The one that got away
Kenneth Acheson: 1981 Pau F2
When Kenneth Acheson tangled with Michele Alboreto he knew his race was run. But, he tells Adam Cooper it also hurt his career
“In 1980, I fought with Stefan Johansson and Roberto Guerrero for the British Formula Three title, but it was really hard to put a Formula Two deal together for the following year. I ended up going with Alan Docking, who had works support from Toleman. I was on a very tight budget — even my old man supported me.
“I seemed to qualify quite well, but didn’t have much luck in the races. Then I had two really bad races in Italy, where I was absolutely nowhere. Pirelli had only so many good tyres to go round; my team-mate Stefan got them, and I didn’t — but then he had a budget. There was also a problem with the sidepods — basically, they weren’t even bolted to the car!
“I remember after Italy I went back and went through a big list of problems with Alan. The team worked really hard, stripped the car down and refitted everything. Then we went to Pau. They had fixed the car, and because I’d done so badly in Italy, Alan made a big effort for me.
“It was my first time there, but I liked the track, and it just clicked. I put on really hard springs to stop the car bottoming out, and the thing just worked: I had good traction, good turn-in, and I could use all the cambers. In final qualifying I went out and did three or four laps, and did a time. Then I had a problem with the fuel pump, so I didn’t use qualifiers. However, nobody went quicker until right at the end, when Michele Alboreto just pipped me on sticky tyres. I should have been on pole by miles and, in the warm-up, I was about a second quicker than anyone. Because of the budget situation, I knew that this time I had to get a result.
“Alboreto had just got into Formula One with Tyrrell. I remember him coming to me on the grid and saying, ‘Let’s be careful at the first corner,’ and I said, ‘No problem.’ I actually followed him for about two laps; he was in a Minardi, and he was struggling for grip everywhere. I was absolutely on his tail, and I had Geoff Lees up my backside, and he had Thierry Boutsen up his.
‘”hen Alboreto locked up and went wide at the first corner, and I went down the inside. My front wheels were just behind his front wheels when we were coming out, and I thought we’d accelerate up the hill together. There was room, but basically he just came straight across, trying to block me, and put me up on the footpath. I was tight against the barrier, trying to avoid the pit boards — I couldn’t go anywhere.
“Our wheels were interlocked all the way up the hill, and I remember thinking, you’ve got to give me space, because if I back off, you’re going to be destroyed, and I need room to actually get out of this. I even lost my nose, but I thought I could still win the race, as I was so quick. He didn’t back out — I still don’t understand why.
“As soon as he braked, I tried to brake and, basically, I took off. I remember thinking I was going to go over the wall, which has a 40- or 50-foot drop the other side, so that would have been pretty terminal. But I hit the wall and glanced off it. At this point, I was still in mid-air and saw I was about to hit another wall head-on. I closed my eyes and that was that. There wasn’t a lot left of it, believe me.
“I was upside-down at first, and the extinguisher went off and burned the back of my leg. They didn’t stop the race, so the cars were racing past me for about 10 laps until they towed me down a side road and eventually cut me out. I remember looking down and my leg was going at a right angle. I didn’t understand that, because I didn’t feel anything at all. I had a compound fracture. It was a bit of a mess.
“It’s difficult to say, but Pau was probably a turning point in my career. Basically, I lost a year, lost momentum. Everybody said, ‘He’s not the same driver since the accident.’ You do lose your confidence, but the real problem was that I didn’t fit in at Ralt the following year, and to prove your detractors wrong you have to do something exceptional.
“But at least I met my wife when I had my broken leg! I keep saying to her that’s the reason why I was slow afterwards…”