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‘A potential deathtrap’ : Why Honda’s RA302 is considered the deadliest car in Formula One

Written by Sharifah Zaqreeztrina , Edited by Vyas Ponnuri


The second decade of Formula One saw a plethora of automotive innovation being tested beyond its limits. A competitive setting such as this led the constructors to craft their finest engineering ideas, hoping to produce a car that would bring them to the top of the championship standings.


Taking home points for the team is one matter, but at the expense of someone’s life is another.


Image Credit: FormulaPassion

The concept of RA302 was born after Honda was searching for a lighter alternative of the chassis material. Aluminium was the standard use for the majority of F1 teams, hence they opted for magnesium in the form of thin sheets. 


The seating position was also adjusted to the front for an even weight distribution, which meant the driver’s feet would be placed ahead of the front axle, relatively close to the engine.


It was also commissioned by Soichiro Honda, the founder of the Japanese constructor, to build an air-cooled Formula One engine. Compared to its predecessors such as the RA301, a V8 engine was preferred over the conventional V12. The engine was switched to air-cooled from water-cooled, all made to stand out among other teams on the grid. 


Initially, 1964 World Champion and Honda driver John Surtees was offered to drive the magnesium-bodied car. He made his decision after testing the car at Silverstone, where the car suffered an oil leak and its engine overheated. 


Deeming it ‘a potential deathtrap’, Surtees refused to race it, thinking it was dangerous and difficult to handle. And his uncertainty was proven to be true.


Still believing the RA302 as their title challenger, the team insisted it be raced. At the same time, it was also used to showcase Honda’s latest air-cooled sedan as part of the promotion. 


Hence, the car made its one and only appearance in the 1968 French Grand Prix, driven by French Formula 2 driver Jo Schlesser. Entering his 40s, it was supposed to be Schlesser's huge opportunity to finally enter F1.


By the time the race started, the track was already wet due to rain a few days prior. It all went well until lap three, where Schlesser lost control, slipped to the side of the track and crashed at the Six Freres corner.


Image Credit: Conceptcarz.com

In just a few seconds, the car made of the highly-flammable material and entire race worth of fuel instantly ignited, leaving the Honda and Schlesser trapped in a huge fire.


Despite efforts to extinguish the fire from nearby fire crew, the car and the driver unfortunately did not survive. Pulling Schlesser’s body out of the ruined experiment was no easy task, as it was claimed that the fire took around five laps in order to be eliminated. While this fatal accident occurred, the race proceeded as usual. 


On the other hand, Surtees was able to bring home a second place finish for Honda, their best result of the season. This celebration however was marred by Schlesser’s death and the destruction of RA302. 


Honda went on to build a second RA302, hoping Surtees would take on this design. A modified version of the original, a wing was added but the magnesium chassis was retained. But alas, Surtees once again turned down the offer, maintaining his stance and initial doubts about the car. 


Having never set its wheels on track, this version of RA302 is currently displayed in the Honda Collection Hall, which is situated in Twin Ring Motegi, Japan. 


Combined with this unfortunate accident and a declining vehicle market in the US, this resulted in Honda losing interest in continuing in the motorsport series. Thus, at the end of the 1968 season it withdrew from F1, only to return 15 years later as an engine supplier for Spirit.


Even though the phrase ‘safety is priority’ frequently echoed in tragedies such as this, it remains true to this day. Creating a refreshing and inventive look should be done without disregarding human life, especially in an exhilarating yet challenging environment such as Formula One.


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