The 1980 British Formula 3 finale was perhaps the defining moment for Kenny Acheson. So long championship leader, that year’s British hero lost a three-way title decider and his Grand Prix ambitions were fatally wounded that day.
Upbringing and early career
His father was an amateur driver who owned an Ulster brickworks. The young Kenny followed him into the sport and showed prodigious talent in Formula Ford 1600 – making his debut in 1976 and winning the Irish title a year later. Acheson dominated the 1978 British FF1600 Championships with a works Royale RP24 and won 29 times to clinch all three titles. His potential was recognised with the Grovewood Award for the most promising young Commonwealth talent.
Long-term sponsor RMC funded two seasons in British F3 and Acheson was promising in his rookie year. He was then on the verge of the 1980 title in Murray Taylor Racing’s March-Toyota but Acheson could not hold off Stefan Johansson’s late charge. He spun during the final round at Thruxton and second equal with Roberto Guerrero was ultimately a disappointment.
Acheson entered Formula 2 as Johansson’s 1981 team-mate at DS Team Toleman. His year was marred by a leg-breaking accident at Pau just as he started to show his form at that level. Barely recovered, Acheson finished a brave third when he returned at the final round at Mantorp Park. He continued in the category with Ralt-Honda in 1982 and Maurer a year later. Seventh in 1982 was his best year in F2 with a couple of second-place finishes as close as he came to victory.
Formula 1 at the wrong end of the pitlane
He did make the move to Formula 1 in the middle of 1983 with the uncompetitive RAM team but it was an unhappy experience. He qualified just once to make his debut in South Africa. Another half season for the team in 1985 was equally depressing. Drafted in after Manfred Winkelhock was killed, Acheson only qualified twice. It was a poor F1 return for a fine talent.
Success in sports cars
But the Irishman set about rebuilding his career. He made a one-off Champ Car appearance at the 1984 Meadowlands race and raced in Japan soon after – winning the 1987 Japanese Sportscar Championship with Kunimitsu Takahashi and Alpha’s Porsche 962.
His breakthrough on the international stage was with Sauber-Mercedes in the 1989 World Sportscar Championship. The Sauber C9/88-Mercedes he shared with Mauro Baldi won at Brands Hatch and Spa-Francorchamps and was second at Le Mans (with Gianfranco Brancatelli also driving) – the highlights of his racing career. Third in the 1991 Le Mans 24 Hours for Jaguar and second once more a year later with Toyota, he retired from the sport after crashing a Lister Storm during the 1996 Daytona 24 Hours.