A half-century ago–Richie Ginther and the Honda RA272
By John Lamm
Invoking The Honda Motor Company and Grand Prix racing is nothing unusual. The Japanese automaker may be going through rough times with its current Formula 1 engine for McLaren, but there was time in the late 1980s and early 1990s when a Honda F1 engine was a sure winner, bringing championships to both drivers and constructors.
Throw in Honda’s wins in IndyCars and you have a very long, open-wheel winner’s list. At its top is the 1965 Mexican Grand Prix, California driver Richie Ginther and the Honda RA272 F1 car.
The upcoming Mexican Grand Prix is the 50th anniversary of Ginther’s win and Honda’s initial Grand Prix victory.
While much of Honda’s Grand Prix history is as an engine supplier, the RA272 was all Honda, both engine and chassis.
In a year when the Brits were cleaning up in F1, Ginther and his Honda led the race in Mexico from flag to flag. They won the season finale at the Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez, second place going to another U.S. driver, Dan Gurney driving a Brabham-Climax.
Ginther’s reputation as both a top-line race driver and a brilliant technical advisor matched Honda’s innovative approach to F1. The RA272 was its second Grand Prix machine and remembered mainly for its engine. This was back when F1 teams were given free hand with engine layout as long as they had the correct displacement, which in 1965 was 1.5 liters.
With its motorcycle history, Honda went with a V-12 slung transversely behind the driver. The engine had a 60-degree vee between banks, 48 valves and a bore and stroke that measured just 2.29 x 1.85 inches. Horsepower was said to be 230 at 13,000 rpm. And the sound it makes is stunning.
While much of Honda’s GP history is as an engine supplier, the RA272 was all Honda, engine and chassis.
I’ve had the pleasure of being around Ginther’s RA272 on two track occasions, once with Phil Hill, the other with Dario Franchitti. If you enjoy automotive exhaust sounds, to hear the V-12 in all its glory is worth the hearing loss.
While we’re on the subject of links, here is one to a video of the Honda win:
And another to YouTube and a video of Dario’s drive:
Enjoy, and when watching the 2015 Mexican Grand Prix spare a thought for Richie Ginther and Honda’s RA272.
Richie Ginther was a highly regarded Grand Prix driver from 1960 through 1967, his one championship win being the 1965 Mexican Grand Prix piloting the Honda RA272.
Off the line at Mexico many of the cars would bog because of the thin air at the 7500-foot altitude. Richie Ginther related that with the RA272’s multi-plate clutch, when the revs dipped he didn’t have to lift off the throttle, but, to quote Ginther, “…gently boot the clutch to slip it and bring the rpm back up.”
Richie Ginther recalled that as he passed Dan Gurney and Jimmy Clark at the start, “I pulled myself up and looked at them as I went by, smiling.”
Richie Ginther won the Mexican Grand Prix by 2.89 seconds over Dan Gurney. It was not just Honda’s first GP won, but also Goodyear’s.
Phil Hill said of cars of the RA272’s era, “Designers would see how low they could lay the driver out, as if in a coffin, and then bend his neck up. Our arms and legs were stretched out, which made it all the more difficult to use them to brace yourself.” The car’s wheelbase is 90.1 inches, its weight 1096 pounds.
Richie Ginther won not only the Mexican Grand Prix, but also the last in the 1.5-liter Grand Prix engine formula.
Richie Ginther gets a well-deserved drink after winning the Grand Prix. Next to him is the ever-present journalist, Bernard Cahier.
The 1965 Grand Prix season started with Richie Ginther and fellow Honda driver, Ronnie Bucknam, on the last row. Both went out with mechanical problems. The season ended in Mexico with Ginther in wearing the winner’s laurel wreath and Bucknam in 5th. Ginther commented, “…the Japanese just did everything so sincerely. Fantastic.”
Honda’s transverse 1.5-liter V-12 was reputed to have 230 horsepower and was developed based on the company’s experience with motorcycle engines.
By the Mexican Grand Prix, the V-12’s fuel injection had an adjusting knob for the driver and in the Mexican circuit’s thin air it was turned to full rich.
Dario Franchitti observed, “The Honda has some 200 liters (52.8 gallons) so it’s something of a flying gas tank. This car does have fuel bag tanks, so I guess it was ahead of its time.”
These are the pipes that transmit what Dario Franchitti called, “…an amazing sensation…what a beautiful noise, like a little screaming sewing machine.”
Basis for the RA272 1.5-liter V-12 was Honda’s 250-cc twin CR-72 production race motorcycle, each having 125 cc per cylinder.
Notice the tachometer is turned so 10,000 rpm is at the top. The V-12’s working rpm range was 8,000-11,000 rpm with a limit of 14,000.
Phil Hill, who drove the car at Suzuka in Japan, commented, “The Honda engine reminds me very much of a Ferrari’s because it loves to rev and rewards the driver right up to the red line.”
Phil Hill said the RA272’s handling was reminiscent of cars of the era, “…set up to be very neutral, and wanted to be ‘drifted’ for lack of a better word.”
On the track,” Dario Franchitti commented, “the Honda drives like a motorbike, the engine pulls like a motorbike’s and the gearbox is precise like a motorbike’s.”
Dario Franchitti remarked, “One of the biggest surprises to me is the fact the car is so small. I was told that when I got in the car, it looked as if I was putting on a pair of pants, and, when in, I was sticking up a ways out of it, which was typical for the time.”
The Richie Ginther RA272 now has a place of pride at Honda’s museum, which is called the Collection Hall at Twin Ring Motegi.