The Luck of the Irish

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For Kenny Acheson the road to glory has certainly not been an easy one. In a career that has been dogged by more than its fair share of ups and downs, the final blow came at the end of last year when he was unexpectedly sacked by Mercedes. Vet despite this, the latest in a series of soul-destroying obstacles, the amiable Irishman stuck by his convictions and waited for Fortune to smile on him again… In an interview with Shara Simpson, he reveals the secret of his success.

Born in Northern Ireland in 1957, the youngest of three, Kenny’s first sporting interest was in hockey. He played hockey at school to a relatively high standard and two of his former team mates now play for Ireland, his best friend just failing to play in the World Cup. Kenny still enjoys the sport today:”If I hadn’t been racing I’d have probably got into hockey, but not to International standards. I think I might have played in the first team.”

His enthusiasm for motor sport initially centred around motorcycle racing but the danger element dissuaded him from actually participating. His father, who owns a successful brick works in Northern Ireland, used to race cars “just for fun” and one day, back in 1976, he managed to get 19 year old Kenny a drive in his Formula Ford Crosslé. One race led to another and in 1977 he achieved six wins and became the winner of the Northern Ireland Formula Ford Championship. His success encouraged him to take up motor racing on a professional level: “I thought it would be a very glamorous occupation and a lot better than working. But I was wrong, as I found out! There are a lot of down sides but it’s a lot better than having to get up every morning at 7 o’clock to be at work by 8.”

At the age of 20, Kenny decided to try his luck in Britain. “I was really naïve, I still am — in fact, it’s probably taken me a lot longer than other people to grow up. I’d only done a year’s racing and I’d never really been outside Ireland. It went very well and a lot of people helped me; it’s very easy when you’re successful, everybody wants to help. When I first started in Ireland, I didn’t have anyone to help me. I would advise any young driver to have someone, not necessarily a manager, but just someone who’s respected to give them advice and so on. There’s a young Northern Irish driver, Jonathan McGall who did Formula Ford last year and he’s very good; he’s doing Formula 3 this year. He used to ring me up over the winter and ask me what he should do. It’s such a help for him to talk openly with someone who’s done it before and can warn him of the pitfalls.”

Between 1978 and 1980 his racing career was on the up and up, and young Kenneth Acheson was definitely a name to watch out for. He swept the board in Formula Ford, achieving 29 wins, 26 fastest laps, 12 second placings and 26 pole positions, and received several awards for most promising driver. “To be honest with you, winning was easy. I just happened to be quicker than the other guys and a little bit better.” He continued to live up to his reputation in Formula 3, adding several wins and a second place in the British Formula 3 Championship to his credits, and in 1981 he moved into Formula 2, driving for Toleman.

It was at this point that his meteoric rise in motor racing suddenly took a turn for the worse and began to plummet earthwards at an alarming rate. “I didn’t really have the budget to do it so it was probably a bad move. I could qualify pretty well, usually in the top six or so, but the races weren’t really coming together. After about four months I began to panic, having not had a good result. You begin to think your career’s finished.” He managed to scrape a third place and a sixth place in a couple of races, before he broke his leg in an accident at Pau, France, causing him to miss most of the season. The following year he drove for Ralt Honda, with only marginally more success, coming a disappointing seventh in the European Formula 2 Championship for what was then a frontrunning team. “From being at the top of the potential list I went to being very near the bottom. A lot of people who were saying how great I was two years before were now saying I was completely useless.”

Few people realise that Kenny is actually an ex-Formula One driver, probably because in 1983 he attempted to qualify in ten races and only made one, in which he came 12th. This certainly didn’t help his already flagging career, and after a couple of abortive attempts to get a drive in America — “I had a couple of contracts but they fell through” — things were beginning to look particularly bleak and by the beginning of 1985 he was almost ready to quit.

But then, as in all good stories, a light appeared at the end of the tunnel in the form of Stefan Johansson. Johansson, having driven in Japan the year before, was moving on to drive for Ferrari in Formula 1. “Stefan managed to get me a drive in Japan which resurrected my career. I had no choice but to go there — I was finished in racing unless I went to Japan. I didn’t want to have to go back to Ireland and I suppose it’s a matter of not wanting to give up either. Anyway, for the first time I began to earn money at racing and it went well from then on. I really enjoyed racing in Japan, I made a lot of good friends there amongst the drivers. You race at weekends but in the week you just have a really good laugh — no pressure, you really get to know each other and actually become friends. In Europe that rarely happens so Japan was good for me.”

It was also good for his career. He spent four years racing in Japan with some commendable achievements, driving sports-cars, saloon cars and in Formula 3000. In 1988, whilst still racing in Japan, he drove for Sauber Mercedes in the World Sports Prototype Championship and in 1989 he left Japan to race fulltime for Mercedes, partnering Mauro Baldi.”To be honest with you, coming back here I was a little bit worried about whether I would enjoy it because in Japan the racing was great fun, as was the social life. I’m not saying I was unprofessional in Japan, but driving for Mercedes is very much different to driving for private people in Japan. There’s a lot more pressure.”

Mercedes trampled the opposition into the ground, easily winning the World Championship and taking the first four places, Acheson himself coming fourth to Jean-Louis Schlesser, Jochen Mass and Baldi respectively. His results for the season were admirable with two wins, three seconds and a third to his credit, and the added bonus of a second place in the Le Mans 24-Hours. However in the last race of the Championship at Mexico, he crashed and had to retire. “It was between Mauro and Jean Louis for the World title, and for whatever reason Jean Louis was a lot quicker than Mauro in the first stint. I was told ‘Listen, unless you come in ahead of Jochen, Mauro’s not going to win,’ so I had to go for it. My first six or seven laps were probably the most consistently quick, and I caught Jochen, passed him and pulled away a little, but then the tyres went off and I began to struggle. I made a misjudgement; I don’t think I made a mistake. That was the only time I damaged the car all year, so it wasn’t that bad. I drove very well that weekend, until the crash.”

Despite this incident, he believes he had a firm rapport with Baldi: “You have to have a good personal relationship to have a good relationship in the cars. You have to be able to go out in the week and have a glass of wine or two and a laugh and a joke with each other. The most important thing in Group C racing is trusting the other driver so if you feel he’s trying to outdo you, you just end up racing each other, which is a total waste of time. You should be racing together, not against each other.”

Kenny’s career seemed to be heading in the right direction once more, so it was more than a shock when the fickle hand of fate pointed in his direction yet again, and he was sacked by Mercedes. He still has mixed feelings about the whole affair: “I don’t think it was anything personal, or so I’ve been told. I don’t think there’s anyone in Mercedes in any department at all that disliked me and I think I had a good relationship with Jochen Neerpasch who ultimately made the decision. It was just politics — Mercedes had a successful year racing, but some of their sales dropped off in Germany so they decided they had to create a better image with young German drivers. It’s an investment for the future. At the time I couldn’t see the logic, and I don’t think anyone else could, because the four of us worked well together. Mauro and I especially worked out a really good relationship; if you asked Mauro he would say there’s no-one better he’s ever driven with. But there are more things to racing, there’s politics, so they decided to take three young German drivers. Of course I was really hurt. I felt let down because I think, as everyone in the team would admit, I did a far better job than they ever expected. When you do a good job for someone you expect the rewards, but the reward I got was ‘Sorry but your face doesn’t fit’.”

Consequently, the winter was a worrying time for Kenny. “I talked to a lot of people about my next move. A few people were keen to take me on, but I wasn’t so keen. At the end of the day, I still wanted to do something I could be successful in.” That chance came when, out of the blue, an offer came to race for Nissan in this year’s World Sports Prototype Championship. “I’d just about given up on everything when the Nissan offer came along. I’m really looking forward to it; it’ll be nice to be able to beat Mercedes, but it’ll be very tough. Mercedes are a very slick organisation, the whole team works well, and of course Nissan is still very much a new team. I think the potential is there, but a lot of things have to be put right before we can be thought of as consistent. From what I hear those things will be done so we should win a couple of races this year. Because of my time spent racing in Japan, I understand a little bit of what happens with the Japanese so it’s all worked out very well for me.”

His status in the Nissan team is still a subject of speculation. “I know my position but it’s not for me to say. I’m okay — I’m doing all the races and as far as I’m concerned that’s that. Two drivers have to drive together and I don’t think it’s right that one person should say “I’m number one and the other guy’s number two” — that’s not the way it works. Last year Mauro was my number one driver because as the season developed it became obvious that he was the one with the chance of the World Championship, but he respected me for the job I was doing, and vice versa, and didn’t say ‘Well, I’m number one’. You have to respect each other’s jobs.”

For the time being, the future is looking decidedly brighter for Kenny. “I’d like to keep on racing while I enjoy it. I enjoyed last year a lot and I’m looking forward to this year. I think it’s a step up for me again because I’ll have a lot more responsibility. If I don’t enjoy Group C racing in Europe then I’d like to keep racing, but maybe in Japan. It’s changing a lot over there, although I think the majority of the people who go over now are trying to break into Formula 1. I’m not interested in that now — I genuinely 100 percent enjoy driving sports cars so much. I do hope the championship will get better and that I’ll get paid better and so on, but at the end of the day, I just enjoy the driving and the friendly atmosphere. Jochen Mass said last year that he thought sports car racing was friendlier because the drivers are more mature; nearly all the drivers are in their late twenties, thirties or forties. Whereas Formula 1 . . . I don’t think you could have more friction. But I suppose if you’re getting paid five or ten million, you’re bound to be a little more intense. I think the drivers in Group C are higher quality than last year — you’ve got Brundle, Palmer, a lot of good runners. That’s good for the championship. Suddenly manufacturers are realising they have to have the best drivers, the best team, everything has to be the best. But I don’t think Group C racing will ever get to Formula 1 standards, certainly not as far as the money is concerned — not in the foreseeable future anyway.”

Kenny is currently living in England near Bath — “I like that part of the world, Bath is fantastic” — and is married to an English girl, Fiona. “When I broke my leg, I was working at Donington and they needed a translator. David Burnley, who works at Donington, used to work with Fiona’s mum, and she suggested that they used Fiona, who was at University but had been living in Paris for a year. I thought she was quite nice so I got them to give her a job so I could ask her out. But I couldn’t pluck up the courage, so after eight months she asked me out!”. Kenny and Fiona have been together for eight years now, and were married two years ago. They recently gained a new addition to the family: “My wife had a baby seven months ago, a girl called Jessica Joy. She’s really good — I think she’s going to be a daddy’s girl! It’s changed our lives but I don’t think it’ll change my attitude towards racing, I’m always careful.” His family have proved to be very supportive to his career. “They haven’t disowned me so I suppose they’re relatively proud of me! They all came to Donington last year and Brands Hatch, and my father and mother came over to Japan. My nephew Stephen, who’s nine, is just mad on racing. I’m not his hero though — I think Nigel Mansell is actually! I’ve got a very close family, and I think my wife’s family are reasonably proud of me, considering that when I first met Fiona my career was in a decline, and a very speedy one at that. It was very difficult to explain to them that I had to go and race in Japan for a living, but in recent years I think I’ve earned a lot of new respect.” And has he any plans to return to Ireland? “I think I’ll be in England for the foreseeable future, but at the end of the day I’ll probably go back to Ireland, despite the troubles. It’s quite sad; 99% of the people are nice and genuine — their sense of humour is the same — but the sad thing is they disagree over one thing. There are a lot of bad things about it but to me, it’s home.” SS

Results:

1977: Formula Ford Crossle – 6 wins. Winner of Northern Ireland Formula Ford Championship.

1978: Formula Ford Royale – 29 wins, 26 fastest laps, 12 second placings and 26 pole positions, Triple British Formula Ford Championship Number One Grovewood award winner as Britain’s most promising young driver, Shellsport Driver of the Year and Shellsport Goldstar Award winner, BARC President’s Trophy for the most wins by BARC member, BARC Peter Collins Trophy for the most promising newcomer. BRDC Chris Bristow Trophy for the most promising British driver, Northern Ireland Motor Sports Personality of the Year.

1979: Formula 3 Raft and Formula 3 March – 3 wins, 3 second placings, 5 third placings, 5 fastest laps and 5 pole positions, 6th in British Formula 3 Championship, winner of Sean P. Graham Northern Ireland Motor Sport Award.

1980: Formula 3 March – 6 wins. 5 second placings, 2 third placings, 9 fastest laps, and 5 pole positions. 2nd in British Formula 3 Championship, 3rd in Tarmac British Racing Drivers Championship.

1981: European Formula 2 Toleman – 1 third placing and 1 sixth placing.

1982: European Formula 2 Ralt Honda – 1 second placing, 2 fourth placings, 1 sixth placing, 1 fifth placing, 1 lap record, 7th in European Formula 2 Championship, 4th in the Japanese Grand Prix.

1983: European Formula 2 Maurer BMW – 1 second placing, World Formula 1 Championship R.A.M. March 01 – 1 twelfth placing in Grand Prix debut.

1984: CART in USA One start – Meadowlands G.P. – retired. Tested for Forsythe Racing Lola T800, VDS Penske PC10, H&R Racing March 84C, WIT Racing March 83C

1985: Japanese Formula 2 Championship: Yokohama March 852-Honda for Nova Engineering Third All Japanese Championship, Fifth Suzuka Championship 1 win, 1 third placing, 2 fourth placing, 1 sixth placing. Qualified in top three four times and top six every time. World Formula 1 Championship RAM 03-Hart for RAM Automotive. World Endurance Championship Porsche 956/962 for John Fitzpatrick Racing and Richard Lloyd Racing.

1986: Japanese Group C and World Endurance Championship for Team lkuzawa (Dome Toyota): 1 third placing, 1 fourth placing and 1 eighth placing. Qualified in top three twice. European F3000 for Eddie Jordan Racing – 1 race.

1987: Japanese Group C and World Sports Prototype Championship for Advan/Nova Engineering (Porsche 962) – All Japan and Fuji Champion with Kunimitso Takahashi 2 first placings, 1 second placing and 2 third placings in six race series. Japanese Formula 3000 Championships for Advan/ Tomei Racing, Japanese Group A Championship for Sundai Racing,

1988: World Sports Prototype Championship for Sauber Mercedes – 1 fifth placing (Fuji). Japanese Group C Championship for Omron Team Schuppan (Porsche 962C) – 1 second, 1 third placing and one fifth placing and fifth overall in the Championship. Japanese F3000 Championship for Team Kitamura (March Mugen) and Japanese Group A Championship for Advan (BMW M3) – 2 third placings, one fifth placing and fifth overall in the Championship with 2 class first placings, one class second placing and one class third placing with four class pole positions.

1989: World Sports Prototype Championship for Sauber Mercedes. 2 wins, 3 seconds, 1 third. 1 fifth, 1 retirement, second placing in Le Mans 24 hours. Japanese F3000, two races, no placings. Winner, BRDC Gold Star. Winner BRDC Fairfield Trophy. 4th WSPC Drivers Championship.

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