Formula 1 is very much a sport of the ‘what might have been’ and if any man embodies that sentiment it would be Irish racing driver Tommy Byrne. Not a name that you’d think of alongside Schumacher or Senna, but he had all the talent to be a Formula 1 superstar, winning many driving championships and once taking a McLaren car round Silverstone in a record time, he was almost certainly the greatest driver you never saw.
Born on the 6th May 1956 in Drogheda, Ireland, Byrne was brought up in a troubled household. A young Tommy dropped out of school and went off the rails getting into thieving, drinking and girls. When he arrived in England looking to make his fortune as a racing driver he’d got rid of at least two of those habits, but Tommy found women perhaps the hardest to give up.
Starting his driving career in a Mini Cooper at a stockcar race he went on to became a double British Formula Ford 1600 Champion in 1980, the following year he won the British and European FF2000 Championships, and in 1982 won the prestigious British Formula 3 Championship. The next winner of this Championship was a man by the name of Ayrton Senna. It wasn’t long before Formula 1 came knocking for this most promising of drivers.
It was while driving in the F3 championship that Tommy’s boozy side came to the fore once more. He was in France for an F3 race, but the qualifying session got rained off for the day and there seemed no chance that decision would be changed. Without a second thought Byrne took his mechanic crew, which included former Jordan engineer Gary Anderson, to a small French café where he taught the staff the art of how to make an Irish coffee. The gang imbibed around seven or eight Irish coffees before being told that that qualifying was now back on! The team were left with no choice but get back to the track or be disqualified from the race. A very over the limit Byrne climbed into his car and despite all the alcohol went out on the track and qualified for the next day’s race, in which he came six.
Byrne’s F1 chance came about in 1982 while hunting down the British F3 Championship, which he went on to win. He signed on with small fish in a big F1 pond in underfunded team Theodore Racing, his contract was to contest five rounds of Formula 1. His F1 races were fairly disastrous, qualifying for only two races and gaining no points. By all accounts the car he was driving wasn’t up to standard, so much so that Byrne threatened to get a hitman to take out the chief engineer.
Things got even worse after the Grand Prix season finale in Las Vegas. After spinning of the track in lap 39 and again failing to win any points, that evening he went to a social event at the hotel. Here he got into a serious verbal disagreement with his team manager Jo Ramirez. This wouldn’t be the first or last clash Tommy would have with an authority figure.
Despite his setbacks in the Grand Prix he returned to the F3 Championship and won the final race of the year to claim the title, and more importantly for Tommy, he earned the chance to test drive with McLaren. There were a number of other up and comers sampling the car including future F1 driver Thierry Boutsen, but it was Byrne who was the man to produce incredible times in the car, taking a McLaren around Silverstone faster than anyone had ever gone round the track, including Niki Lauder and John Watson in the same car. Yet was never offered that hallowed drivers contract.
Many years later a mechanic on the test day, Tony Vandungen told Tommy the pit lane had been given instructions to hold back the throttle when setting up the car for Byrne, this was apparently due to concerns about Tommy damaging the race car, whatever the reason he could have gone even faster. In fact his friend Joey Greenan was timing his laps and had them up to a second quicker than McLaren. It didn’t seem to be his racing skills that was holding Tommy back from an F1 career. Perhaps rather it was McLaren boss Ron Dennis being less impressed with Byrne’s wild ways off the track. His untameable reputation certainly preceded him, his focus sometimes being steered away from the race track onto booze and women. Former F1 driver said,
“If there was a gold medal for shagging, (Tommy) would have won it time and time again.”
He had the times behind him but didn’t have the capital to continue to try and win another seat in an F1 car, so after the setback with McLaren Tommy concentrated on cracking the American racing scene, driving on the open-wheel ladder, IMSA GT and GTP machinery. He was extremely close to winning the 1988 Indy Lights title, missing out by only three points, victory here would likely have given him the golden ticket to race for the IndyCar Championship. Byrne, forever the nearly man. But it was probably partly due to his increasing life of excess that was stopping him from ever reaching any sort of pinnacle. In the States he was consumed by alcohol but by the time he moved on to the decidedly less glamorous scene of the Mexican Formula 3 Championship where he got into drugs. Tommy himself said in the recent documentary Crash and Burn,
“I ended up taking enough drugs to kill a buffalo, I’m lucky to be alive I guess.”
Things got pretty crazy for Tommy in Mexico and he decided to move back to the States after an incident during a wild party at his house. He heard his friend Nacho shooting upstairs and a host of naked girls fled down the stairs, his friend then took a shot at Tommy with his gun, but missed. A week later he found out that Nacho had been found dead, drowned in the house’s swimming pool.
Giving up on his racing dreams Tommy reached out to a friend working at a driving school in Ohio for a job. He currently teaches defensive and high performance driving there for his own company. He doesn’t seem to upset with his lot in life, remaining reflective with tongue firmly in cheek, in the documentary he goes on to say,
“It hasn’t been a terrible life, I just lost out on about a hundred million dollars, that’s all.”
And as to what he could have changed,
“What could I change? Be born a millionaire with a silver f**king spoon up my ass.”
His Formula 3 records were more than comparable with Senna who drove on the same team. But at the time Ayrton was paying to get the drive, while the team were paying Byrne to drive for them. Tommy was undoubtedly a towering talent behind the wheel, with bags of personality. He currently resides in Florida, still taking part in the occasional race.
His story will always beg the question ‘what if?’ It seemed his Formula 1 dream and shot at superstardom was cut short due to concerns over his temperament, not being one to submit to authority and with a penchant for self-destruction, regardless, the fact he never got a proper shot was a loss to the sport as a whole. Who wouldn’t have loved to see him go toe to toe with the likes of Lauder, Prost and indeed his biggest rival Senna in a top car with full throttle. We’ll leave the last word to former F3 racer and Formula 1 team owner Eddie Jordan,
“Forget Schuey and Senna, Tommy Byrne was the best of them all.”
Read Tommy’s account first hand in his book Crashed and Byrned