Formula 1 had a spate of Irish representation in the early 80s, with the likes of Derek Daly, David Kennedy and, briefly, Tommy Byrne joining the grid. With his new documentary, Crash & Burn, hitting cinemas this month, I sat down for a chat with the man deemed to have been the most talented driver to have never made it in the sport.
Looking at Byrne’s F1 record is bleak – just five Grand Prix starts for Theodore in 1982 saw him qualify just twice, and scoring zero Championship points. In the greater scheme of things, the Dundalk native is a nobody; another footnote in F1 history and another talented driver who failed to make the most of the opportunity he was given. But, that doesn’t quite tell the whole story of a man who uprooted himself to the UK as a young man with no money, and proceeded to win every Championship he entered en route to F1.
Having written a book with esteemed F1 journalist Mark Hughes a few years ago, Byrne is now the focus of a new documentary movie going on general release in Ireland & the UK in December 2016. It explores the stories behind Byrne’s rise to F1 and why things never worked out for him, as he explained to me in a succinct and unrestrained interview while attending the London premiere of Crash & Burn.
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. “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 sighs. “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 explains: “It was just that they just didn’t care.
I found out from a friend of mine writing a book and through his research, 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 Teddy Yip’s [Team owner] partner type guy at the team, wanted me there. He said “Get the Irish guy, he’s fucking great”. So they fired Jan 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.”
In the film, Byrne says that things got out of hand after the season finale in Las Vegas. Racing in the car park that was the Caesar’s Palace Grand Prix track, he spun off on Lap 39 and, 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 was a moment he regrets and, if he could, would change: “[If I could change it], I wouldn’t have gone drinking in Las Vegas with the team and the team manager [Ramirez]. I wouldn’t have listened to the shit that came out of his mouth. I’m drinking at 23 years of age and there’s shit 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 fuck 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 noone 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 “that” 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 earned him a crack at driving the McLaren, which had been driven by Northern Irish racer John Watson and Niki Lauda to multiple victories during the season.
Matching the pace set by Lauda during the British Grand Prix at the same circuit, Byrne never received any further attention from McLaren and, unfortunately, nor from anyone else. Ayrton Senna, who had been stablemates with Byrne at Van Diemen in Formula Ford, suggested him to Lotus as a potential in the mid-80s, but this came to nought.
I asked him about his McLaren test, and why he thinks he never heard anything back from the Woking team: “I had some cockiness, maybe not as much as what it seems in the movie, but I was joking around a lot. I did know 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. 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.
Referring to then McLaren team boss Ron Dennis, he says: “None of those guys care about their drivers. A driver comes last, unless it’s someone like Senna. They ruined Kevin [Magnussen’s] career, even if he is still hanging on. He’s a great driver, but he could be gone by now. And Perez is a super driver. When Ron Dennis is done with you, he’ll just tell you to go fuck yourself.
When it came to Senna and his commendation of Byrne to Lotus manager Peter Warr, Tommy says that he and the Brazilian whose career trajectory closely matched his up to F1 ” were never close.”
“We met each other during our time together working at Van Diemen but we were never buddies. We had dinner together with the team and stuff like that but I didn’t keep in touch with him before he died. I never got another opportunity to get back into F1 and, once you’ve gotten into a bad, shitty car like that, it’s all over.”
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 says. I don’t get the sense he’s being purposely modest or self-effacing when he says this – he says it seriously. Before continuing: “And half the women! Yes, I had my share but not as many as I’d like to have had! It wasn’t as bad, or should I say as good, as it’s made out in the film. That’s 80 hours of filming cut down to an hour and twenty. 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 asshole, I wouldn’t have gotten out of Ireland.”
Ireland’s connections with F1, with the notable exception of Eddie Jordan, are tenuous. There hasn’t been many names from the Republic linked with the sport in the last 20 years, with the exception of GP2’s Adam Carroll and the late Neil Shanahan. Craig Breen is well known on the international stage for his rallying exploits, but where does Byrne see the next great Irish driver coming from?
“Give me talent and speed. Then, we can start worrying about personalities and all that other stuff. I haven’t managed to find a superfast driver yet, except maybe Peter Dempsey. He’s the best guy I’ve met since I left Ireland, because he can drive anything. Indy Lights, Formula Ford, he’s desperate to win, and people like him. He’s got a little bit of everything.
There wasn’t any money then, and there isn’t any money there now. The problem with someone from Ireland going to F1 – they need 15 million dollars, not 5. Some of these guys from, say, Venezuela, or someone like Lance Stroll, they say they’ve put in something like 80 million so far. Let’s say you only put in 40 million and you try getting in somewhere like Williams – there’s noone rich enough in Ireland to do stuff like that. I made it, Eddie Irvine made it – Eddie made a lot of money and nearly won the title. He was a party animal too! Ferrari loved him, he could do no wrong – he just wasn’t quick enough to win the Championship. He was the closest we got to winning a title. In terms of getting a load of people together and trying to get someone from Ireland to F1 – you still need to start with just finding a superfast driver.”
“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.”
Byrne’s demeanour has 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 I asked him about whether life after F1 has treated him better. He moved to America in the mid-80s and shifted his attention to what it 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. Obviously, the movie makes it seem like my life is over, but it’s not! It just has brought it all back. 1994 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. Just last month, I went racing in a Ford team race and then in Daytona a few months ago. 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. As far as racing is, there’s always been one team that dominates. The best thing that’s happened to F1 in recent years is Verstappen. There needs to be more drivers like him, just “Be aware, I’m coming through” – He’s the man, and they’re all behind him. I don’t think anyone can fuck him, because he’s too fast. Alonso is another, but he’s stuck in a McLaren now. I don’t know what’s happened to Vettel, ever since Ricciardo got in beside him.” His voice hushes to a confidential tone as he says “What I’ve learned over the years, and I’m not a conspiracy theorist, is that you just can’t trust anyone.”
I asked him about what he thought of this year’s title decider in Abu Dhabi, to which he says he’d prefer to have seen Hamilton walk away the winner. “I’d like him to have won because it’s another Championship, and Rosberg’s father Keke was an asshole to me when I was in Formula 1. It’s a terrible way to pick your guy, but Hamilton’s more exciting anyway.”
Given that we’ve talked quite a bit about how things never quite worked out for him, I feel like commiserating with Tommy, despite the fact that 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 fuck is going to read your book Tommy?”. I went to big people, and some big racing journalists. 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’ve 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 twenty years now. This movie has brought it all back. My biggest regret is not taking up mountain biking sooner!”
For more information on the documentary, visit http://www.crashandburndoc.com/
UK Cinema Release Date: 30th December
UK DVD Release Date: 13th February