1977-1983: Pre-Formula One Career
1977-1978: Formula Ford
Kenneth Acheson was born into a motor racing family to which his father was a regular racer in the local Northern Irish Formula Ford championship. His father had competed against the likes of Gordon Watson, the father of Northern Ireland's first successful Formula One driver, John Watson.
In 1976, Kenneth's father promised to buy him his own Formula Ford car if he promised to quit smoking. Kenneth made good on his promise and in 1977 began his motor racing career.
Whilst he originally planned to be only a hobby racer like his father, Kenneth immediately demonstrated enormous talent and went on to dominate the Northern Irish Formula Ford championship. His highly impressive first season in Formula Ford saw him be lauded as the greatest driver to hail from Northern Ireland since John Watson.
In 1978, he headed to mainland Britain to see if his motor racing talent would be worth anything among the more competitive mainland championships. A young Rory Byrne immediately talent spotted Acheson as a driver with serious potential. Byrne acquired Acheson one of the top line Royale cars for the 1978 season. Acheson partnered with Rory Byrne once again appeared to be a dominant driver. Acheson easily took victory in the 1978 British Formula Ford championship.
1979-1980: Formula Three
Acheson's success saw him acquire a sponsor in the ready-mix concrete company, the RMC Group. RMC therefore sponsored his entry into the 1979 British Formula Three championship. Acheson would compete against the likes of Nigel Mansell, Stefan Johansson, Andrea de Cesaris, Mike Thackwell, Chico Serra, Roberto Guerrero and Eddie Jordan in the championship.
Acheson was driving a two year old Ralt RT1, a car that by no means was the class of the field. Acheson, however quickly adapted to the older car and found he could regularly compete within the top ten of the field despite his older model car. When it appeared Acheson could match the pace of the leading group, RMC acquired him a March 793, one of the most competitive cars in the field.
Acheson proved slow to adjust to the new car, suffering a number of retirements. However at the twelfth round of the championship at Silverstone, Acheson finally acquired his first podium where he finished third behind Chico Serra and Mike Thackwell.
He then took his first victory in a non-championship race at Donnington Park where he notably defended against a charging Thierry Boutsen throughout the race. Thereafter, Acheson established himself as one of the front runners in Formula Three. Whilst he was regularly fighting and matching the pace of the front runners, he failed to manage to take a championship victory throughout his inaugral season.
Although, he did manage to take a total of three non-championship victories throughout the entire season. This notably however lacked the main championship contenders, however he commendably defended a victory at Donnington Park from Nigel Mansell much as he done to Thierry Boutsen earlier in the season.
With drivers like De Cesaris, Thackwell and Serra graduating from the series as well as an injured Nigel Mansell, Acheson was expected to be one of the leading contenders for 1980. His main rivals would come from Stefan Johansson and Roberto Guerrero. Johansson had signed for Ron Dennis's Project 4 outfit which was seen as the dominant team in Formula Three. Guerrero entered the scene with heavy funding for his own endeavours. Although he received a new March 803 from the RMC Group, Acheson was undoubtedly one of the lesser funded competitors.
Acheson struggled to adapt to the new March 803 and instead opted to revert back to the older March 793 he had from the previous season. The decision immediately payed off well and he took his first F3 victory at the fourth round at Thruxton. He then followed with another victory at the next round of the championship at Silverstone.
Acheson also attended the F3 support race for the Monaco Grand Prix where he performed well to finish fourth behind Mauro Baldi, Michele Alboreto and Jean-Louis Schlesser. His main championship rival, Johansson appeared to be faltering after his early season pace. Acheson appeared to have the middle season ground and it looked like there was a very real potential that Johansson in his Ron Dennis entered Project 4 car would lose the championship.
Late in the season, Ron Dennis purchased the latest Ralt RT3 model for Johansson in a late bid attempt to ensure that they won the championship. The new Ralt appeared to be a dominant piece of machinery and Johansson was easily in control in the remaining races. Acheson meanwhile faltered, he returned to the now updated March 803B and found that he could not match the pace of Johansson in the Ralt. Acheson therefore lost the championship by only two points to Johansson.
1981-1983: Formula Two
Although he had failed to take the championship, Acheson emerged from the 1980 F3 championship as genuine Formula One potential for the future. Johansson had been believed to have had the faster car throughout most of the season and it was not clear which of the two rivals was the fastest.
It was therefore not surprising to see both Johansson and Acheson signed for the Toleman Formula Two team for the 1981 season. The team were the reigning F2 champions, and whilst they were now focussing their resources on their new Formula One project, the organisation maintained their F2 team for 1981. Rory Byrne whom had initially talent spotted Acheson in Formula Ford was now the chief designer at Toleman and had recommended Acheson prove his talent alongside Johansson in the team.
With Toleman now focussed on Formula One, their Formula Two team run by Dock Spitzley was significantly under financed compared to the previous season. The Lola chassis that Acheson and Johansson were running was evidently sporadic in its performance capability. Acheson begun the season were he seriously was struggling to adapt to the more powerful Formula Two cars. Whilst Johansson was also struggling, his performance was underlined when he took victory in the second round of the championship at the Hockenheimring. Acheson in comparison had an accident with Marc Surer and went on to finish in eighteenth.
Acheson was failing to match his teammate's pace in the opening races and was usually running outside of the top ten. However, there were signs that Acheson was beginning to improve and find his competitiveness once again. Acheson finally beat Johansson to take his first point of the season at the notorious Nürburgring.
At the Pau Circuit, Acheson finally proved his talent. He had achieved the team's highest qualifying position of the season by qualifying on the front row alongside pole sitter Michele Alboreto in the Minardi. The previous race at Mugello, the duo had endured an intense battle for fourteenth position to which Alboreto eventually won out. Ahead of the race, Alboreto told Acheson, "let's be sensible today". Alboreto had led from pole position, however Acheson was chasing right behind the Minardi driver. On the third lap, Acheson attacked, however despite Alboreto's earlier claims of being sensible, he slammed the door shut. Acheson was left with nowhere to go and as he described "I took off, hit the wall and landed upside down with my leg broken to bits."
Acheson's injuries would mean he would be kept out for nearly the entire remainder of the season. Whilst he was out of racing, he took up a desk job at the Donnington Circuit where he would meet his future wife, Fiona. He made a return to F2 for the final race of the season in Sweden. Whilst his teammate, Stefan Johansson went on to win the race and secure fourth in the championship, Acheson made a strong return to take his first F2 podium.
Acheson's strengths in the season were masked by his poor start to the season and his leg-breaking crash at Pau. However Acheson was still considered a future Formula One talent and for 1981 he was signed for Ron Tauranac's Ralt-Honda team. He would be racing alongside Jonathan Palmer, the new British F3 champion. As well as this, the team would run Bridgestone tyres that were operated by Hiroshi Yasukawa.
Acheson, however immediately struggled to find harmony in the team as he was almost immediately written off by team boss, Ron Tauranac. Acheson was not strong with set-up work on a car and Tauranac focussed his attention on Palmer who was much more technologically proficient. Although Palmer was favoured in the team, the two drivers were very much even in race performances. Acheson scored the best result of the season with a second place at Thruxton.
However Palmer appeared stronger in qualifying and was steadily improving his race performances over the course of the season. Nonetheless it was Acheson who finished higher in the championship, albeit Palmer was disadvantaged due to having missed two rounds of the championship after a nasty shunt at Mantorp Park. Acheson finished the season seventh in the championship, two places ahead of Palmer. He had also managed to beat his old rival, Stefan Johansson who was now driving for the rival Spirit-Honda team.
Nonetheless, Ron Tauranac did not have the belief in Acheson's ability and he was sacked by Ralt at the end of the season in favour of his old F3 rival, Mike Thackwell. Although he had driven well and consistently during 1982, his sacking from Ralt had hurt his credibility. However he signed for the German, Maurer Motorsport team for his third season in F2 for 1983.
The Maurer was hardly a strong car and on top of that, his teammate would be the prodigious German talent, Stefan Bellof. It would be a dismal season for Acheson, even Bellof, his prodigious teammate struggled to use the deficient Maurer effectively. Acheson had gone from threatening for podiums and being a regularly points finisher to struggling to even make it into the top ten. Even more frustrating was that Palmer and Thackwell were dominating the season at his old team in Ralt.
Being unable to extract the performance from the unreliable Maurer, Acheson was seeing his Formula One ambitions falling by the wayside as newer talent began to shrine through the ranks of Formula Two.
1983-1985: Formula One Racing Career
1983 - RAM-March
His disappointing season in F2 during 1983 was making it seriously unlikely that Acheson could make Formula One. It was a frustrating turn of events considering that most of his main rivals in F3 and F2 had now advanced into the top tier category.
However, John MacDonald and Mike Ralph at RAM had remembered the talent he had demonstrated in his early years in F3. For the British Grand Prix, Acheson was asked to take the single seat at the RAM team for the remainder of the season.
RAM was hardly the ideal place to start his Formula One career, it was both the slowest and poorest team on the grid. The outfit only entering only its first season as a manufacturer. Nonetheless, the team were offering Acheson with what was looking to be his last opportunity to be noticed by the Formula One fraternity.
Acheson had made it to Formula One, however there was absolutely no opportunity to demonstrate his abilities. The RAM was hopelessly slow and Acheson was usually bottoming the time sheets in every qualifying session. Occasionally, the RAM was capable of matching the pace of the next slowest team, the Osella.
Of the seven grand prix's Acheson entered that season, he was able to outqualify Corrado Fabi three times on merit. Nonetheless, the only race that Acheson would manage to qualify for that season was the final race in South Africa.
Acheson was guaranteed a place in the race due to the field being reduced to 26 cars with the withdrawal of Theodore for the event. Although he was assured a position in the race, Acheson put in a strong qualifying performance to which the team for the first time that season outqualified the two Osella cars of Fabi and Piercarlo Ghinzani.
With both the Osella cars retiring early in the race, Acheson drove a very quiet first race to which he eventually finished the race in eleventh position. He had completed the feat of finishing his first F1 race, albeit he was six laps down on the winner Riccardo Patrese in the Brabham.
1984 - Year out
With RAM expanding their operation to two cars for the 1984 season, Acheson hoped to be retained by the team for the new season. However his sponsor, RMC, were no longer willing to fund his expensive racing career in a low-level F1 team. Without a sponsor, Acheson lost his drive to his old F2 teammate, Jonathan Palmer and the better funded, Philippe Alliot.
Without a sponsor, Acheson's motor racing career appeared to be over having failed to make the cut in motor racing's top echelon. However, RAM still recognised his talent and their title sponsor, Skoal Bandit attempted to assist Acheson in kick-starting his career again in the United States.
Like his fellow F3 rivals, Mike Thackwell and Roberto Guerrero whom had both failed to make it in Formula One, Acheson made an entrance into CART IndyCar for 1984. Unlike his two old rivals, he did not have the budget to do a full season and could only afford to enter three rounds of the championship with Forsythe Racing.
His CART IndyCar career was a dismal failure, he failed to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 as well as the Elkhart Lake and Laguna Seca rounds of the championship. He managed to qualify at Meadowlands, however he only succeeded in crashing out of the race.
His CART IndyCar career had been another failure, however he remained associated with RAM and continued to be sponsored by Skoal Bandit into 1985. Skoal Bandit secured him a one off drive to drive alongside Jo Gartner in the 1000KM of Monza in the World Sportscar Championship. The duo retired from the race and Acheson had not managed to distinguish himself.
He was then invited to do the 24 Hours of Le Mans for the first time in 1986. However he described his Porsche 986C as "undriveable" and for the first time in his career found himself scared of racing a car. His fears were confounded when his co-driver, Dudley Wood, crashed the car and broke his leg in qualifying. Acheson thereafter "swore never to go back to Le Mans".
1985 - RAM
His career was largely floundering and his chances to return to Formula One were dwindling. He was thereafter recommended by his old F3 rivals, Stefan Johansson and Eddie Jordan to reestablish his career in Japanese motorsport. However just as he was beginning his career in Japan, Acheson was given one last chance to return to Formula One.
Albeit, his Formula One return was provided by more dire circumstance. RAM's lead driver for 1985, Manfred Winkelhock, had been killed in a sportscar race in Canada. RAM was initially unwilling to replace Winkelock out of respect of their fallen driver, however Skoal Bandit whom had attempted to sustain Acheson's career over the past two years persuaded RAM to give Acheson a second chance.
RAM were somewhat stronger than they had been in 1983, however the team's financial situation was seriously dire and were on the brink of losing their financial supporter in Skoal Bandit. The team remained one of the backmarkers, however they were now at least able to consistently qualify for races.
Acheson was due to rejoin RAM for the remainder of the season, partnering Philippe Alliot whom had been promoted to lead driver following Winkelhock's death. Acheson joined the team for the Austrian Grand Prix, however would once again find incredible difficulty in Formula One.
The Hart engine was notoriously unreliable and would consistently blow up on Acheson's car. He nonetheless qualified in Austria ahead of Huub Rothengatter, Jonathan Palmer, Pierluigi Martini and Martin Brundle. He was less fortunate in the race when he suffered another engine failure. His engine problems were further confounded in the Netherlands when he suffered another blow up meaning he was the slowest and therefore did not qualify.
His final race came at Monza where he impressively outqualified his teammate Alliot as well as Alan Jones debuting the Lola-Hart. However on the warm-up lap he damaged his clutch and duly retired at the beginning of the race. Thereafter Acheson claimed to grow tired and stated “I wasn’t being paid, nobody knew if I was any good, I was at the bottom of the heap whereas in Japan I was being paid and I was making a name for myself. So on Monday morning I told John that I was finished with Formula 1, I’d be better off without it.”
Alternatively it was noted that Acheson had broken so many engines that RAM no longer could afford to supply their second car with engines and were forced to withdraw his entry. Nonetheless, the team finished the season and with the loss of Skoal Bandit, RAM were forced to close their F1 team at the end of 1985.
With the loss of RAM, Acheson's link to Formula One was largely lost. He thereafter was among the first generation of European drivers who would attempt to establish their careers and reputation in Japanese motorsport. He was given a final opportunity to prove himself among the European echelon in Formula 3000 when Eddie Jordan offered him a drive at the Österreichring in 1986. However after a mediocre performance, Acheson thereafter decided to focus solely on domestic Japanese racing.
1985-1996: Post-Formula One Racing Career
1985-1989: Japanese Racing
With his European career floundering, Acheson's motor racing career seemed to be at its end. However, Stefan Johansson, whom had just signed for Ferrari at the top of Formula One had vouched for the qualities of Acheson. Johansson had managed to reboot his career by racing in Japanese Formula Two during 1984. Acheson with the help of Eddie Jordan, now a renowned team manager and Johansson's credibility, Acheson was able to kick start his career within the Japanese racing scene.
During 1985, he performed well in the Formula Two category being one of the leading drivers for the series. He managed to take a single win and finished third in the championship, however the season was dominated by Satoru Nakajima.
By 1986, Acheson was no longer using the Japanese racing scene as a serious method of returning to Formula One. Describing his experience of racing in Japan, Acheson noted "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."
Acheson had began to establish himself as a Japanese Sportscar racer. After he luckily emerged from an enormous accident at the end of the 1986 season in Fuji, Acheson returned as a top level competitor in 1987. Partnering veteran Japanese racer, Kunimitsu Takahashi in a Porsche 962, the duo went on take victory in the Japanese World Sportscar Championship. The duo took two victories in the series and managed the feat of beating the Toyota 87C driven by former Formula One world champion, Alan Jones and Geoff Lees.
Acheson's final season in Japanese Sportscar racing was in 1988 when he raced for Vern Schuppan's team, notably partnering his "good friend", Emanuele Pirro a future five time winner of Le Mans. Aside from Sportscars, Acheson had ventures in Touring Cars and most notably Japanese Formula 3000.
Acheson maintained the link to the single seaters of his early career by competing in Japanese Formula 3000. A more relaxed Acheson who was now racing for minor teams no longer had the drive to compete at the front of the grid. He completed two seasons in F3000 before returning to Europe in 1989.
1988-1996: World Sportscar Racing
Whilst Acheson was racing semi-professionally in Japan, he would get another unexpected call to return to the forefront of racing. The rising Sauber-Mercedes outfit whom was one of the leading World Sportscar teams invited Acheson to race for them in Le Mans.
His success in winning the 1987 World Sportscar Championship as well as his early career success in being capable of fighting among many top Formula One drivers had secured him the drive. Initially, Acheson was hesitant to return to Le Mans after his horrendous experience in 1986. However a lofty pay check plus encouragement from Eje Elgh, Acheson agreed to return to Le Mans.
There was some doubt from manager, Max Welti, about his capabilities, however in the first practice session Acheson managed to put the car fourth fastest. Nonetheless, the Sauber-Mercedes was suffering from severe tyre degradation. When his co-driver, renowned German touring car driver, Klauz Niedzwiedz had a major tyre blow-out in qualifying, the team decided to withdraw from the race. Acheson whilst receiving a large pay check was somewhat disappointed in not being able to participate in Le Mans.
He returned to his usual job in Japanese Sportscar racing when Sauber once again called him to race again in the season finale of the World Sportscar Championship at the 100KM of Fuji. Acheson was brought into the team as an expert driver on the circuit and would partner Jean-Louis Schlesser and Jochen Mass in the car. It was an important race, his co-driver, Schlesser was in a direct fight with Martin Brundle for the championship.
Acheson's expert knowledge of the track saw him take an early lead for the Schlesser car, he did his job effectively, however when Mass and Schlesser were racing the car developed a faulty sensor and dropped to fifth. Ultimately, the title went to Brundle in the Jaguar, however Acheson had done his job.
His strong performance for Fuji meant that he was offered a full-time race seat for Sauber in the 1989 World Sportscar Championship. 1989 would turn out to be Acheson's biggest year of his career and he eagerly awaited a return to a full-time professional drive. Acheson would serve as the co-driver to Mauro Baldi during the season.
In the first race of the season, Acheson was expected to compete in full 480km of Suzuka as a solo driver. Jochen Mass in the sister car had developed a sickness which forced Baldi to take over his car. Willi Dungl had told him “Today will be a good day, it will be a day people will remember you for. What you will do today will be special.”
Acheson drove an excellent race for nearly six hours as a solo driver. He at one point led the race before he was instructed under team orders to allow the car of Schlesser and Baldi to take the victory. Acheson completed an incredible feat to finish second as a lone driver in an endurance event.
After a third place at Dijon-Prenois, the team arrived at Le Mans. He had failed to start on his previous two occasions, however in his first race at Le Mans, Acheson had a chance for victory. He was the initial leader of the race, however when he handed the car over to Baldi, the car dropped back when Baldi spun. Acheson was expected to complete the entire night shift by himself as Baldi was unwilling to drive at night. He had made his way up to third when he developed a gearbox issue in the early hours of the morning. Nonetheless, he pressed on and after demanding over the team radio that Schlesser in the sister car move over, Acheson went on to finish second at Le Mans in his first attempt.
A brake problem at Jarama meant he and Baldi dropped to fifth, however at the next round at Brands Hatch, Acheson took his first World Sportscar victory. The duo then wrapped up two successive second place finishes at the Nürburgring and Donington Park. Sauber had dominated the constructor's championship, whilst Mauro Baldi was in a direct battle with Jean-Louis Schlesser in the sister car for the world title.
Acheson whom was Baldi's supporting driver had an obligation to ensure his teammates victory in the world championship. The championship came to a head at Spa-Francorchamps. Baldi had been slow during his stint, meaning that Acheson would have to win the race from a distant second in order for his teammate to win the championship. Acheson desperately was pushing, he eventually caught and passed the Schlesser car being driven by co-driver, Jochen Mass, however in doing so he had worn his tyres. Forced to push on with a car with heavily degraded tyres, Acheson eventually lost control of the car and crashed whilst trying to lap Tiff Needell's Porsche.
It had therefore meant that Baldi had lost the championship, however Acheson's performance was consoled by none other than Juan Manuel Fangio who told him he knew "exactly what you were trying to do, and there is no greater thing than to try to win a world championship for your team".
Acheson had driven very well in 1989, he had been described by Mauro Baldi as his "best teammate", however Sauber were forced to drop him at the end of 1989. Acheson noted "they told me I had been a good team man, and I knew I had been quick enough while I was driving for them. It wasn’t a performance thing.” Acheson was dropped in order to allow the rising talents of Michael Schumacher and Karl Wendlinger to join the team.
He therefore signed for Nissan in 1990 to which he would later say that the season with Nissan would be the "worst in his career". The team was described as "heavily political" whilst he and teammate, Julian Bailey struggled to put in a strong performance. At Le Mans, for the third time he failed to start the race when a gearbox problem forced him out on the formation lap.
In 1991, he joined the Tom Walkinshaw entry at Jaguar where he would race as a teammate to Bailey, Raul Boesel, Teo Fabi and Derek Warwick throughout the season. It was a reasonably strong season where in his second race at Le Mans which he actually started, he managed to score another podium with a third place finish alongside Teo Fabi.
At the end of 1991, he had brought an end to his full-time racing career due to his family commitments and his wife's founding of their soap business. He nonetheless continued to race part-time in 1992, now associating with Japan once again by partnering with Toyota in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Racing alonside Pierre-Henri Raphanel, he once again scored another third place at Le Mans. In 1993, he would continue to race at Le Mans for Toyota, alongside Raphanel and Eddie Irvine, however he failed to finish the race on this occasion.
He had a final entry in Le Mans in 1995, with the SARD manufacturer, however he failed to finish. Since 1992, Acheson had competed in the 24 Hours of Daytona. In 1996, he entered the race alongside Geoff Lees and Tiff Needell, however during the race he had an enormous accident where his car was tipped into a barrel-roll and was completely destroyed. Although he luckily walked away unscathed, the accident had prompted the 39 year old Acheson to bring an end to his motor racing career.
Formula One Statistical Overview
Formula One Record
|Year||Entrant||Team||WDC Points||WDC Pos.||Report|
|1983||RAM Automative Team March||RAM-Ford Cosworth||0||NC||Report|
|1985||Shadow Racing Team||RAM-Hart||0||NC||Report|
|Front Row Starts||0|
|Distance Raced||469 km (291 mi)|
|Complete Formula One Results|
|3rd||DNQ||Did not qualify|
|5th||Points finish||DNPQ||Did not pre-qualify|
|14th||Non-points finish||TD||Test driver|
|Italics||Scored point(s) for Fastest Lap||DNS||Did not start|
|18th†||Classified finish (retired with >90% race distance)||NC||Non-classified finish (<90% race distance)|
|4thP||Qualified for pole position||[+] More Symbols|