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THE LAST MAN TO DRIVE A HONDA F1 CAR

WHO WAS the last person to drive a Honda Formula 1 car before they morphed into Brawn GP? If you picked Barrichello or Button you’d be wrong – because in fact it was a well-known Aussie Touring Car driver, as TONY SCHIBECI finds out.

WORDS: Tony Schibeci

IF YOU were to ask a Supercar fan who was Cameron McConville, he would need no introduction, having raced in the category for just on 20 years.

But if you asked an F1 fan who was the last driver to drive a Honda F1 Car then they may need to be educated them about McConville, who turned out to be the last driver in a Honda powered chassis before the Japanese manufacturer pulled he pin on its F1 team in November 2008.

Honda’s history in the category goes back to the mid 60’s when it became only the third team in Formula 1, along with Ferrari and BRM, to build their own engine and chassis in that 1964 season. Their first win if a Grand Prix was in their second year of competition in 1965 when American Richie Ginther took the top step of the podium in the Mexican Grand Prix. 

As a F1 Constructor and engine developer Honda raced for a total of eight years, from 1964 -1968 then after a 16-year break from 2006-2008. In that period of time they won three races, and it could be said their run as an engine manufacturer was more successful – having won 75 times with the Williams, Lotus and McLaren teams from 1983-1992, then with McLaren and Red Bull from 2015 to now.

Anyway, our story today is about the man who drove the last Honda F1 car before the team became Brawn Racing in 2009.

McConville’s association with the car came in November of 2008 when he was invited to test the RA108 in Motegi, Japan. We asked Cam how the test drive of the came about: “I was co-hosing the Formula 1 coverage on Network 10 at the time and we had talked earlier in the year about trying to tee up an F1 drive in a car for me.  Steve Wood who was Executive Producer at the time was really adamant he wanted to try and make it happen because he thought it would be a good story. I didn’t really care about the story but I just wanted to get my bum in a F1 car one day which I had failed to do so in my career at that point.”

For McConville, the fact that Honda was a sponsor of the Network 10 telecast of F1 turned out to be a blessing.

“Honda were very open to it. I raced a V8 Supercar at Symomns Plains on the Sunday and they said if I could get to the Honda-owned Motegi speedway in Japan by the Tuesday they could make it happen. They had what was called a ‘Honda Thanks’ day on the Monday where Jenson Button was there driving the car and talking to all the Honda Staff, and then they kept the car an extra day at the track for me. So I flew out of Tassie on the Sunday to Sydney, from Sydney to Japan on the Monday and then into Motegi on the Monday night, woke up on the Tuesday morning and open the doors to the garage and there was an F1 car waiting for me. It was so surreal to arrive there two days after driving a Supercar in Tassie to Japan and have a racetrack and F1 Car to myself – for half a day, anyway.”

McConville shared the day with Hisashi Tsukuhara, a Japanese Car Graphic Magazine editor, who held an international C Class JAF Racing licence.

“He went first which was good because it was a damp track and spun it on the second lap and fortunately for me he didn’t hit anything. He took a good hour to get the car out of the pitlane which made me laugh at the time, but little did I know I would find out later how difficult that was to do.”

McConville went on to explain how different driving a Supercar in Tassie was to driving a Formula 1 car just two days later in Japan.

“The difference was more mind-boggling than I had expected. I knew it would be fast and that chassis I drove was third at Silverstone, so that was the only podium that the car and probably the only points that car would get that year. Getting it out of pit lane was ridiculously hard with the anti-stall, so you would let the hand clutch out and even it felt like 2mm of movement on the clutch lever would active the anti-stall and they had to turn it off and on each time. I took at least five goes to get the thing mobile, but once I got it out of pit lane and turned the limiter off I had a grin from ear to ear. It was just like being shot out of a cannon and the braking blew me away also, I took a long time to be able to trust the brakes and eventually I drove 30 laps in total – being five goes of 6 laps and on the last run they gave me new tyres and enough fuel to do a ten-lap run.

“But with the braking and the cornering G’s I started feeling really nauseous and could only do 6 laps.”

When we asked Cam if there was any feeling from the crew that was there about the possibility of Honda pulling out of F1 as a team, the Bathurst winner says he felt there was actually an air of positivity around the place.

“There was no discussion at all and from memory it was literally a week later that the announcement was made that Honda had pulled out of Formula One and the team would be no longer.

“There was an Aussie mechanic who was ex-Holden and he was working with the test crew and he engineered the car for me because we had met through Garry Rogers Motorsport about four years before that. I was chatting to him and he had this excitement in his voice telling me that while the team had been nowhere in 2008 and the car was terrible, the 2009 car was exciting and the car they felt would be a front running car the following year – even though people wouldn’t believe it.”

That car was the RA 109 chassis which ultimately became the Brawn BGP 001 and went on to win the 2009 World Championship for Jensen Button – winning 8 of the 17 GP’s that year while powered by a Mercedes engine.

As for McConville, the former Formula Ford champion credits his half a day in the RA108 as the reason he received the invitation to drive the two seater Minardi at the Australian GP for seven years.

“Nothing could have prepared me for what I was going to experience on that day” McConville chuffed.

“The closing speed, everything was just mind blowing and I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face all day and night for that matter.”

McConville behind the wheel of the two seater doing some rather scenic promo work