At thirty-six-years old, Brian Henton can probably best be described as one of international motor racing's eternal optimists. Over the past 12 years he has won championships in Formula Vee, Super Vee, F3 and F2, but always seems to have been thwarted in his efforts to establish himself in Formula One. Last year, as Michele Alboreto's partner in the Tyrrell line-up, he demonstrated a solid consistency which, in other circumstances, might have resulted in his hanging onto the drive for another year. But Henton had no financial backing, no good connections, which might have helped him keep the drive. Yet, after having his hopes dashed yet again, he surfaced once more in an F1 car at this year's Race of Champions: having raised sponsorship to hire one of Mo Nunn's Theodore N183s for this non-title thrash, he opened a few eyes by keeping up with Alan Jones' Arrows A6 in the early stages and finishing a worthy fourth, ahead of Raul Boesel's significantly better financed Ligier JS21.
It was way back in 1970 that Henton took the advice of his journalist friend Andrew Marriott, formerly Motor Sport's Assistant Editor, and began making what seemed wildly optimistic predictions about his future achievements. "It was at the time that Cassius Clay was using that approach in the boxing world," grins Brian, "and Andrew told me 'what you've got to do is make absolutely outrageous statements and then make it happen'. So when I'd won the Formula Vee championship I stood up and said that, by 1975, I would be in F1 with one of the best teams in the business. I then moved heaven and earth to make it happen and I think the whole business gave me some credibility as well as providing me with a goal to aim for."
Henton's path to Lotus lay via F3, in which he won one of the 1974 British F3 championships at the wheel of a works March after starting out in his own GRD the previous season. "I really was riding high on the hog until 1975 when I met Colin Chapman and he put me firmly in my place!" recalls Brian. "At the start of the 1975 season I'd done a deal to loan March's development chassis 752, but the chance of driving for Lotus came in the middle of the season. They really had their problems at that time and Jacky Ickx had just been released from his commitment with the team, by mutual arrangement, and I was eventually signed at the British Grand Prix to take his place."
Like so many decisions in motor racing, however, timing is of crucial importance, and Henton is adamant that he arrived at Lotus at the wrong time. By that he doesn't simply mean that Lotus fortunes were running at a low ebb, but the fact that he probably wasn't quite ready to handle such a high-pressure situation.
"Up to that point I'd always had to fight for everything. I didn't take no for an answer and, although I was quite old in years, I was quite immature in terms of approach. I'd done a lot of testing in the works F1 Marches at the time, and there was a chance that I could have done some races with them, but when I arrived at Lotus I got all the sales talk from Peter Warr. We sat in his office and looked round the office walls at the pictures of various Lotus winners over the years and Warr turned to me, saying 'Brian, there are 51 Grand Prix victories represented by these pictures, and yours could be the 52nd . . . now, tell me, how many Grands Prix have March won?'
"Anyway, at the end of the day we went back to Peter Warr's house, and his wife cooked us steak and chips, and eventually he said 'Right, Brian, this is it'. They allowed me fifteen minutes in his study to ring anybody I wanted to before I had to make a decision one way or another. In the end I agreed and one of their neighbours came in, in his dressing gown, to witness the contract!"
Brian drove a total of four Grands Prix as a Team Lotus member before deciding to quit the team at the end of 1975. Admittedly, the team was going through hard times, but Henton by then had finalised a three-year contract with them and his future seemed pretty secure. "Chapman told me I'd never drive again in F1," smiles Henton with considerable amusement as he recalls the parting of the ways, "but I proved him wrong by buying my own car in 1977, which turned out to be a complete disaster!" For years afterwards, when reflecting on their brief partnership, Henton and Chapman would always be at odds over the details of what happened. Henton reckoned that the Lotus 72D, as it then was, must have been one of the worst cars he'd ever driven: Chapman, in response, felt that Henton displayed one of the roughest driving techniques he'd ever encountered!
Henton, however, refused to be put down and after a sparse 1976 season, embarked on another ambitious wild-goose chase the following year. He invested in an ex-works March 761 and determined to run it privately in the World Championship: "The whole thing was typical of my overwhelming desire to buck the system. It was crazy we ever did that F1 programme at all. Operating from the back of an old gas board van with a totally outdated chassis and a lot of enthusiasm. I really did think that I could swim against the tide and make it win. I really did! I believed that if I drove it faster round the corners I could beat the Ferraris — which shows you how insane I am and why I'm still involved in this business after 13 years!"
It didn't take very long for Brian to realise that he was wasting his time, and when the British Formula One Racing Team faded from the scene, the Derby driver cast around for something else to do. He had already won the Thruxton F2 international in Brian Lewis's Boxer, but in an attempt to retrieve his reputation, Henton invested everything in an independent F2 team for 1978, running his own March 782 with a couple of Brian Hart 420R engines. "But it was interesting to see just how far my stock had fallen," he recalls, "because Robin Herd wouldn't give me any discount whatsoever on the car. That made it all the more satisfying when I beat Bruno Giacomelli's works car to pole position at Misano!" Brian also recalls following "some newcomer in a Chevron, who looked a bit of a stroker, round Pau in practice. I sat behind him and took pole position on that very lap. I thought that the bloke couldn't be too bad, whoever he was. . ." It turned out to be a relatively unknown Frenchman called Alain Prost!
Despite several promising showings, Henton never managed to win a race with his private March "although we did the whole season for only £20,000, living out of the back of the truck, and in cheap hotels. The works mechanics at that time were being paid £100 per week and I'd got three blokes working with me and was only paying out that sum. But there was a fantastic team spirit throughout the year!"
After his promising showings in 1978, Henton was recruited into the Toleman F2 team. In 1979 he lost the European F2 championship after an unsuccessful appeal against disqualification at Enna, but in 1980 he came storming through to take the title in the BP-sponsored, Rory Byrne-designed Toleman TG280-Hart. His team-mate during that F2 season was Derek Warwick and, together, the two Englishmen moved on into Formula One in 1981 with the ambitious Hart turbo-powered Toleman TG181s. Recent history relates that the two men were very evenly matched during that abortive first Grand Prix season for Toleman, but at the end of the year it was Henton who found himself dropped from the line-up. Now Warwick is highly regarded as one of Grand Prix racing's comingmen — a fact which gives Henton enormous retrospective satisfaction.
"I regard Derek Warwick in my own mind as almost more like Brian Henton than Brian Henton!", he grins generously, "I admire Derek greatly and we get on tremendously well. When we were in F2 together in the same team it was an out-and-out fight between the two of us. I'm sure he'll make it to the top some day soon, and yet only two years ago we were even-stevens. The difference? He's 27 and I'm now 36!"
The 1982 season began on a bleak note for Henton, but he eventually wound up driving the second Tyrrell alongside Michele Alboreto for much of the year. Watching from the touchlines one somehow sensed that Henton's outspoken, almost abrasive, approach jarred slightly with Ken Tyrrell. The bluff Derby driver had a distinctly irreverent sense of humour, referring to Alboreto as "the Spag", almost to his face, and making public pronouncements to the effect that he wasn't getting equal treatment when it came to Tyrrell equipment. On the credit side it should be recalled that Henton set fastest lap in the British Grand Prix at Brands Hatch and was running fourth at Osterreichring, ahead of Niki Lauda's McLaren, when his engine failed. But the cards never quite fell in Henton's favour: there were races where he almost seemed on course for a couple of points, given a few retirements, but everybody in front of him kept running. That's not to say that Brian wanted to gain success by default, but there was no lucky break forthcoming to keep him "in play" as far as the F1 teams were concerned.
Henton feels no bitterness about 1982, just a sense of realistic appraisal. "You must remember that I was fulfilling a straightforward role for Tyrrell," he reflects, "because all Ken really wanted was a steady second driver who wouldn't stick it in the wall. It was a marriage of convenience which reminded me that motor racing isn't always just about driving — it's about putting deals together."
Brian had some sponsorship which helped him keep his place with Tyrrell in 1982, but much of it was loaned to him and he is left with the task of settling those loans after the event. "Motor racing is a fickle business", he reflects, "if you're a number one driver you're paid a fortune. If you're a number two, you pay a fortune to drive usually less-than-equal equipment — I know that fact only too well!"
For all Brian Henton's disappointment over the years, the spark of his enthusiasm still shines brightly, refusing to be extinguished by a succession of bitter let-downs which would have prompted less single-minded individuals to walk away from the sport for good. A purely objective assessment would surely say that Henton has had his chance and is now too old to make the grade. Yet at the Race of Champions, he came bounding back into the limelight with that good fourth place at the wheel of the Theodore, as hopeful and confident as ever.
"Logically, I know I can win the Championship," he says rather wistfully, "and I don't think I'm too old at 36 to have another crack at it. There are people out there, 90 per cent of whom I've beaten at some stage or another in my career, so I'm not going to be put off my ambition." As a thoughtful footnote, however, he adds, "It's not fun like it used to be though. The fun went out of it in 1973 when we stopped living in the back of the truck, nicking diesel on the way down to Monaco to keep things going. The nearer you get to the top in this game the less fun it becomes — and I feel motor racing is only something I can do seriously, never on an amateur "fun" basis.