The Life of Brian

This article first appeared in the 10th July edition of Autosport magazine

He was a champion in British F3, European F2 and an F1 driver for Lotus, Tyrrell, Toleman and Arrows. Yet today the name Brian Henton barely registers an acknowledgement in discussions or lists of great British racing drivers.

An on/off coruscating presence in Formula One from 1975 to 1983, Henton had perhaps the best CV of any British driver from that period. What is more, most of the people that worked with him, including one of the most decorated engineers/designers in F1, attest to a significant talent.

A young Super Hen. Wild but quick
A young Super Hen. Wild but quick

“Brian was one of the best I ever worked with, no doubt about it,” says Rory Byrne, who worked with Henton at Toleman from 1978-81. “He had the talent to win Grand Prix and maybe even more if circumstances had allowed. Brian was all about drive, skill and ambition.”

A stubborn talent, flush with natural technical skill that was born of hard graft and almost masochistic determination, Henton’s career was a relentless battle from start to finish. It was often tainted by bad luck, but always driven by an almost primal commitment to his craft.

The rags, to riches to rags to riches story of Brian Henton, a streetwise kid from a council estate in Derby, is a bare knuckle journey founded on raw ability and iron resolve.

Not a lot was entirely conventional for Henton, including the ‘genesis moment’ of his entry in to the world of racing.

“I suppose it all started when I blew up the toilets in our council house,” Henton says matter of factly. “I somehow got hold of some fireworks. Being an inquisitive sod I thought I would light one of them in our front room. Obviously it started fizzing so I ran from the kitchen, threw it in the bog, thinking I could flush it away, but the fuse went and it blew the toilet to pieces.”

Mrs Henton, arrived back post-explosion. She screamed at the fragmented bowl before her and kicked young Brian out of the house.

“So I got on the bus with my savings, which was about 10 shillings, got to Derby station and there was a bus about to leave,” says Henton. “It had ‘Mallory Park’ on it. I thought that sounded nice and peaceful, thinking it was a recreational park. I got to Mallory, climbed under the fence and witnessed this incredible noise and colour. I just thought ‘This is it! I want to be a racing driver, and I will be.’

For Henton, brought up at the school of hard knocks on the infamous Chelleston estate near Derby, he was more likely to get in to a brawl than a racing car. His uncompromising upbringing saw a thread of abrasiveness twist its way through most of a see-saw single-seater career, which began with winning the Formula Super Vee title in 1972. That success came courtesy of blinding pace and enough money to finish the season thanks to selling wallpaper from a van on Belper market.

Brian in GRD gets sideways as he jousts with Richard Robarts and Larry Perkins
Brian in GRD gets sideways as he jousts with Richard Robarts and Larry Perkins

March signed Henton for the Formula 3 works team in ‘74, which on the face of it was not as competitive as the classic 1973 season that saw the likes of Tony Brise, Alan Jones and Jacques Laffite fight for the title. Still, a job had to be done and he strolled to both championships, winning 15 of 26 races in his Holbay powered works March 743. All of a sudden, Colin Chapman was at the door. And he was knocking.

By 1975 with an ageing Lotus 72, Colin Chapman was on the lookout for an up and coming British talent, partly to please John Player Special, but partly for technical input to supplement the rather dis-interested test and development aspect of Ronnie Peterson’s genius. Henton was pitted against Bob Evans and Jim Crawford at Silverstone.

“At the end of my stint behind the wheel at the first test, Chapman said to me: “What do you think Brian?” and I said: “To be honest Mr Chapman, this is the biggest pile of shit I have ever driven in my life”. He smiled and said: “You’re the man for me Henton.”

Entered in a third Lotus 72, Henton’s first Grand Prix at Silverstone was perhaps a portent to come as he was one of many to end up in the Club catch fencing after the infamous deluge.

There was plenty of testing for Brian but along with Jim Crawford and also a cameo from John Watson at the Nurburgring, race opportunities were slim.

Brian at Osterrreichring during infamous 1975 Austrian GP weekend
Brian at Osterrreichring during infamous 1975 Austrian GP weekend

With just two Grand Prix’s to his name, Henton was soon to be cast aside and quickly became yesterday’s man. 1976 was largely  wasted in Tom Wheatcroft’s Abarth-powered R26 F2 car. There was a one-off cameo in the Ensign N175-based Boro at Zandvoort but even that turned to nothing when he was disqualified after receiving  a push-start.

Henton’s next plan was to form the ambitious British Formula 1 Racing Team in co-operation with well known playwright Don Shaw – Z-Cars and Van Der Valk being among his credits. To say the patriotic operation was hand to mouth would be a gross under exaggeration of even that basic motorskill.

“Our transporter was an old British Gas van, we just painted it and off we went to do F1, mad really!” recalls Henton. “At our base in Castle Donington we wired up the power to run some equipment and when it was switched on the whole village used to get intermittent electricity and everything would strobe, flash and then dim; house lights, street lights, everything.”

By 1978 Henton’s racing career was in dire straits. The distant days of being flavour of the month with F1 teams was well over. The re-birth via his own team had not worked and he concluded that one last crack at glory in the European F2 Championship was on the cards with a private March and a borrowed engine from Brian Hart.

Brian at the Donington title decider where he just lost out to Marc Surer's BMW powered March
Brian at the Donington title decider where he just lost out to Marc Surer’s BMW powered March

“We were this happy band of urchins roaming Europe for the summer but actually we did pretty well,” recalls Henton. “Hard results were tough because we were running the thing on ‘second hand fresh air’ but we were often among the big boys like De Angelis, Giacomelli, Cheever and Surer. We even won one at the last meeting in Hockenheim.”

Toleman Motorsport, then running Rad Dougall in a March 782 BMW were initially housed at Tom Walkinshaw’s base at Kidlington but by 1978 they were getting more ambitious, particularly under the direction of team principal Alex Hawkridge, who had been impressed by the plucky Henton in 1978.

“Brian was a good barometer for us really,” says Hawkridge. “He ran his own March, knew the March people well and was doing amazing things on very little. Rory (Byrne) was very impressed by him and we got talking. I knew Brian (Hart) well as we were both Essex boys and had worked together at the Ford rally programme too. So we all came together really, mainly because the BMW-engines, sourced by Walkinshaw were so damn unreliable.”

So for ’79 an F2 ‘supergroup’ was formed and Henton was a happy man. The various parties got to know each other properly at the season ending Temporada series at the end of ’78 when BMW and Hart were back-to-back tested, confirmed the switch to Hart power and a Ralt RT2 chassis for the following season.

“Toleman paid me about 100% more than anybody else,” Henton remembers. “They were really serious about moving forward and the Ralt was the right choice in the end. The talents that they had there was phenomenal. Rory Byrne, John Gentry, Roger Sillman, Alex Hawkridge, who put everything together and was a very shrewd and very talented operator, and later Pat Symonds.

The team initially ran March’s but collaboration with Ron Tauranac followed and a Rory Byrne influenced design started to become the class of the field as the season progressed. After wins at Mugello and Misano, Henton had a chance of the title at the finale, held at his home track, Donington. However, the weekend started in the most terrible way.

“Our chief mechanic (Paul Pimlott) was killed in a road crash close to the circuit,” remembers Henton. “He was a nice lad with a young family and it was just awful. In the race (Marc) Surer and I we swapped the lead several times. I was leading until a few laps from the end and I had been losing more and more rear brakes (air had got in to the master cylinder). Anyway, I ended up spinning, finishing second, Surer finished first and won the championship!

It appeared that Henton’s last chance of an International title had gone, as Hawkridge, under the behest of the team’s increasingly influential sponsor – BP, was persuaded to invest in youth with the feted Stephen South set to join Derek Warwick. Fate was to intervene for Henton, but this time the cards fell for him.

“Stephen was quick and ambitious but he did something naughty and tested a McLaren F1 car at Paul Ricard, behind ours backs,” recalls Alex Hawkridge. “I terminated his contract instantly. We couldn’t have drivers doing that. BP were very good about it as they were close to Stephen but it went beyond any commercial decision, it was trust based and he was out. I knew immediately who we should have to replace him so I called Brian straight away. BP weren’t too thrilled because Brian was viewed as a bit of a rebel. He could find a hundred ways to skin a cat and he could be tricky sometimes but I admired him for that really and liked the way he operated. He always gave the maximum.”

Now he was re-integrated in to the Toleman fold Henton was even more determined to go for the title and set about winning it with a ferocious zeal.

1980 was mission accomplished for Henton and Toleman in F2. Of the 12 races that year Henton took three wins at Thruxton, Mugello and Vallelunga while Warwick scooped a win at Silverstone. Six further podium visits for Henton sealed the title in August.

While Henton and Warwick generally got on well, as ever at a front running team with two enormously competitive drivers there was the odd flare-up.

At Enna, Henton, his lid still clattering away from internal steam after an argument with Warwick’s engineer, John Gentry, took physical action.

“We were walking back from a restaurant and I was ahead of Brian and some of the others,” remembers Warwick.  “Next thing I know there is John with a bloody nose. I ended up chasing Brian down the road and he locked himself in a toilet and wouldn’t come out. What a scene!”

Taking the title at Misano, August 1980
Taking the title at Misano, August 1980

Occasional fisticuffs apart, Toleman were generally a harmonious team and a close one at that. The Rory Byrne penned TG280 was the class of the field, but it hadn’t looked that way at the start of the season.

“The car understeered a lot as I recall,” says Byrne. “I went to Pirelli’s factory in Italy and we worked together because I was sure it was the tyres rather than anything specifically mechanical on the car. Brian was instrumental in working through what we needed and Pirelli actually changed their compounds to suit us. It paid us back massively.”

Henton had always been a highly prized test driver. He was the un-official go too driver for March throughout the 1970s and was courted by Frank Williams to sort his cars out. Engineers would effervesce around him.

“Once we got it sorted, the Toleman F2 car was phenomenal,” remembers Henton. “Derek and I used to play with each other a bit in testing and in the races too. We had a fair bit in hand over the opposition.”

The title was sealed at Misano by mid-August, Henton following home Andrea De Cesaris’ Ron Dennis’ managed Project Four prepared March-BMW. Rumours had surfaced around this time of Toleman planning an F1 entry but the basis of such a leap was far from being a certainty.

“I wasn’t actually that sure Toleman should enter F1 in 1981, it was never going to be a great move,” recalls Hawkridge. “We kind of ended up in F1 by default really. We were approached by Lancia to run an engine they had but it made more sense to stick with Brian (Hart).

“It was a year too early but actually the main problem was actually getting the car built,” continues Hawkridge. “McLaren in particular had vetoes on so much hardware. There was a long list of stuff we could just not get but somehow we did it and the Toleman F1 story from there. Brian was actually quite useful and understanding because he had run his own team and knew more than most drivers how tough things like this could be.”

The final decision was ultimately made after a test at Goodwood in the autumn of 1980 and also after Hawkridge and several other key members had visited the Italian Grand Prix at Imola! A Hart turbo engine was used in the Formula Two car and it impressed Henton.

“That thing was so fast,” recalls Henton. “I have never really been frightened in a racing car but at Goodwood, in this projectile which delivered the power like a light switch. It was either all or nothing. In the end I think we burnt the brakes out but I said “I tell you what, that engine makes the DFV look like a bloody toy!”

Brian de-briefs with team mate Warwick and the late Brian Hart
Brian de-briefs with team mate Warwick and the late Brian Hart

Remarkably Henton qualified for his only Grand Prix in a Toleman-Hart at Monza. As Italy’s favourite Inglese F1 team the pressure was now on.

“Candy had a whole grandstand opposite the pits with employees, board members,etc. I can remember the family that owned Candy, really nice people, and when I qualified, you would have thought we just won a grand-prix. They ran in to my arms, kissing, cheering, and shouting ‘Grazie’, it was crackers!”

The Italian adulation was short-lived for Henton, as he was forced to make way for Teo Fabi in 1982, the team needing to take on an Italian

Ever the opportunist, Henton snapped up a drive at Tyrrell when Slim Borgudd’s drumming royalties dried up. As team mate to a young Michele Alboreto, Henton fared well despite the team’s obvious focus on the future Ferrari driver. Henton was unlucky not to score points, especially at Monaco and Osterreichring, although he did take the fastest lap at the British Grand Prix by dint of a late change for fresh Goodyear’s.

The final act in a career that had spanned a dozen years was played out at the 1983 Race of Champions at Brands Hatch where Henton put in a typically gutsy and committed drive to 4th place in an ageing Ensign N18. Still he out-qualified the teams highly rated youngster Roberto Guerrero and Nigel Mansell’s Lotus-Renault.

The granite smile
The granite smile

But at 36 years of age, Henton himself was aware that his career in F1 had run its course. “I knew my time had come to stop. I wasn’t really interested in doing sportscars or touring cars, it just didn’t do it for me. I had offers but even by then I knew I could get a thrill from doing a good business deal.”

To this day Henton is still a wily, focused and engaging presence. Now though, as owner of the scenic Ingarsby Hall in Leicestershire, he gets his sporting thirst nourished by other pursuits.

“I took up hunting a while back,” he says. “My two daughters, and my ex-wife were all horse mad. At first I didn’t want to do it but they persuaded me.  They bought me this great big goliath of a horse, stuck me on it, all of a sudden it all came back to me. The balance, controlling fear and the instinct of wanting to go fast and control it.

“There is nothing more frightening than there being a ten-foot fence between you and needing to control something that weighs half a ton with a brain the size of a pea and you are sitting on it, with a silly hat on. Now, that’s an adventure!”

Henton the horseman!
Henton the horseman!

Brian Henton. From council estate to country estate in his own lifetime. His career was a relentless battle and his contemporaries often flinched at his warm but granite smile.

The racing media of the day didn’t always understand his combustible ambition. Lady luck rarely smiled on him but for sheer effort and commitment there are few that could hold a candle to.

“How good was Brian Henton?” asks Warwick. “Well in my mind with the right circumstances he could have won Grand Prix for sure. Could he have won a championship? Absolutely he could have. Unfortunately for Brian, as with many others, those circumstances just passed him by.”

“He was a hard task master,” concludes Rory Byrne. “He gave 100% behind the wheel but one thing stood out for me about Brian and that was his sheer ability. He really had it in abundance and he knew how to get the job done.”

Photos thanks to F3cc, Rory Byrne, Jamie Greaves and Brian Henton

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