Tommy Byrne: The Greatest Racing Driver You Never Saw

Mary O'SheaSenior Writer ISeptember 29, 2008

Hockenheim, German Grand Prix, 1982. August 8th to be precise.

It is here that the "greatest" racing driver you never saw got his Formula One career underway.

Born in Dundalk, Co. Louth, Irishman Tommy Byrne started his racing career in road rallies in 1970s Ireland, driving an old mini. Following a bad crash his rallying career was over and he turned his attention to Formula Ford, learning his trade at Mondello Park. 

Byrne worked his way up through Formula Ford and in 1979 got a works seat with the PRS seat, whose principal was fellow Irishman and former driver, Derek Daly. However, the pressure on the young man proved too much and he spent more time spinning off the track than he did between the kerbs.

Nevertheless, he was back in form in the 1980 series, this time driving a Van Diemen RF81. That autumn Byrne finished second in the Formula Ford Festival. Unable to secure money for a season in F3 he took a half-step up the ladder by moving to FF2000 for 1981. Byrne duly took British and European honours and stood in for a young Aryton Senna da Silva at the famous end-of-season Formula Ford Festival, FF1600's unofficial "World Championship" at Brands - and won.

This drew the attention of F3 team Murray Taylor Racing who Byrne proceeded to drive for in 1982 which ultimately led to a coveted seat in Formula One.

However, his first race drive came in a rather roundabout way.

The first team to knock on his door was McLaren.

The Irishman took the car out for a test drive and what followed is the stuff of legend. For 25 years it was said that Byrne had told Ron Dennis his car was "a piece of s***". Funny, except he never did.

The truth is that McLaren invited the Irish driver in for an interview, during which Tommy Byrne revealed he didn't know what R&D (Research and Development) meant. It went down like a lead balloon. Dennis, it seems, was looking for more that the driver who could just drive fast.

In the end, Byrne ended up driving for the back-marker Theodore team, making his debut on the aforementioned day in 1982. McLaren it was not.

Byrne scored no championship points, three DNQs (this was back in the days when drivers had to qualify to race) and two starts from the back row of the grid.

Following a meeting with team manager Julian Randles in Las Vegas, Byrne told him to "stick your drive up your ass." It was the last Formula One heard of the man from the Emerald Isle.

Byrne drifted further and further from the radar, racing in Mexico (where he got involved with some wrong types) before taking a long sabbatical from the sport altogether, returning in the mid-1990s to race a Greenman Racing Porsche 911 GT3-R in Grand-Am.

Tommy Byrne has certainly lived a varied, entertaining and often dangerous life. He drove with a member of the Motley Crue for one season in America, was mistaken for an IRA man in early 1980s England and had a colourful friend in Mexican 'playboy, alcoholic, manic-depressive' Orchio.

I supposed it is no surprise given Byrne was born in the back of a car racing to Drogheda hospital all of 50 years ago.


Crashed and Byrned: The Greatest Racing Driver You Never Saw is out now on paperback.