Friday favourite: The Le Mans-winning Sauber behind a heroic solo drive
The difficulty of managing fuel usage during days of primitive telemetry with keeping pace in brutally fast, physically-demanding prototypes made solo feats during Group C endurance races preciously rare. That goes some way to explaining Kenneth Acheson’s Race of My Life choice, and why the Sauber-Mercedes C9 he raced on that famous Suzuka day in 1989 is his favourite racing car
The unmistakable rumble of the Sauber-Mercedes C9’s V8 was the soundtrack to a breakout year in Kenneth Acheson’s racing career. Two wins in the 1989 World Sports Prototype Championship and second at the Le Mans 24 Hours marked a remarkable return to the international racing scene for the Ulsterman, who had four years earlier struggled with desperately uncompetitive Formula 1 machinery before making a career in Japan that put his name back on the map.
Acheson points out that the honour bestowed by Autosport readers in voting it as the Racing Car of the Year in 1989 must have made the C9 pretty special, and that it most certainly was. Having just been pipped to the title in 1988 by Martin Brundle’s Jaguar XJR-9, Jean-Louis Schlesser made amends in 1989 to see off Acheson’s co-driver Mauro Baldi in a season-long fight as the Swiss operation was only beaten once in eight world championship rounds by Joest’s 962 at Dijon when tyre preservation played a significant role in the result.
“That whole year was great,” says Acheson. “Dave Price ran that car, I got on well with Mauro [Baldi], the team was just an incredibly nice place to be where they were competitive and very good at what they did. The car was a pleasure to drive.”
Such was its impact that for Acheson the C9 even usurps “the only car I’ve driven and realised I’d got a smile on my face”. The 1987 Japanese Group C champion believes the Toyota TS010 in which he again finished second at Le Mans in 1992 had the edge on Peugeot for pace the following year, “but our reliability just fell apart”.
“It was just ridiculously fast compared to what we’d driven before,” Acheson says of the Toyota, which “gripped like you wouldn’t believe”.
Acheson’s first outing with the C9 in 1988 was curtailed when an unexplained tyre blowout for team-mate Klaus Niedzwiedz prompted Sauber to withdraw. But he was asked back for the Fuji 1000km WSPC round, sharing with Schlesser and Jochen Mass. He led during the race but delays caused by a loss of boost and subsequent repairs, attributed to a loose bolt in the turbo wastegate, cost four laps and limited their C9 to fifth at the flag. However Acheson had made enough of an impression to contest the full 1989 season and Le Mans, now a non-championship event.
Acheson was accepting of his number two role, which in the fuel-limited Group C formula meant he was the foil responsible for keeping the car in contention during the middle stint without abusing his consumption. A difficult tightrope to walk, but one which in the C9 he didn’t find an arduous task.
The Toyota TS010 is the only car that ever knowingly brought a smile to Acheson's face while driving it - but can't match the C9
Photo by: William Murenbeeld / Motorsport Images
“In my mind it was [Baldi’s] car, it was always he was going to start the races and my job was to fill in the gaps,” says Acheson. “Whenever I was needed to make a difference, I think I was always able to do that. But certainly I was never somebody who would go and use up too much fuel, I was always sensible with fuel.
“I wasn’t their person to be starting the race or to set the car up for what I wanted. I wasn’t their person to have the same amount of laps in practice and qualifying. I didn’t feel I had to make it a big deal and maybe that’s why at the end of the year they probably thought I wasn’t driven enough, maybe I didn’t create enough trouble. But Jochen was very similar with Schlesser, he was more or less always second driver as well and never dropped the ball. That in my mind is what I saw my job being.
“I didn’t have to really be in the spotlight that much, I was quite happy quietly getting on and doing a good job. And I think that’s part of the reason why people did choose me, to be a team player.”
"With the Mercedes we just always drove to the fuel or very slightly over it and I remember early on for the first dozen or 15 laps it was really difficult to overtake. Then when they have to settle down, I made real progress" Kenneth Acheson
Acheson fulfilled all those criteria and more in the opening round of 1989 at Suzuka, which he selected as the race of his life in the 11 September 2014 issue of Autosport. Driving the 480km race solo in an unfamiliar car, he came through from 30th to the lead before heeding team orders to finish second.
The #62 entry was qualified by Schlesser and Mass, the latter only setting a nominal time after crashing in the wet on his second flying lap. Schlesser (who had qualified 10th) was moved across to join Baldi in #61 when the team doctor advised Mass - who was struggling with his vision – to withdraw and so Acheson took his place, having not driven his race chassis until warmup.
“Circumstances were thrown upon me,” he says.
Acheson recalls that Suzuka “was actually the first race that we used carbon brakes”, which hadn’t previously managed a race distance. The decision to run them was made in the expectation that there was nothing to lose if Acheson couldn’t physically last the distance – a point he too had doubts about.
Acheson reckons that his wealth of track knowledge “would have helped a little bit” on a circuit that “was a lot bumpier than it is now” and retained the old “more intimidating” 130R, but reckons it was more a matter of patiently managing his pace.
Mass joined him for the podium but played no part in the race as Acheson drove a stellar solo race to second at Suzuka in 1989
Photo by: Sutton Images
“Maybe it helped more coming through the field because certainly early on it was very hard to overtake as a lot of the Porsches in the first stint would run a lot higher boost,” he says. “With the Mercedes we just always drove to the fuel or very slightly over it and I remember early on for the first dozen or 15 laps it was really difficult to overtake. Then when they have to settle down, I made real progress.
“But I lost a load of time in the first dozen or 15 laps because I just couldn’t pass traffic. Everybody is racing and going mad and lots of boost, up and down, you just had to be patient. But the car was quick and I came through.”
He never dipped under the 2m00s barrier during the first third of the race and progressed to ninth by lap 20, while others had to back off after charging too soon. By lap 48, Acheson had moved up to second and was in good shape, having taken 10 litres more fuel than Baldi-Schlesser at the first stops. He then closed significantly after the second stops on Schlesser, who had to stop for longer, and circulated 2-3s per lap faster before passing on lap 64.
“I obviously knew that I’d be asked to give it back, which I didn’t have a problem with,” relates Acheson. “It was the right thing for the team. I was the new guy in the car, I was definitely the number two driver. When I got asked, I slowed down in front of the pits so that everyone at least knew that I had been leading!”
Back with Baldi in #61 for the rest of the season, Acheson led briefly through traffic at Dijon before being hamstrung behind the slow-moving Almeras Porsche in the pits and dropping behind the #62 machine. He then did the bulk of the driving at Le Mans, where time lost to an off while Baldi was at the wheel combined with gearbox dramas allowed the Le Mans-only #63 entry of Mass, Manuel Reuter and Stanley Dickens to lead home Acheson, Baldi and Gianfranco Brancatelli in a 1-2.
Acheson rates his first Le Mans start in three attempts – in 1985 the John Fitzpatrick 962C he’d been due to share with Schlesser and Dudley Wood was destroyed when Wood crashed in practice and vaulted the barrier on the Mulsanne Straight – as one of his stronger drives that year, although it left him with sore eyes for the following WSPC round at Jarama.
“I wasn’t probably at my best at Jarama,” he reckons of a race he spun on his second lap out of the pits, with an inconsistent feeling in the brakes implicated. That was later validated as the car later lost three laps while the system was bled in the final pitstop.
Acheson reaffirmed a gap built up by Baldi prior to a safety car en-route to their first win at Brands Hatch, before a frustrating day at the Nurburgring where the #61 car proved puzzlingly thirstier than the sister Sauber. Baldi was already over on his fuel allocation when he handed over to Acheson, who could do nothing to get back into the lead fight against Schlesser and Mass. “A bit messy,” is his memory of the event.
Acheson and Baldi led home C9 1-2 at Brands Hatch
Photo by: Motorsport Images
Second again to their team-mates at Donington, Acheson upheld his end of the bargain at Spa on his first visit to the track since his Formula 2 days – despite precious little dry weather running in practice – to secure a second win of the season, but it wasn’t enough to keep his drive.
Acheson knew before the Mexico finale that he wasn’t going to stay on for the arrival of the C11 in 1990. Mercedes was in the throes of setting up its young driver programme to develop Formula 3 drivers Karl Wendlinger, Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Michael Schumacher. “Obviously it was a bit disappointing,” is Acheson’s view, although he says he can understand Mercedes motorsport boss Jochen Neerpasch’s thinking.
“I never really had a problem with that, I could understand it because by then my career wasn’t going to go forward,” he says. “Basically I was happy doing what I was doing, I was a really good second driver but they had the opportunity to bring in three young guys and they all did really well. And I guess my claim to fame is I got sacked for Michael Schumacher, you can’t really complain about that!”
"I don’t sit at home and think bad about it. I actually sit at home and think I had a really good weekend other than that!" Kenneth Acheson
Determined to bow out in style and secure the title for Baldi, who was five points behind Schlesser (although ahead before dropped scores) heading into the race, Acheson was on a tear in Mexico City. He reckons “that was the only weekend that Mauro was probably a bit slower than me” and attributes it to the knowledge he wouldn’t be returning for the following year meaning “I didn’t have to try and please everybody, which I guess through the year I was always trying to do”.
Acheson took over before Mass, hunted him down and passed on the pit straight for the lead.
He recalls: “I remember Pricey saying to me, ‘You just have to try and get ahead of Jochen and then hold him and take it from there’. And that’s what I did. I did get past him, but by then my tyres were not great. So it was a matter of trying to control that Jochen couldn’t pass me.”
Approaching Peraltada, Acheson could see Tiff Needell’s Richard Lloyd Porsche up ahead and “backed off because I knew if I caught him halfway through the corner Jochen would just pass me halfway down the straight”.
“I backed off to give myself a really good run,” explains Acheson, “but I probably mis-timed the run by a couple of car-lengths. So just as I came to the bump I think his downforce interfered a little bit and the car just spun.”
The back end stepped out and there was little Acheson could do. He was spat into the tyres barriers on the outside, the impact causing heavy damage to the front end of the chassis. In the blink of an eye, the title race was over, Acheson no less gutted than Baldi.
The 1989 WSPC title went down to the wire in Mexico, where a crash for Acheson handed the crown to Schlesser
Photo by: Motorsport Images
“It was disappointing, but I don’t have a problem with what I did or anything like that,” he says. “Obviously I felt sorry for Mauro, but everybody in the team – even Neerpasch said, ‘that was why you were there, you were excellent’. So they didn’t have a problem with me crashing, I crashed the car because I was trying to win the race so my team-mate could be world champion. That’s the way it is and obviously it didn’t work out.
“I don’t sit at home and think bad about it. I actually sit at home and think I had a really good weekend other than that!”
Fortunately for Acheson, that wasn’t to be his final outing in a C9. He was reunited with the car, an unraced chassis built up from spare parts, after a chance outing with its owner, historics racer Rupert Clevely, at the Goodwood Festival of Speed. That prompted Acheson to make a brief run in the car at Turweston airfield for an article in Motorsport magazine, before Acheson agreed to purchase the car “about a year or so later”.
“When you sit in it, it’s just normal, like you were in it a couple of months ago,” says Acheson of a car that had previously been part of the Donington Collection. He has changed the livery so it now wears his 1989 Le Mans colours, complete with his #61: “It's nice to take it out, I got invited to Goodwood [Festival of Speed] a couple of years ago [in 2021].”
But perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s Suzuka 1989 that Acheson picks out as his C9 highlight today.
“The two wins are nice to have, and I suppose you can say ‘I won a world sportscar race’ but to be honest finishing second at Suzuka was probably to me personally as good,” he says. “It was always nice to win because it showed that you could, but I know the races that I did well.
“The overriding thing is I was just really fortunate to be picked by Sauber to race the car that year. Even when I got picked, I couldn’t believe I was picked! I was in Japan and I was doing a good job but nobody in Europe knew me, so to get that [drive] and have a year with it was really good.
“And it was absolutely the nicest team I have ever driven for. You had just a real culture of getting on with it and everybody knew they were good at it. My overriding memory is just I was bloody lucky to be able to drive it and to be able to drive in that team.”
Today Acheson has an example of the C9 he drove to second at Le Mans in 1989
Photo by: Rainer W. Schlegelmilch / Motorsport Images
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