing in Formula 1 in 1963, during the low power 1.5L era. Using a totally unconventional transversely mounted 60 degree V12, they took the very first win for a Japanese manufacturer at the 1965 Mexican Grand Prix with the RA272 and Richie Ginther (USA). Although the 1.5L era had produced success for Honda, 1966 brought a daunting new challenge.
Maximum engine size was doubled to 3.0L, calling for a vastly different set of engineering solutions. Honda struggled to adapt with overweight designs, despite help from 1964 World Champion John Surtees. The hastily adapted RA273 proved helpless, but its successor put them back on the podium. A win for the John Surtees and the RA300 at the 1967 Italian Grand Prix gave Honda hope for the future.
Honda understood however that to maintain this momentum they had to think in radically new ways. It was clear to them that the standard Japanese tactic of copying Western designs and improving them worked perfectly for road cars, but was useless in the world of racing.
For 1968, Honda mildly refined the RA300 and called it the RA301. Eventually the car was fitted with rudimentary wings as the aerodynamics revolution was taking hold of Formula 1. Although it was based on a race winner, the RA301 was nothing more than a stop gap meant to fill the grid until Honda's exotic new design was ready.
The mantra for the new RA302 was very simple. The car needed to be as light as was humanly possible. Previous Honda designs had been over 200 kg (440 lbs) over the 500 kg (1102 lbs) minimum weight limit, which put them at a significant disadvantage. A heavier car accelerated slower, turned worse and was very hard on fuel and tires. Priority #1 was therefore tremendous weight loss all around. With this in mind designers Yoshio Nakamura and Shoichi Sano drew up a small and elegant monocoque chassis.
The design moved the driver forward to make it possible for the engine to do the same. With the driver and the engine further forward weight distribution was improved massively. Although the design yielded major promise, there were some serious issues with it. Because of the altered seating position, the driver's legs were now far in front of the front axle line, putting him in a perilous position in the event of a crash. The biggest problem was however the material in which the car had been constructed. Wafer thin sheets of super light weight magnesium formed the entire car. Magnesium was infamous as one of the most volatile and flammable metals known to man, which posed another glaringly obvious safety risk.
Undeterred, Honda's engineers pushed for yet another outlandish way to save weight. Under a direct order from Soichiro Honda himself, an air-cooled 120 degree, 32 valve, DOHC V8 engine was constructed for the new car. The company had a long history with air-cooled motorcycle engines, but producing a viable air-cooled Formula 1 unit was still an enormous task.
With the air-cooled design Honda did away with the complicated system of hoses and radiators typically found in a traditional F1-car, further saving weight. The problem with this decision was however right there in the name. How the hell would they get the engine cooled efficiently enough? The engineers came up with a system of funneled intakes that charge-cooled the cylinder heads and the engine block at speed, and fitted cooling fins to the bottom of the engine. But since an internal combustion engine isn't evenly hot throughout, Honda's engineers were forced to construct different internal parts at different tolerances to prevent catastrophic expansion.
When all the problems had been adequately dealt with, Honda was finally left with the sub 500 kg car they so desired. in addition, the RA302E V8 produced 430 horsepower at 9500 rpm through a five-speed manual gearbox. The engine's power was on par with the water cooled designs of the period. Honda was now confident they had a potential title challenger on their hands.
The car's first testing session proved otherwise however. Honda's lead driver, 1964 World Champion John Surtees, took the car out for a session at Silverstone, but was less than impressed with the alien design. Labeling it uneasy and unstable, Surtees only managed to do two laps before the car started throwing out oil.
After further refinements the car was still not in its element, with the engine overheating constantly. Surtees had seen enough and refused to race the car before significant changes had been made during testing. His biggest concern was the highly combustible magnesium body. He suggested Honda build an aluminium version of the car to lessen the danger.
Despite the loud voiced objections of their star driver, Honda took the RA302 to the French Grand Prix. The race was held at the blindingly fast 5.5 km Circuit Les Essarts, a relic from the very early days of Formula 1. Set in the middle of a forest with big elevation changes, thick trees and little in the way of safety measures it was not a track to be taken lightly.
Under pressure from its French branch, Honda decided to enter the RA302 to draw attention to its air-cooled engine. The equally air-cooled Honda 1300 sedan was nearing its introduction, and Honda France thought it would be a good idea to use the RA302 as a halo car. Surtees flat out refused to drive the car in the presence of Soichiro Honda himself, adamant that the RA302 wasn't good enough to race and had lethally dangerous flaws. With Surtees walking away from the RA302 for the final time, another driver had to be found quickly.
Honda's search ended with 40-year old Jo Schlesser, a popular driver in the F1 field. Schlesser had been racing F2 cars in Formula 1 with Matra in 1967, and had recently joined his close friend Guy Ligier (FRA) to race customer McLaren's. Honda France saw in him the perfect marketing opportunity, as Schlesser was something of a local hero. Eager to finally get a driver with a big budget F1 team, Schlesser accepted the offer to drive the mysterious RA302.
Schlesser managed to qualify the cumbersome car in a low 16th out of 18 cars. In the process he had only beaten "Quick" Vic Elford, who was running an ageing and overweight Cooper T86B BRM. An accident involving Jackie Oliver's (GB) Lotus 49 drove the field down to 17 cars.
The qualifying result wasn't very encouraging for Honda and their new driver, especially with John Surtees qualifying 7th in the older RA301. Nevertheless they pushed on with the RA302, and let Schlesser start the race. Schlesser got away well at the start, and started his maniacal blast through the woods and over the hills of Les Essarts.
On the second lap, Schlesser was barelling down on the fast downhill *Six Freres* corner, when the questionable handling of the Honda got the better of him. The RA302 ran wide into a dirt embankment, and flipped over. During the crash the giant and mostly full 200L (52 gallon) fuel tank ruptured, setting the car alight instantly. The magnesium monocoque then ignited into an intense inferno. Jo Schlesser was trapped under his car, and the ferocity of the fire meant nothing could be done to help him. He burned alive inside the RA302 as the race continued.
His tragic death overshadowed Jacky Ickx' (BEL) first Formula 1 victory, and John Surtees' amazing 2nd place. Because of the severity of the tragedy, the 1968 French Grand Prix was the last to be held at Rouen Le Essarts. Schlesser's close friend Guy Ligier would later become a Formula 1 constructer. In Jo Schlesser's honor, he named each and every model with the prefix "JS", using his friend's initials.
In a feat of a truly inexplicable lack of respect and concern for human life, Honda built a second RA302. The second chassis again featured the catastrophically dangerous magnesium monocoque. The only discernible differences were a different 4-piped exhaust arrangement, a bigger oil cooler, and a new optional wing mounted in the middle of the car in an almost sarcastic bid to improve stability. The car was ready for the Italian Grand Prix, and out of apparent sheer stupidity and ignorance, offered to John Surtees once more.
Surprising only Honda, Surtees again refused to drive the magnesium deathtrap and angrily jumped into his RA301. Somehow Honda's executives had failed to realize that fiery deaths weren't big sellers in the world of Formula 1.
With no eager drivers waiting to grab their chance in F1 to take the seat, the RA302 stayed in the pits near the fire extinguishers, where it belonged. After finally realizing the extent of the tragedy and receiving dismal reviews in the press, Honda pulled out of Formula 1 at the end of the 1968 season.
The Honda RA302 was a bright idea executed in the worst possible way. With little testing and various serious issues, the car was rushed into racing on the pretenses of corporate greed. Knowing full well that their magnesium firebomb of a car was a deathtrap, Honda and their French affiliate pressed on in the vague hope of improving their road car sales.
As a result of their greed, carelessness and incompetence, one of the most popular drivers of the era died in a gigantic ball of fire. Adding insult to injury, Honda had the audacity to try to continue with a design that had proven to be fatal. This makes the RA302 story one of the blackest pages in Honda's history.