March 20th In F1

Honda’s first F1 win

As the 2018 Formula One World Championship gets underway – and Honda teams up with Toro Rosso for what promises to be a stellar season – we take a look at Honda’s first ever victory in the sport, with the help of one of the drivers who was there. The location: Mexico City. The year: 1965.

Despite marking its Formula One debut with a promising display in the first Grand Prix of the 1964 season, Honda took a little while to turn its early potential into results. By the time the final race of 1965 rolled around, a run of bad luck had left the team with just two World Championship points. Fortunately, that was about to change.

The final meeting of the 1965 F1 calendar took place in Mexico City, on a circuit more than 2,000m above sea level. And it was Honda’s RA272 that dealt with the conditions better than any other cars on the grid. 

The car’s livery was easy to spot; a white chassis with a red sun to represent the company’s Japanese heritage. But its engine was even more distinctive, says Richard Attwood, one of the drivers who competed against Honda that day.

“I remember following [Honda driver] Richie Ginther at Spa in a really wet race,” says Attwood, speaking exclusively to the Honda Engine Room. “I couldn’t see anything, but I could hear the Honda engine in front of me. It made such a distinctive noise.” What was it like? “Just loud!” says Attwood, who raced for BRM in F1 and went on to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1970. “It was different to all the others.”

It caught the attention of another racing legend, too: Dario Franchitti, a Scottish-born four-time IndyCar Series champion, who recently got a chance to try the RA272 for himself. “It has probably the best sound of any car I’ve ever driven or even heard, which is saying a lot,” he says. “It’s special.”

Here he is, putting the car through its paces – with a great big grin on his face.

“It drives like a motorbike,” he adds. “The engine pulls like a motorbike, the gearbox is precise like a motorbike.” That’s why, Franchitti suggests, motorcycle riders like John Surtees – who drove in F1 for Honda and became the only man to win world championships on both two and four wheels – were successful.

The engine of the RA272 was technically advanced, if a little heavy. But, on 24 October 1965, the extra weight didn’t prevent the 48-valve 1,495.28cc V12 engine from propelling Richie Ginther from third place on the grid, past Dan Gurney and Jim Clark, and into the lead early in the first lap.

“Honda would have been way ahead of where I was,” says Attwood, one of the few surviving F1 drivers from that era. “I dare say they may have lapped me!”

Despite some good battles with Gurney, Ginther never relinquished the lead, seeing off a field that also included Jackie Stewart, Graham Hill and Bruce McLaren to take what was also his own first F1 victory, after 65 laps of the 3.1 mile circuit. 

“Richie was a nice guy, a Californian,” remembers Attwood, who got to know Ginther when they drove for the same team at Le Mans in 1964. “He was the fastest guy on that team."

“It was a different world then. When we went to race abroad, a lot of [the drivers] would be together in one hotel and we would go out together. It was a social scene, wherever we went. There might have been massive rivalry on track, but always in a gentlemanly way.”

There were other differences, too. “Safety was ridiculous,” says Attwood. “Drivers today would not drive on circuits like Spa and probably Mexico.” Hazards such as trees, bridge parapets, buildings and rocks lined many of the road-style circuits. And, Attwood adds, “If you went off the roads in our day, the cars would crumple around you.

“It was accepted as part of the game. I think it was in everybody’s mind, but shuffled to the back of the brain.”

The celebrations that took place after the chequered flag in Mexico City were also a far cry from what modern F1 fans are used to. Back then, there was generally no podium appearance for those in second or third place. And the tradition of spraying champagne didn’t take off until 1967, when Dan Gurney – who finished second to Ginther on that day in 1965 – decided to do it after winning at Le Mans.

As footage from the video below shows (starting at 03:31), Ginther modestly accepted a wreath and the congratulations of the crowd. But even if his muted celebration might not have been especially memorable, the significance of the victory – the first of more than 70 Honda-powered wins in F1 – means it’s unlikely to ever be forgotten.

[Watch: footage of the 1965 Mexico City Grand Prix.]

Which brings us to the present day, and just days to go until the opening round of the 2018 Formula One Championship on 25 March. Honda’s new partnership with Toro Rosso has already got off to a flying start; pre-season testing has been nothing short of spectacular, with the team completing their fire-up a day ahead of schedule, being first out of the pits and finishing the first test at the top of the mileage charts.

Honda’s chief officer of brand and communication operations Katsuhide Moriyama has high hopes for 2018. “It is our goal to get back to fighting the frontrunners of the sport,” he says. Honda’s ultimate aim? “To fight for the top three at the top of the grid.”

25 March can’t come soon enough.