Groundbreaking in its design, the Honda RA271 was the second Formula One racing offering from Honda, and the first car to ever be actually entered into a race. Yoshio Nakamura, with the assistance of Tadashi Kume, was the chief engineer on the project. In 1964 the Honda RZ271 F1 was driven in three races with U.S. driver Ronnie Bucknum behind the wheel. Nakamura had been with Honda since 1958 and was well known for his work on the RA270 prototype and also the S360 sport cars project.
Developed from the 1963 prototype RA270, the RA271 was developed around Honda's revolutionary F1 engine, a 1.5 L V12 during a time when V8's where the typical norm for F1s. At the time Ferrari was one of the rare few that diverged from the pack by experimenting with both V6 and flat-12 layout, though they eventually chose to stay with their V8. Besides the Honda RA271, no other marques were using V12s at the time. At the time the F1 regulations stipulated a 1.5 L engine without supercharger, and the most recognized way to achieve this was with a V8 engine.
Powering the RA271 was an innovative transversely mounted V12 engine that acted as a load bearing part of the chassis. Some considered this engine to be 'the strongest engine of F1's 1.5 liter era'. Reducing the aerodynamic frontal area were the tubular sub frames that support the engine while the position of the engine increased the balance and weight distribution of the vehicle. Since more cylinders typically produce greater peak power with smaller and lighter moving parts and higher rotational speed, the Honda engineers chose to experiment with this process.
The engine was designed by Tadashi Kume and was built in the same facility as the car, which was much more convenient. The engine was a normally aspirated unit with twelve cylinders in a 'V' formation with twelve separate exhausts, split equally on each side of the body. This design made the racecar very unique compared to the 'four-into-one' layout typically used by the V8 teams. Featuring nose-mounted radiators, the engine was water-cooled. The 1965 48-valve V12 engine dimensions were 58.1 x 47.0 mm, 1,495.28 cc and it had a 230 bhp power output at 13,000 rpm, the most powerful F1 engine of 1965. With further development the V12 had the potential to produce 270 bhp since the 1947 4-cylinder 498.57 cc engine eventually gave almost 90 bhp at 12,600 rpm. The F1 engine used 12 Keihin carbs, one for each cylinder, which eventually would be replaced by low-pressure fuel injection before it entered the Italian Grand Prix. For this project Honda manufactured their own six-speed sequential shift box gearbox.
Constructed with an aluminum monocoque, the groundbreaking RA271 featured a design that was perfected by Colin Chapman and his Lotus team two years prior and used on the Lotus 25 and 33 models. Both of these Lotus models had won world Championships in 1963 and 1965. Weighing around 1,157 pounds the RA271 had a combined weight that was significantly over the minimum weight limit of 992 pounds. Due to the larger engine the Honda F1 was much heavier than it's competition.
The front and rear suspension set-up of the RA271 consisted of a double wishbone set up with inboard coilover spring and damper units. The front set up was somewhat typical, but BRM was the only one using the double wishbone on the rear for their P261 chassis, though the rear suspension was outboard. The RA271 rode on 13' Dunlop alloys in the front and rear and featured Dunlop disc brakes also.
Only one RA271 was ever produced, at Honda's facility in the Yaesu neighborhood of Tokyo, and it made it racing debut during the 1964 Formula One season, just one short year after Honda became manufacturing road cars. The RA271 would be the pioneer Japanese-built car to ever dip its toes into a round of the FIA Formula One World Championship. The Honda offering was launched to the public in what would become Honda's traditional racing colors: ivory bodywork with a red rising sun on the cowling. The design was easily distinguished as Japanese. This ivory bodywork spread to the racecars suspension, much like the Lotus 21 design by Colin Chapman.
The Honda RA271 F1 was entered for the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps, but unfortunately the car wasn't ready in time. By the beginning of August the car was finally ready and competed for the first time at the German Grand Prix. Besides it being the debut for Honda as a F1 racer, this was also the debut for Ronnie Bucknum, their American driver. The race took place on the intimidating Nürburgring circuit, which has been considered by many as the most demanding in the world. Only the fastest 22 of 20 entrants would qualify and Bucknum was fortunate to do so ending the practice sessions third slowest. Despite the qualifying being poor, Bucknum had a better race and continued to run just outside the top ten throughout the race, ahead of the Lotus and BRM entrants. The Honda finished 13th four laps behind winner Surtees as many competitors broke down or crashed. Bucknum qualified for the Italian Grand Prix at the famous Autodromo Nazionale Monza and placed 10th, ahead of the Brabham. The Japanese car did well even after a poor start left him in 16th, making it as high as 7th place before a brake failure forced the car out of the race on lap 13.
The next race that the Honda RA271 participated in was the Watkins Glen U.S. Grand Prix. With only nineteen entrants the RA271 had no concerns about not qualifying. Bucknum qualified within three seconds of Jim Clark's Lotus pole time. Unfortunately a cylinder head gasket in one of the twelve cylinders failed on lap 51 which took the RA271 out of the race. Since they didn't travel to the final race in Mexico City, this would be the end of Honda's debut season. In 1965 the RA272 replaced the RA271.
Today the Honda RA271 is displayed in the Honda Collection Hall at the Twin Ring Motegi in Japan. It has gone on several trips over the years including the 2006 Geneva Motor Show, along with two F1 siblings, the '65 RA272 and the '06 RA106.
By Jessica Donaldson