• Where Are They Now?

F1's soap star - Kenny Acheson

Andrew Marriott April 13, 2010
Kenny Acheson in his Formula 3 days © Sutton Images
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In the early 1980s Kenny Acheson was very much a man of the moment and hailed as Northern Ireland's big Formula One hope, yet the promise was never quite fulfilled. Two seasons of grand prix racing near the back of the field in uncompetitive cars was rewarded by just one finish - twelfth place in the 1983 South African Grand Prix.

He went on to forge a career in Japanese F3000 and European sports car racing, with two seconds and a third at the Le Mans 24 Hours his greatest achievements. His racing career came to an end with an almighty shunt at the 1996 Daytona 24 Hours, when his Newcastle United-liveried Lister Storm was taken out by an amateur in a Mazda. In his own words, Acheson "simply didn't need it anymore" and by that time he was already embarking on a successful alternative career.

Together with his wife Fiona he set up business in the soap and beauty products industry. Now the Achesons have built their enterprise into a hugely successful enterprise, employing over 100 people and supplying own brand products to a wide range of clients from Marks & Spencer to Primark. Within their industry they have a tremendous reputation for innovation and are currently embarking on a major expansion.

But as a boy the only thing Kenny was dreaming about was racing. His father Harry not only ran a successful brick works, but from 1959 to 1976 raced bikes and cars against the likes of John Watson's father, Marshall. Some of Kenny's earliest memories were cheering his father on from the pits and he wanted nothing more than to follow in his footsteps.

The chance came in 1976 when he tried the family Crossle Formula Ford, and a year later he had a brand new car on the promise he wouldn't drink or smoke. Kenny not only kept the bargain but won the Northern Ireland FF Championship his first competitive year.

It wasn't long before he was heading for the "mainland" with sponsorship from a cement company to race for Royale. Despite a broken wrist sustained in a testing accident, he had a superb season and won 29 races and no fewer than three different Formula Ford titles. His impressive achievement was widely recognised and he picked up that year's Grovewood Award, the equivalent of today's Autosport Award.

The next step had to be Formula 3, and with his sponsor's support he embarked on a rookie season with a Ralt RT1. By then the March 793 was the car to have but Acheson still won three non-championship races and was a regular front runner in the main championship. For his second year of Formula 3 he switched to Murray Taylor's leading outfit, and with his hands on the wheel of his very own March 793, he started winning.

'I should have won the title'

He looked set to take the Vandervell Bearings British Formula 3 Championship only to be pipped at the post by future Ferrari F1 driver Stefan Johansson. Johansson was driving for Project 4 Racing, a smartly turned out team run by a certain Ron Dennis, but a package Acheson still resents losing to. "The season went well until the new Ralt came along with Stefan at the wheel," he recalls. "It was quicker than the March, but I should have won the title."

In 1981 he progressed up the motorsport ladder by securing a drive in Formula 2. However, his season was cut short by a huge accident at Pau involving Michele Alboreto, in which Acheson broke both his legs. He came back the following year in the Ralt-Honda team, but was no match for the powerful March-BMWs he was up against. A second place at Thruxton helped him to seventh in the championship, two places ahead of team-mate Jonathan Palmer, but it was a season he was keen to forget. "It was a horrible season," he says, "the car was overweight and I didn't get along with [Ralt boss] Ron Tauranac."

The following year saw him finally make Formula One, but unlike many of his peers he had beaten along the way, Kenny has to settle for a seat in the under-funded RAM March. He failed to qualify at any of his first six races but finally made it in Kyalami where he brought the budget car home 12th, albeit six laps down. Out of funds, he sat out the 1984 season but RAM brought him back in 1985 for three races - which resulted in two retirements and another failure to qualify.

Kenny Acheson driving at Le Mans for Sauber-Mercedes © Sutton Images

His career was on the rocks and a chance to race in America ended with a couple of abortive runs in the CART Championship, courtesy of RAM sponsor Skoal Bandit. A lucky break came with a chance to race for Kunimitsu Takahashi's Formula 3000 team in Japan and Acheson snapped it up. He also competed in sports car racing in the Far East and won the Japanese Sports Car Championship in 1987 which led to a drive with Sauber-Mercedes.

In 1989, driving with Mauro Baldi, he won at Brands Hatch and Spa Francorchamps in the Sauber-Mercedes and finished second at Le Mans to team-mates Jochen Mass, Manuel Reuter and Stanley Dickens. Later successes included third at Le Mans for Jaguar in 1991 and second for Toyota the following year. "I could easily have won all three of those, for instance we were leading in '89 but lost time after Mauro spun." More racing for the SARD team in Japan followed before he had his sudden wake-up call at Daytona in 1996.

"Now at 52 I look back and I think I had a pretty good career and I reckon I had the talent," Acheson reflects. "But ultimately I wasn't ruthless, I just didn't have the strength of character to go all the way in Formula One". But when you next go into Marks & Spencer to buy that foaming bath oil, remember that behind it is one of the most honest, enthusiastic and engaging racers ever to drive in F1.