In Dreams - 1998 Honda RA099 F1 Prototype
In 1964, Japanese auto maker Honda surprised the world when it entered the RA271 into the pinnacle of motorsport: Formula One. The move came just four short years after the company had even entered the automotive market, making the nifty little transversely mounted RA271E 1.5L V12 they came up with even more of an engineering marvel.
1964's RA271 was the first all-Japanese Formula One car.
Moreover, Honda was the first Japanese brand to take an interest in F1, following the post-war expansion of the Japanese motor industry and the birth of a domestic racing scene a year prior. While Japan was busy going race-crazy back home, founder Soichiro Honda saw the bigger picture. His vision was proven right, as the updated RA272 became the first Japanese car to win a race when American Richie Ginther lead the 1965 Mexican Grand Prix from start to finish.
Richie Ginther and the Honda team celebrating their dominant victory, Mexico 1965.
The dazzling debut emboldened Honda, but they times they were a'changing. For 1966, the FIA stretched the maximum allowable displacement to 3.0L to create a bigger difference to the by then embarrassingly quick GT cars.
Honda had trouble adjusting to this new format with an overweight chassis, but still managed to secure a win at the 1966 Italian Grand Prix thanks to the sublime skills of 1964 World Champion John Surtees. However, the RA300 was unable to keep up with the break-neck speed at which its competitors developed, prompting Honda to venture into dangerously deep waters to gain a competitive edge.
The lethal RA302 ended Honda's works campaign prematurely.
In a radical effort to shed the superfluous weight that had plagued the older cars, and because Soichiro Honda had expressed his wish to link the F1-car to the motorcycle arm of the company, the new RA302 featured a highly unusual air-cooled V8 and a chassis entirely constructed from a super light magnesium alloy.
The reason no one had thought of this before was very simple: the V8 couldn't stop overheating, and magnesium was known as one of the most volatile metals on the planet. When introduced to any kind of spark, the whole car stood the risk of going up in a ferocious blaze, which would be impossible to put out.
The remains of Jo Schlesser's burnt out car.
Twitchy and unpredictable handling only added to the peril, causing lead driver John Surtees to refuse to drive the car after briefly testing it. Newcomer Jo Schlesser was however eager to prove himself in a factory team for the first time, and he paid the ultimate price.
After skidding into an embankment at the French Grand Prix through the hills of Reims les Essarts, the RA302's fuel tanks were ripped open, and the ensuing fire claimed the life of the popular 40-year old Frenchman. Unable to accept their responsibility for the tragedy, and even daring to ask Surtees to try the car again at Monza, Honda pulled out of the sport at the end of the 1968 season.
The underfunded Spirit 201 became the racing testbed for Honda's return in 1983.
It would take until 1983 for the company to dare associate themselves with Formula One again. Following in the footsteps of Renault, Ferrari and BMW, the Japanese firm decided to develop a turbocharged engine. This RA163-E 1.5L V6 was then given to the tiny British team Spirit Racing, where it was strapped to a modified Formula Two chassis.
After having developed the unit enough with the small outfit, Honda forged a bond with Williams Grand Prix. This partnership saw Honda finally rise to the top, eventually scoring two constructors titles (1986, 1987) and one driver's title with Nelson Piquet (1987). A switch to McLaren yielded even more success, with four more consecutive constructor's titles, and four driver's titles for Alain Prost (1989) and Ayrton Senna (1988, 1990, 1991).
The glory days: on top of the world with McLaren.
The enormous run of success outlasted even the turbo era, as the RA109-E V10 proved to be the one of the best engines in the 3.5L naturally aspirated formula as well. Unfortunately, the dream team was broken up at the end of 1992, as the Japanese economic bubble had finally burst, plunging the country into a massive recession now known as "The Lost Decade".
Additionally, Honda wanted to refocus the immense funds sloshing around in F1 to conquer the American open wheel scene. Honda left associated tuner Mugen Motorsports to tend to the engines still in service, and allowed the outfit to supply smaller times with limited assistance from the factory.
This arrangement kept the Honda name in the public eye, without costing too much money. In this capacity, Footwork, Lotus, Jordan, Ligier and its successor Prost Grand Prix were all supplied with reworked V10 engines.
During this time, the spirit of Formula One racing never really died within Honda's engineering department. The desire to keep competing was in fact so great the management allowed for a dedicated team of engineers to construct a total of three fully functional "RC-F1" prototypes, each adhering to the technical regulations of the season they had been built in. Several tubs were even crash-tested, and given serious consideration for an actual competition debut.
RC-F1 1.5X and RC-F1 2.0X (front) on display at the Honda Collection Hall.
Although none of these cars would ever progress past the testing stage, the enthusiasm of their engineers and a recovering economy saw Honda come to a conclusion. Some forty years after their last race, the company was going take the first real steps towards to reentry in the sport as a full factory team.
Much had changed in the decades Honda had been working as an engine supplier, as Formula One had become an increasingly complicated arena mired in backhanded politics and incredibly expensive research and development to get only the tiniest of advantages. Seeing as the new team couldn't just fire up the oven and bake a new race-winner, Honda thought it wise to contract Italian specialists Dallara to fashion the new car's carbon fiber monocoque chassis.
Despite their high spirits and limitless commitment, none of Honda's engineers knew how to design a genuinely competitive F1-racer, so the hunt was on for one of the category's top designers. Honda scored big by securing legendary designer Dr. Harvey Postlethwaite, who had a seemingly endless list of credits to his name.
Postlethwaite had started his career at March Engineering in 1973, before moving to Hesketh, Wolf-Williams Racing, Fittipaldi, Ferrari, Tyrrell and Sauber. With many winning cars and famous drivers linked to the strokes of his pen, Harvey was the perfect man for the job.
Harvey Postlethwaite (left), with Ken Tyrrell and Toranosuke Takagi, 1998.
Although he had been working for the cash-strapped and therefore largely uncompetitive Tyrrell team, he had retained an iron-clad reputation within the paddock. Considering his immense experience in the field, Honda was confident he would be able to properly structure the concern's return to Formula One as the team's technical director.
Posthletwaite duly delivered. His RA099 was a particularly elegant and uncomplicated design, a nice blank slate ready to be filled in with aerodynamic additions as testing progressed. Though Honda was quite serious about the effort, the new car was really only intended as a test chassis to ascertain whether or not the team would actually be able to keep up with the rest of the field.
The simple lines of the RA099 purposely left room for later modification.
The package was built around a Mugen-Honda MF301HD 3.0L, 72 degree V10, providing up to 800 horsepower to the rear wheels through an in-house developed 6-speed sequential transmission. With a total weight of just 605 kg (1333 lbs), the car's performance figures looked very promising indeed.
Super sub Jos Verstappen joined the team as test driver after a series of unfortunate buyouts.
However, a test car is of little use without someone to actually test it. Luckily, Harvey Postlethwaite remembered the talented and experienced Dutchman Jos Verstappen from their time together at Tyrrell in 1997. The sale of Tyrrell to British American Tobacco the following year had displaced him to an eventual substitute drive at Stewart Grand Prix, where he replaced the faltering Jan Magnussen.
Jos Verstappen getting ready, Jerez 1999.
Verstappen was unable to keep his seat for though, leaving him without a drive for 1999. Though briefly considered by Benetton in 1998, his lack of sponsorship slammed shut each and every door he tried to pry open with talent alone. Formula One, after all, was a business.
Nevertheless, the Dutchman was relieved to at least be attached to the test project, as Honda was one of the biggest names in the business. After years and years running the wheels off bargain-basement machinery following his split with Benetton in 1994, he would finally be lowering himself into a quality product once more.
Jos Verstappen stepping on it at Jerez.
Without further ado, the Honda Racing Development squad traveled to Southern most tip of Spain, to commence an intensive testing regime on Circuito de Jerez. There the car performed admirably, helped by the bulletproof reliability and ample power proved by the Mugen-Honda V10, and the class-leading rubber of Bridgestone.
With tried and true mechanical components, it was all down to the Posthlethwaite-designed aerodynamics and the Dallara-built chassis to make the difference. Even in this early form, it seemed the package was doing the trick. The times posted by Verstappen were comfortably in mid-field, and the car was able to reliable run long stints at race speed.
Jos Verstappen meanwhile was having the time of his life. For the first time in his career, he wasn't being treated as a snotty rookie or a random pay driver. At Honda, the engineers actually listened to his feedback, and were hard at work tailoring the RA099 to his liking.
Further tests at the Italian track of Mugello proved equally promising, with strong lap times throughout. The car gained red details for this test, making it look more like serious entry rather than just a test car.
As the engineers worked feverishly to improve the car even further, the project seemed to be going strong. Four different chassis were tested to great effect, leading to Honda to conclude they were ready for a genuine race debut. With a bit more tweaks, the car's updated successor would surely be ready for a debut during the 2000 season.
Sadly though, this was not to be. At another Jerez test, Harvey Postlethwaite fell victim to a sudden heart attack. Tragically, he passed away shortly after, bringing HRD to a grinding halt. Haunted by the echoes of 1968, Honda's management decided to cancel the entire Formula One project altogether, their motivation lost with Postlethwaite's untimely death.
As the devastated Honda crew returned home, Jos Verstappen was left behind with a shattered future. Like the Harvey Postlethwaite and his technical staff, the Dutchman had poured his heart and soul into the RA099, hoping it would finally give him the competitive edge he had been clamoring for since 1994.
Instead, he and manager Huub Rothengatter, himself a former struggling F1-driver, had to start all over again. Once more, they had to thrust themselves into the frantic world of pay-driver bidding wars. Although Honda gave him a golden handshake worth 5 million Dutch gilders, he was still far short of the average amount for a seat, and still had next to no sponsors. The pair would pull it off in the end though, managing to clear the way for a return to Arrows in 2000.
The Honda RA099 is the epitome of "what might have been". Designed by one of the sport's leading names, backed by a large corporation and driven by an underfunded but talented driver, the car was the sum of a tasty bunch of ingredients.
During testing it proved to be more than capable of earning its keep at the very pinnacle of motorsport despite very little development work. Competitive times and reliable running gave Honda the confidence to evaluate a proper entry for 2000, but then disaster struck.
Chassis 3 at the Honda Collection Hall, Motegi.
The unfortunate passing of Harvey Postlethwaite made Honda lose interest in the project, and the cars were subsequently locked away. Of the six chassis built by Dallara, only four were ever completed and tested on track.
Only chassis 3 has survived the purge following the collapse of the project, and it has since been restored to its original all-white color scheme. Today, it can be seen on permanent display in the Honda Collection Hall at Twin Ring Motegi, Japan, sitting next to its stillborn brothers from the RC-F1 series as a stark reminder of wasted potential.