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Losing drive



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Kenny Acheson


RAM-Hart 03




1985 Austrian GP


With Eddies Irvine and Jordan enjoying their best World Championship effort to date in 1999 you might think the proverbial luck of the Irish has recently come in large helpings. When Ulsterman Kenneth Acheson reached the top flight of motor racing his luck deserted him on many occasions, however, throwing poor Kenny into a fierce contest with Roberto Moreno for the title of unluckiest driver of the 80s and 90s.

After a quick rise to world level perennially underfunded Acheson was always the extra man. Never once was he looked upon as a mainstay, his image of useful - and expandable - supersub really coming to fruition in his sportscar period with Sauber, Jaguar, Nissan and Toyota. Everytime he seemed to be a recognized part of the works team some big name ex-F1 driver would be coming in to replace him when the car became a contender, the team management apparently convinced Kenny wasn't up to the job of guiding a team towards a championship title.

Still, Acheson was born into racing as Kenny's father Harry was a successful competitor in both car and motorcycle racing. So it was inevitable that Kenny would one day be racing himself. His first taste of racing came in 1976 when he had a test session at the local Kirkisdown circuit. Almost immediately, he lapped within 3 seconds of the lap record. His first race came in the same year at the same circuit when he borrowed his father's FF1600 Crosslé 30F and he did pretty well on his first outings. This was enough to convince his father to buy a new Crosslé 32F for him for the 1977 season, but his father had one condition: Kenny had to promise his father not to smoke or drink…

In his new car Kenny did deliver the results in 1977 by winning the Northern Ireland FF1600 Championship. For 1978 Kenny took the boat to England and competed in three separate British FF1600 series. Kenny won an amazing 29 races during the season and took all three championships. For this, the young Ulsterman was deservedly awarded the Grovewood Award.

The logical next step would be British F3. For his 1979 campaign he bought an ageing Ralt RT1 but Kenny soon discovered that this car was not up to it and duly ordered a new March 793. With this car he set fastest lap at the British GP meeting on his way to third. He did not win any championship race during the year but took three non-champ F3 victories. For 1980 he continued in the Vandervell Championship while his new 803 was developing. He led the championship for much of the season but lost it by a mistake at the final race. Stefan Johansson took the honours instead.

Having missed out on the title, things still looked up for Acheson, as he secured enough sponsorship to go F2 racing for 1981 when he drove a Toleman TG280 for Alan Docking. The season ended however at Pau when he collided with Michele Alboreto and crashed out with leg injuries. This would not be the first time Acheson got hurt in the line of duty.

For 1982 he continued in F2 but this time in a Honda V6 powered factory Ralt RH6/82H. Two years of F2, the second one in a leading works outfit, should be enough to make him fit for F1. And so Kenny signed on with John McDonald's RAM outfit. As ever, the first step into F1 is essentially make-or-break and sadly, this proved a definite break situation. For 1983 Kenny was one of the many drivers trying the cumbersome RAM 01. He was entered seven times, failing to qualify on every occasion before he finally got into the grid at the South African GP.

Two years later he returned to the RAM team as a replacement driver for Manfred Winkelhock who had crashed fatally in his Porsche 962C at Mosport Park. The Hart powered RAM 03 was pretty and did have decent power. Toleman ran strongly all year with their Hart engines. Kenny qualified for both the Austrian and Italian GP and when the funds dried up his short GP career was over. He also did a one-off foray into the CART series in 1985 when he entered the Meadowlands race.

So what is a talented but underfunded European driver to do to further his career? Go to Japan, get paid and become a local star.

From Eddie Irvine and Mika Salo to Pedro de la Rosa and Tom Coronel, Japan has been a career saver and still is: in 1999, Englishman Darren Manning, the most talented driver to come from the British Isles for years but painfully neglected by the shortsighted British racing fraternity in his three years of British F3, proved his worth in Japanese racing by taking the national F3 title in one go, just as Pedro de la Rosa did before. For Acheson, Japan also offered the opportunity to take a major title once more. As one of the "gai-jins" in Japanese racing he signed with the Advan-backed Alpha team, racing both in sportcars and F3000 (here in the 1989 Lola T89/50). Paired with owner/driver Kunimitsu Takahashi he was crowned Japanese Sports-Prototype Champion in 1987, driving the team's Porsche 962.

His Japanese sportscar successes meant a ticket back to Europe where everyone expected Kenny to develop into one of the world's best sportscar drivers. In the end he never really caught on with one of the many leading constructors he drove for during the late 80s and early 90s. Between 1988 and 1992 he went team-hopping between Sauber, Nissan, Jaguar and Toyota. He had his first bad luck in 1988 when part of the Sauber-Mercedes outfit for Le Mans, which pulled out in practice. He got one back a year later, finishing second but it was sour grapes that the big win went to the sister car of Mass, Reuter and Dickens. Sauber then decided not to continue with the Ulsterman and move on with the prestigious Junior programme, for which of course Kenny was the one to get axed. This left Acheson to sign with Nissan for 1990, retiring his R90CK in the 24-hour race - his only job of the season. A year later he managed to get signed for Silk Cut Jaguar, but again he wasn't part of the championship line-up, Kenny only programmed to do Le Mans. He still finished third in the big race in this XJR12. Then another year, another marque: Toyota and the Southgate-penned TS010 became part of his racing life. In 1992 he again finished on the podium at Le Mans, coming second behind the all-conquering Peugeot of Dalmas, Warwick and Blundell. The following year saw him retire the TS010.

By now, with the sports-prototype world scene fading away, Acheson turned his attention back to Japan, where the local sportscar championship was abandoned for the upcoming GT formula. This led to his final return to the Sarthe in 1995, when he briefly drove a Japanese-built SARD MC8R. SARD was one of the works-supported outfits which ran two TS010s against a fleet of Nissan R9xCPs during the heyday of the Japanese sports-prototype scene, and had now constructed a supercar of their own. The Le Mans adventure turned out to be nothing but disaster, Kenny giving up after 14 laps, the car struck with brake trouble.

His farewell fittingly came at another long-distance event. Early in 1996 Kenny entered the Daytona 24 hours in the new Newcastle United-backed Lister Storm GTL. In the final moments of the race Acheson got collected by a slower car and he destroyed his Lister in a violent crash. Luckily, Kenny was uninjured and able to walk away from the crash. But the smash had also hurt his taste for racing. He decided the 1996 Daytona race had been his final and he walked away from the sport altogether. Luck of the Irish alright…

Reader's Why by Igor De Canck

Kenneth Acheson worked his way up from Formula Ford in 1976 into F3 in 1980. In his debut F3 year, he won the Grovewood Award. This continued his rapid rise into F2 for 1981, but he broke his leg in the race at Pau. His rapid rise continued however, as Acheson was into F1 in 1983, driving for the Skoal Bandit RAM team. But this was a disaster to say the least, and Kenny collected one DNQ after the other. The RAM team was always in and out of F1 trying anything they could think of, but nothing worked. For 1983, they started building their own cars hoping to end the long drought, but the only thing they gained were debts. In 1985 Acheson tried another few times for the same RAM team. Things were only marginally better as he could just manage to qualify. By now RAM's sponsors withdrew, and the debts had reach the limit where there was only one thing left to do... close the books. Acheson continued to race elsewhere. He won the All-Japan sports car championship, and then joined the Sauber Mercedes sports car team. He achieved some moderate successes afterwards, finishing 3rd in the Le Mans 24 in 1991 for Jaguar. He continued to drive sports cars.