Looking back with... Brian Henton

Brian Henton was one of the most popular, and controversial, drivers of recent years. Among team managers he had a reputation for arrogance, a quick temper and unreasonable demands — it was a reputation which was probably deserved early in his career, but the Henton I’ve known over the past six years has been the antithesis of that reputation, a charming, humorous man, with no side and completely lacking in “bull”. He’s a man I’ve seen going out of his way to be generous to young drivers and who has always made himself available to fans. Indeed, he is the first British driver I can think of who had his own fan club. As a driver he did everything except score a single World Championship Point. Robin Herd, one of the most shrewd judges of driver ability in the game, once told me he rated Henson as the finest test driver in the world, bar none.

Until I visited Brian to finalise this article, I hadn’t seen him for nearly two years. The last taste was not long after he had brought the Theodore home fourth in the 1983 Race of Champions, after he had had his clutch Pedal snap off. During the close season 1982/3 he had been trying to stitch together a deal which would have involved buying the Ensign team and running the cars with Hart engines. He’d an Italian sponsor lined 015 and Raul Boesel had money to bring for the number two seat. Then he found that While he’d been away racing with the Tyrrell team, the recession had bitten deeply into the businesses he’s always had to run in order to fund his racing. He had a choice, go ahead with the team he had set up and ignore his businesses, with the possibility he’d lose both, or else take a rest from racing and turn his attention to his financial affairs, “I didn’t own businesses, I was sponsoring them.”

Two years ago, he said: “As for running my own team, it seemed to me notwithstanding my experiences in 1977 when I’d run the prototype March 761 as a privateer, that it seemed crazy not to put all my knowledge of motor racing to good use. People have spent millions of pounds teaching me the business. I’ve seen it from the inside, I’ve travelled the world, I know most of the people in racing.

“At the end of my year with Tyrrell in 1982, it was clear that I hadn’t excited anyone enough to be offered even a number two F1 drive, though I’d wheeled and dealed. Buying my own team seemed a good way of doing things, but then I found myself in the Catch 22 situation, I need the team to go racing but I needed a healthy business in order to pay for it.”

At that time he’d been talking, too, with some Indy trains, “They wanted a lot of money which I didn’t have, and it was impossible to raise sponsorship. In the States they don’t know me from Micky Mouse. I wanted only to do the sort of racing which would keep my name in front of the public so that in the event of the “distress factor”, a driver becoming injured, I might be offered a Grand Prix drive. I’ve been in the game for 13 years and passed through the stage of driving for the sake of driving, I’m only interested in winning. There is no thrill in this world like beating ‘someone on the race track. It’s the pinnacle of all emotions especially since it was initially so hard to attain those heights.

“If I haven’t got a drive by this time next year (1984), all the pictures and trophies will come off the wall and be stored in the attic. Some time in the future, I’ll take them down, show them to my daughters and say, ‘Your Dad was once a racing driver.”

When I phoned Brian a few weeks ago, I asked him if he had retired. “I suppose I have,” he said and, with typical enthusiasm started to tell me about his latest involvement with a property company which is renewing derelict housing and factories. When we met, he said, “I suppose I have retired, yes I have, though I don’t like using the word. I’m still going through the process of de-tuning my mind. Nothing is going to replace motor racing and I haven’t got over it yet. I’ve not been to a race since I stepped out of the Theodore at Brands Hatch in 1983. I suppose I’m half afraid that I’d go along and get involved all over again which, in view of what I’ve got going for me now would be a negative thing to do.”

Brian Heaton was been in 1946 and grew up in humble circumstances. When he was 10, Brian suffered the loss of his father in an accident at work and it was a bitter blow to him. Two years later, he was introduced to motor racing in a curious way. “It was coming up bonfire night and my mum had forbidden me to buy any fireworks. I went out anyway to the corner shop and bought a penny banger. I had nothing to light it with but we had one of those electric wall heaters so I turned it on and lit it against that. It started to fizz, and I panicked so I rushed to the loo, which was part way up the stairs, and threw it in there. There was this big explosion and it shattered the lavatory pan. My mother then came through the door and was met by all the water from the cistern gushing towards her. She was terrified we’d be evicted.

“As a punishment, she forbade me from watching Derby County, took away my scarf and rattle. I was hanging around the middle of Derby one Saturday with nothing to do when I saw this has going to Mallory Park so I hopped on.” From that day on, Henton was committed to the idea of being a racing driver. He recently considered buying Derby County. “I’m a competitive person, I need to be involved in a competitive sport. It would be quite a challenge to take the Rams back to the first division…”

There were two serious problems facing the young Henton’s ambition, money was one and the other was his physique. “When I left school I was three stone overweight. I remember we used to have an annual cross country race at school in which everyone took part. I used to dread it for by the time the great blubbering whale, me, had finished the course, everyone else had packed up and gone home. Getting myself into the right shape took a long time and a Los of physical effort and mental anguish.” Now Brian lists athletics among his hobbies.

In 1980, he was invited to take part in the televised “Superstars” contest. “I was down for a round at Peterborough but thought I’d be clever. I pretended to be ill and so was slotted into a later round, as I knew I would be. I spent my time weighing up the opposition, how they acted what standards they set. They were a great bunch and we had a lot of fun but were footballers and the like, not specialist athletes. Then I went away and trained hard in all the events because I wanted to do well for motor racing. I got myself into shape which would have got me into the top three in every event in Peterborough and sent off to Wales — and came last in the competition.

“The trouble was that all the stars came back from the Olympics and believe me, though ‘Superstars’ looks relaxed on the box, everyone takes it seriously. I’d be tucking into a big steak and a pint and there were these athletes with their trainers telling them what to eat, one glass of orange juice and half a carrot. Allan Wells’ thigh muscles were bigger than my waist! I couldn’t believe it. Still, I was placed in some events and at the end some of the guys came up and shook me by the hand and said they’d never seen anyone try so hard.”

Henton left school at 15 without a single qualification and began as an apprentice in his father’s old firm. “I remember turning up with 30 others at the works in my blue overalls, with my mashy can, two foot steel ruler, 40706 Apprentice, Heaton, B. It seemed I walked through an avenue two miles long and 600 yards wide, with smoke and stink bellowing everywhere and thinking ‘How is this going to make me a racing driver?’

Brian was not an ideal apprentice. It would be irresponsible of me to repeat some of his japes on the grounds that they might corrupt young minds. His ambition to be a racing driver, however, was undiminished but how could that be achieved on a weekly pay of E2? “1 had this friend, Joe Cain, and we did anything which would make as money. We stood in Belper market and sold wallpaper and paint. We started a company “Art Metal” and sold things made of wrought iron, lamp stands and such. We bought and sold the odd car. I remember getting a 1929 Rolls-Royce Phantom I hearse for £30 and stripping it down to the last nut and bolt and restoring it. It took five years and I reckon our labour charges worked out at a penny an hour!”

On his 21st birthday, Brian left the works and drove his TR4 past the clapped-out Morris 1100 which belonged to the poor, put-upon, Apprentice Supervisor. “The poor bloke was glad to see me go but never did work out howl owned such a car.”

It is commonly believed that Brian’s first season was in F Vet but, in fact, he started with an Austin Healey 100/4. “I’d made some money supplying labour to building sites, the Lump it was called, when this chap said he’d written off his Healey against a tree. All he’d done was to rumple the body and bend the steering arm. I took it off him for a fiver and it took all of five minutes work to straighten it. I was going to go racing so I went along to this chap who’d got a load of old tyres and so on and selected a set of secondhand Dunlops. The trouble was I’d four tyres in three different compounds, blue spot, green spot, you name it. Then someone sold me a set of ‘exFerrari’ Borrani wheels. What I didn’t realise was that the rears had been offset 1½ in and we managed to put the two offset wheels onto one side of the car. Having sorted out the handling we went for the engine.

“Someone got the biggest SU carburetters you’ve ever seen, probably off an aircraft engine. We raised the compression ratio, fitted a hot cam, added a racing distributor and filled it with Castrol ‘R’, the works, and by the time we had finished it could do an absolutely genuine 75 mph. A loss of 25% of performance.

“Still, we got it going and took it down to Castle Combo on the back of a caravan trailer. It fell off and damaged the tow car but I nearly won my first race — by wiping out the field.

“I started mid-grid but quickly spun it as I’d done a dozen times in practice. The marshals pushed me back on the track butts had been raining and the car was clogged with mud. First I sprayed the marshals and then put the rest of the mud on the track. Round came the pack and they were everywhere. Unfortunately they ordered a re-start or I reckon I’d have had a debut win. I was the only one still on the track.”

The Healey was replaced with an early Marcos. “I didn’t think it was handling right so I asked this friend what tyre pressures he used. He said 40 psi at the rear, but he drove an Aston and I was in the Marcos. First time at Copse, when there were banks at the corners at Silverstone, off went the Marcos and spread itself for hundreds of yards along the track. There is a photograph somewhere of the crowd at that corner and over the heads of the crowd is a pair of legs, me. As I staggered back, the crowd parted like the Red Sea. We took the car home in the back of a small van.”

That put Henton’s racing career back for a couple of years and he diversified in business making, among other things, those plastic cones we all love to see along motorways.

1970 saw him in a Formula Vee Austro and after already having spun three times during his first two racing laps at Cadwell, managed to wipe off two wheels against a marshals’ post on the third lap. However he went on to finish second in that year’s championship, winning it the following year.

“Nobody ever heard of anyone who won in FVee you had to do well in Formula Ford to get noticed. So I spoke to this journalist I knew and asked him how I should capitalise on my success. Muhammed Ali was all the rage at the time and being quick off the lip and it hadn’t done him any harm. This chap, who is still a friend, told me I had to make myself known. So I stood up and predicted I’d be with a top Grand Prix team by 1975, which I was (Lotus), and would one day be World Champion. It certainly made people notice, if only to say, ‘Who is that crazy idiot ?”

Unfortunately the ploy also offended some people and laid the basis for Brian’s subsequent reputation. “When I started, I had the biggest possible chip on my shoulder, and that was my motivation.”

1972 saw Henton in SuperVee where he finished runner up in the British championship and the following year he entered F3 with a GRD 373. “We had a great deal of fun with one of Girston’s Racing Disasters. We went all over Europe, my mates and I living in the truck. We’d fill .13 with diesel before we left England and when we were getting low would stop by road works and wait until the workers knocked off then we would refuel from contractors’ vehicles.” Henton’s car was unreliable but he picked up some money but eventually it ran out and his career was saved only by some good late-season runs in the works F3

He had done enough to be offered the works F3 March in 1974 and had a truly successful season, winning 17 races, two championships, and holding the F3 lap record at every circuit in Britain. Seventeen F3 wins in one year is impressive by anyone’s standards even if most of the best young chargers were in Formula Atlantic.

“By 1975 I had a works-loaned F2 March (Henton led the Thruxton race until a tyre blew) and there were some overtures from March F1 and Frank Williams, Lotus was going through a lean patch, Jackie Ickx had despaired of the team and left, and I was asked to test the car at Silverstone.

“The Lotus 72 looked a million dollars but was one of the worse I’d driven at the time. When I got out, Colin Chapman asked me what I thought. Well, I was feeling so confident, I’d had these overtures, nothing in the world was going to stop me from being World Champion, I was a cocky young blighter, and I told him it was a load of crap, the worst thing I’d driven.

“Colin’s face cracked into a grin and I was more or less offered the drive there and then. He knew the score and all the other drivers who’d tested it had told him how marvellous it was and he was relieved to find someone who talked straight.

“I did three races with Lotus and it was a case of the wrong driver in the wrong team at the wrong time. A year earlier, a year or so later, and who knows? There was no new car on the horizon. John Player were thinking of pulling out. I couldn’t stand the pressure at that stage of my career and, besides, I thought it would be easy to get a drive elsewhere.” Some of the rows between Henton and Chapman are legendary.

“I wrote to Colin telling him I wanted out and waited to slot easily into another team, but once you’ve been in F1 and come out, it’s hard. It’s only since I’ve left motor racing that I’ve come to understand what a small world it is. Word went round on the grapevine that I was bolshie, impossible to work with and so on, and I got no offers. You could say that bad PR ruined my career. Being quick is only one tenth of getting on, there are so many other factors. I’d got a bad image and found it difficult

“Having said that, there was some truth in the rumour. Leaving Lotus like that knocked me off my pedestal and the following years knocked a lot of the rough edges off. It changed my attitude to racing, and people in racing, and prepared me as it were for my re-birth in 1978/9.

“I could have stayed with Lotus and I will never forget Chapman saying to me, ‘You will never, ever, drive a Formula One car again.’ Two years later I nearly blew my brains out trying to prove him wrong when I ran a private March. Mind you, when Ronnie Peterson died I could have had the Lotus drive for less than the £25,000 which Jarier put up, but I didn’t have the money. Jarier had been written off but the two drives he had at the end of 1978 with Lotus put him back on the road again.”

Tom Wheatcroft tried to come to the rescue with the Mike Pilbeam-designed Wheatcroft R26 F2 car with its chronically unreliably Holbay / Abarth engine. “A very nice car, but the engine was underfinanced. We practised but never saw a race.” Later in the year Brian had a few outings with the F2 Boxer PR 276. At Thruxton in 1977, Henton took a sensational win in the Boxer and then funds ran out.

Meanwhile he had formed the British F1 Racing Team Ltd (nothing like a modest title) with Derby playwright, Don Shaw. “We had one engine and the prototype March 761. Our transporter was an ex-Gas Board van we bought for £250. We had five mechanics, three of whom got paid.” Brian then went into a series of hilarious anecdotes involving the Greek “gofer” who lived in a tent in a field and whose burning ambition was to design F1 cars for Surtees, no other team would do.

A promising tenth at Long Beach was followed by a series of DNQs in Spain, Britain, and Austria. “A couple of years later the guy who kept bumping me off the grid told me how he had done it. It wasn’t exactly cheating, it was marginal. I nearly thumped him after all the heartache. But I wish I’d thought of it myself.”

A drive with Ensign in Holland saw him take the car up to seventh before spinning and being disqualified for receiving a push start. The season ended on a down note when he failed to qualify the Boris Ensign at Monza.

1978 saw him back with a private March 782. “The best moment in my career was setting pole at Pau ahead of all the works cars.” On stretched funds he qualified ahead of Tarnbay, Giacomelli, Cheever, Frost, Lafitte, Daly, Ghinzani and Winkelhock and a look at other grids that year see him faster on occasion than Rosberg, Mass and Surer. Sixteenth in the series after endless DNFs was poor reward for the effort but she manner of his driving saw hint invited to lead Rad Dougall in the Toleman-run Ralt RT2s in 1979.

At Mugello and Misano he was first over the line but was disqualified, controversially, for missing the chicane at Enna, though he took the flag. At the last round, Donington, he led the race and the championship until a mile from the end when he had brake failure and spun, passing the title to Surer. Sitting, shattered, in his pit afterwards, he decided he would never again race with a green helmet, and has since worn a blue one. Then, typically, he put on a smile and went to congratulate Surer and to take the commiseration of his fans.

The entry of BP into the Toleman team in 1980 saw Brian out in the cold, for BP wanted to push its young proteges, Derek Warwick and Stephen South, Henton lined up to go with Paul Newman’s Can-Am team and then South took unofficial leave from Toleman testing to try a McLaren. The upshot was that South was out (he took over the Newman drive and ended his career in a crash) while Henton was given another chance.

“My contract at Toleman made me number one, but I made it clear from the start that I wanted Derek to have identical equipment. If I won the Championship, I wanted to do so on merit, not team orders. Derek and I drove on the limit the whole year. It was no-holds-barred stuff, we were more intent on beating each other than beating the opposition. Yet off the track, Derek and I had and have a really good friendship, we’re similar in nature and background and think alike.”

This part of the Henton story is too recent and, because it was successful, too well-known to need much reiteration. Brian won the championship with 61 points, 19 clear of Warwick, who finished second. It was not an effortless win, Henton had to re-motivate himself to prove himself once again in a category in which he’d already done so much. Warwick’s subsequent performances have shown just how fierce a rival he was and though the team’s Pirelli tyres were undoubtedly superior to the opposition, more than once Henton drove to the line with his tyres shot, grittily picking up places.

In the winter of 1980/81, Toleman equipped on of the F2 cars with a turbocharged Hart engine and then went ahead with a full F1 design. The muletta had promised much but the TG 181 was overweight, ill-balanced and, from the start, suffered installation problems. “The hybrid is the quickest car I’ve ever driven. There were times at Goodwood when the F2 brakes got so hot that I thought I’d finish up in Bognor Regis. Stepping from that into the TG 181 was like stepping from Fl into Formula Ford.”

The team started way off the pace but by mid-season were close to qualifying. Henton looked as though he might do so at Silverstone but had a huge shunt at Woodcote which demolished the Toleman and sidelined hint. “There was such a great atmosphere in the team that I felt I’d willingly die to put them on the grid, and I very nearly did.”

Henton and Warwick each qualified only once in 1981, Brian at Monza and Derek at Las Vegas. “Though I never won a Grand Prix, or even scored a point, I know what winning must be like. Our Italian sponsors were at Monza in-force and when I qualified, they kissed each other, cried, and brought out the champagne. The car went onto three cylinders soon after the start but I managed to bring it home tenth.”

The sponsors wanted an Italian driver for 1982 and since Brian had only a one-year contract he was out, although his qualifying times were overall better than his teammate, Henton qualifying faster than Warwick on eight out of the 12 occasions the cars appeared.

In 1982, he raced three times with Arrows and then completed the season with Tyrrell in the shadow of Michele Alboreto, the one highlight being fastest lap at Brands Hatch.

A 36-year-old Grand Prix driver who has never had a points finish is not likely to be on the top of anyone’s list and yet the fire was never diminished. “As soon as I heard that Reutemann had retired I got in my car and drove down to see Frank Williams for whom I’ve done a lot of testing. It was in a blizzard, a total white-out with the motorways closed and accidents everywhere. Frank was surprised I’d made it at all, but I wanted that drive.”

After the one race in 1983, in the Race of Champions, there was nothing and Brian has not been near a race circuit since. With hindsight, it’s easy to see the mistakes he made in his career, but equally, given the way in which he had to tackle his career, working to finance himself, it’s easy to see how those mistakes were made. In the realm of business, he is a self-made man but in racing was always dependent on the decisions of others.

There must be a question mark over whether he might, given the right car at the right time, have made it to the very top, fur he never was, and didn’t. He says, with a grin, “I know within myself that I could have been World Champion, the trouble is convincing everybody else.”

Talk to him of his new business venture and you are at least convinced he has lost none of his edge, he becomes animated as he shows you plans and models and is so convincing I nearly leased an office from hint until I considered the distance from Sheffield to Standard House. There are still a few “Ifs” and “perhaps, in a couple of years…” but you know he’s finally retired even though the bug has not yet got out of his blood.

Anne left he pointed to his car, a second-hand Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow, “That’s me these days, a rich bloated capitalist pig driving a Roller, none of your sports cars, but it’s said with a deep chuckle. “Superhen” never quite hit the top but will be remembered with affection as one of the great characters of British motor racing. – M.L.