The greatest ‘what if?’ in F1 history? The ‘uncontrollable’ but supremely talented driver

Thomas Maher
Tommy Byrne drives for Theodore in late 1982.

Tommy Byrne is regarded as one of the finest drivers to have never raced in Formula 1.

Tommy Byrne remains one of F1’s greatest ‘What if?’ stories, more than 40 years on from a dramatic day of testing with McLaren at Silverstone.

While Ireland can’t boast a particularly strong record of successful drivers in Formula 1, a couple of men tried their best to make it at the top level of motorsport as they reached F1 in the early 1980s.

PlanetF1.com regular interviewee David Kennedy was one of these names, as was Derek Daly, while Tommy Byrne has become synonymous with ‘missed potential’ in the four decades since his disastrous 1982 season.

Eddie Jordan: Tommy Byrne was a madman

“Tommy Byrne was an outstanding talent,” Gerhard Berger recently said on the F1 Nation podcast, when asked who he believed was the best driver not to make it in Formula 1, “He was a really interesting character.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by Eddie Jordan, who had Byrne race for him in the European Formula Three Championship in 1983, who said: “Tommy Byrne was one of the greatest talents that never made it to the top of Formula 1, I can promise you that’s true.”

But looking at Byrne’s F1 record is bleak. He had just five Grand Prix attempts for Theodore in 1982 – he only managed to qualify twice, and he scored precisely zero points.

In the greater scheme of things then, the Dundalk native is a nobody – he’s another footnote in F1 history, another talented driver who couldn’t capitalise on the opportunity he was given.

Jordan continued: “Tommy was mad. Now when I say some drivers were crackpots…

“When Gerhard Berger is asked who the craziest guy you’ve ever come across in motor racing, he’ll always say Tommy for him – he was just uncontrollable. I cannot tell you the amount of stories that I have about Tommy Byrne.

“By winning the Formula Three championship of Britain, he got a test in a McLaren car. That was always done at Silverstone at the end of the season, and they usually had somebody like Prost come and test the car first to see how quick it was and to check it down.

“Then they’d give it to the drivers who won their national championships, so Tommy had his chance. So he came and he did a 1:10.9, which was exactly the time for pole position for Prost that particular year.

“Ron Dennis dropped everything because he wanted to see what was going on: ‘Who is this guy? What is happening? How can he possibly be doing these sort of times when his driver is doing the same time?’

“Typical of Ron, he said when he went over, ‘Oh, the car must be really very good.’

“Tommy said ‘Well, it’s got a little bit to do with me as well, you know?’ Typical Tommy, very arrogant, and he said, ‘Why don’t you give me a new set of tyres, I can go a second quicker.’

“He gave him a new set of tyres and he did a 1:10.2! At that stage, Ron decided he didn’t like him and he had him hauled out of the car!”

Was annoying Ron Dennis at an inopportune moment the career breaker for a man who had uprooted himself to the UK, with no money, and proceeded to win every Championship he entered en route to F1?

Tommy Byrne drives for Jordan in 1983.

Tommy Byrne drove for Eddie Jordan in British Formula Three in 1983.

Tommy Byrne recounts F1 disaster with Theodore

Byrne developed a reputation for having an unrestrained attitude to dealing with people in his racing career, and that lack of restraint was evident when he spoke to this writer about his time trying to break into Formula 1.

Despite living for several decades outside of Ireland, his accent remains quite native, perhaps a little less broad than had he stayed in his home country as he began by telling me about his time at Theodore.

In 1982, Byrne had been competing in British F3 and was in line for the title when he got called up to race for the backmarker team. It didn’t go well, to put it mildly.

“The biggest obstacle I had, once I got to Formula 1 and into Theodore, was that the team didn’t listen to me about the car,” he explained.

“They blamed me instead of the car. It was one of the slowest on the grid, the team had one of the smallest budgets, and these were the days when four cars went home before qualifying. That was the car I got into, and you know it’s going to be tough to qualify. The type of people there just weren’t in the mood to listen to me at all. So there was no going forward with that.”

Given that he had been called up by the team, why would they choose to ignore him once he was in the seat? He explained that bitterness may have played a part: “It was just that they just didn’t care.

“I found out from a friend of mine writing a book and through his research that the people in that team were happy with their driver before me [Jan Lammers].

“The only reason I got the drive was that Sidney Taylor, the Irish guy who was one of [team owner] Teddy Yip’s partner type guy at the team, wanted me there.

“He said, ‘Get the Irish guy, he’s f**king great’. So they fired Lammers to put me in, but Jo Ramirez [team manager] & Julian Randles [team partner] – they didn’t want to do it.

“So, when you think about it, of course, there was no chance of me getting anywhere good because they didn’t want me in the first place. This is in retrospect, of course. If I’d known this then, I wouldn’t have gone there.”

The bitterness became outright animosity after just a handful of races, following the season finale in Las Vegas.

Tommy Byrne, Theodore, 1982.

Tommy Bryne racing his Theodore in F1 in late 1982.

The F1 career moment Tommy Byrne would change

Racing in the car park that was the Caesar’s Palace Grand Prix track, he spun off on Lap 39 and, while attending a social event in a hotel that night with the team, got into a verbal disagreement with Ramirez.

Looking back on that moment, Byrne says it proved cataclysmic for his career: “[If I could change it], I wouldn’t have gone drinking in Las Vegas with the team and [Ramirez].

“I wouldn’t have listened to the s**t that came out of his mouth. I’m drinking at 23 years of age and there’s s**t coming out of my mouth..maybe saying the wrong things. I probably wouldn’t do that, I would have kept myself away from the team a little bit more. Then, who knows?

“I lost my mind a bit at the end of the year in Vegas with them. I didn’t get fired, I just told them all to f**k off and walked away myself. I couldn’t stand the abuse of them saying I couldn’t drive, after winning five Championships to get there.

“That’s absolutely one thing I would change. I wouldn’t have been as friendly with the team. I knew that it was all over the very first day I got in that car and no one would listen to anything I said. There was no way I could qualify the car if they didn’t listen to me.

“I made suggestions of putting the better engine from that car into this car because it had more downforce…and they just laughed at me. Thinking back on it, they didn’t want me there and that’s just one of those things.”

Despite the catastrophic end to that F1 season, the end of 1982 offered Tommy a glimmer of hope. Retreating back to the F3 Championship, he won the final race to clinch that Championship – that was despite him missing races while on F1 duties.

This win earned him the infamous test with McLaren, with Byrne opening up on his version of events from that day at Silverstone.

Tommy Byrne recounts infamous test with McLaren at Silverstone

Having already been told by Ron Dennis that a seat with McLaren wasn’t up for grabs, a cocky Byrne showed up at Silverstone eager to go quicker than anything Niki Lauda or John Watson could do. Managing to hide the fact he’d been out with some girls and ‘smoking pot’ the night before, Byrne managed to keep the girls out of eyesight as he climbed into the McLaren.

Within a few laps, Byrne was already going quicker than test driver Thierry Boutsen and, while lapping in the 1:10s, tried his utmost to get into the 1:09s – a feat he couldn’t quite manage as he explained to Forbes in 2020.

“I did the exact same time [1:10.1] three laps in a row. I thought that was it, that was the fastest I could go,” he said.

“Joey Greenan, a friend of mine at the time, was there timing me and he told me, later on, I did a 1:09.6. I honestly didn’t believe him. I believed McLaren and didn’t think twice.

“20-25 years later, I bumped into the mechanic who was working on my car at the test. We got to talking and he said, ‘Man, you were so fast that day. I remember how we were all talking about it after. And you didn’t even have the best car.’

“And I said, ‘What do you mean, I had the same car as the other two guys?’ He said, ‘We were told not to give you full throttle.’ I asked why and it was because they didn’t want me to go too fast.

“The top engineers and mechanics got together and decided not only to not give me the proper times but to basically sabotage my throttle too. So, say I did the 1:09.6. That was the fastest time ever around Silverstone on race tyres. A proper throttle would’ve saved another three to four-tenths, I would’ve been in the low 1:09s, maybe 1:08s. If I got that, who knows what could’ve happened? The 1:10.1 time was already enough to have people talking for years!”

While this may sound like an unfounded complaint from a disgruntled driver, Byrne says Dennis eventually admitted the car wasn’t in perfect fettle for his test.

“We got Mark Hughes, a very renowned Formula 1 journalist, the one who helped write my book, to reach out to one of the engineers who went on record saying McLaren messed with the throttle,” he said.

“[Hughes] then asked Dennis about it and he admitted it too, but he said it was because he didn’t want me to wreck Niki Lauda’s car. Which is bullsh*t, because he let Nick Mason and Leo Sayer drive the same car the next day. So basically Ron Dennis lied about the whole thing.”

But, given that F1 teams will usually overlook almost anything if it means having the fastest driver possible, why would McLaren pass up a driver capable of such times? It’s a question I put to him, and he reckons his own cockiness was his downfall.

“I knew how good I was and I was able to back it up – I got to Formula 1 in four or five years because of the way I was,” he said.

“A lot of people liked me and that’s how I got there in the first place. When I got there, then maybe that attitude maybe had an effect.

“None of those guys [referring to Dennis] care about their drivers. A driver comes last unless it’s someone like Senna. When Ron Dennis is done with you, he’ll just tell you to go f**k yourself.”

Tommy Byrne poses with a Van Diemen in Belfast, 2017.

Tommy Byrne poses with a Van Diemen in Belfast, 2017.

Does Tommy Byrne look back on F1 with regret?

Byrne is self-deprecating when it comes to his attitude. He admits that his confidence, mixed with his humble background, may have wound people up the wrong way, but claims his purported cockiness and arrogance is exaggerated.

He had a reputation as a party animal, a womaniser – hardly the first F1 driver to have those attributes. Considering he came along in roughly the same era as infamous playboy James Hunt, was there any particular reason that he was viewed less favourably?

“I wish I had had half the personality that James had,” he said. I don’t get the sense he’s being purposely modest or self-effacing when he says this – he says it seriously.

“And half the women! Yes, I had my share – but not as many as I’d like to have had! But there’s no question that I had my fair share of screwing around. I enjoyed myself, had a good time, and couldn’t help having some fun.

“I think it was a bit easier [to make it] back in my time, because of talent and people liked me. If I was an arsehole, I wouldn’t have gotten out of Ireland.”

Byrne’s demeanor changed during the interview. Bright and chipper at the start, he’s become increasingly serious throughout.

Talking about the missed opportunities in his life does seem to weigh heavily on him, despite the passage of time, so, to lighten the mood, I ask him about whether life after F1 has treated him better.

After all, Byrne collaborated with Mark Hughes on his story for a book in 2008, as well as having a documentary film, released in 2016, called ‘Crashed and Byrned’ made about his life – it’s well worth the watch!

He moved to America in the mid-1980s and shifted his attention to what is now Indy Lights racing.

“American racing wasn’t quite as bad or hard. Formula 1 is the most ruthless and backstabby in all of racing. In America, they’ll tell you stuff upfront. I was happy racing there, I’ve been happy since 1994. That was my turnaround point when I got a job and started teaching.” (Byrne is a Honda Teen/Adult Defensive Driving, Advanced Defensive Driving, Acura High Performance, and Acura Advanced Performance Driving instructor at Mid-Ohio Raceway.)

“I still love racing. I still race about twice a year and it’s the most fun I’ve ever had. I watch F1 every Sunday it’s on. I might end up falling asleep watching it after the start, but I watch it as long as I can to see if it gets better! I still watch most of it. I’m still here, it’s all good – But F1’s not good, and it’s hard to defend the cost of going to see one.

“In my case, I told my kids don’t even think about going motor racing for a living. It’s a road to nowhere, there’s no money in racing.”

Given that we’ve talked quite a bit about how things never quite worked out for him, I feel like commiserating with Tommy, even though his so-called “failure” happened before I was even born.

He doesn’t strike me as bitter, but he is brutally honest with his opinions of events. I want to feel like he’s leaving the interview as cheerful as he was coming into it, so I ask him to tell me about the moments that have made him proud.

He lights up as he says: “I’m proud of what I’ve achieved. I’m even more proud of writing my book. People laughed at me when I told them I was going to write one: ‘Who the f*ck is going to read your book, Tommy?”

“They laughed at me. I sent one of them a piece and they said: ‘Tommy, that’s a load of shit’. I kept at it and kept at it and now I’ve got a book. And then I got a feckin’ documentary on the big screen – that’s weird. Scary! I’m teaching driving courses and it’s all good, it’s OK, I’ve been OK for [thirty] years now.”

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