Video: Tommy Byrne’s McLaren test

Video

Crash and ByrnedI could quite easily count on one hand the number of books that I have read more than once.

It’s not because I don’t enjoy reading, on the contrary. It’s just that there is so much that I haven’t read that I don’t want to miss out on, plus there is also a concern in the back of my head that I won’t enjoy a favourite as much the second time around.

Any such reservations were pushed aside recently, though, as I plucked up the courage to give Crashed and Byrned another leaf through, having not read it since its release back in 2008.

And I’m glad I did, because it only cemented my opinion that it is one of the greatest motorsport books that I have ever had the pleasure of reading, and if a copy doesn’t already grace your bookshelf, you ought to rectify the situation immediately.

It tells the incredible – not to mention slightly surreal – story of Tommy Byrne who, fuelled by nothing more than talent and hubris, escaped from the streets of Dundalk, Ireland, and rapidly rose to the top of the motorsport career ladder, only to then come crashing back down in spectacular fashion.

Regarded by many as being the most talented driver of his generation, he went from knacker to F1 in four years, winning the Formula Ford title in 1980, the British and European Formula Ford 2000 championships in 1981, and was crowned British F3 champion in 1982, despite missing several races when he made his F1 debut. In short, he was pretty handy behind the wheel.

Eager to make a name for himself as quickly as possible, Byrne signed up to race for the underfunded and painfully slow Theodore team midway through the F1 season in 1982, a decision that would have dire consequences for his racing career.

To his credit, he managed to qualify for two of the five races that he competed in, but subsequently retired from both with mechanical failure and his talent went largely unnoticed.

Joining Theodore also riled McLaren boss Ron Dennis who had first option on his services and urged him not to sign a three year deal with the low-budget outfit, even though he openly admitted that Byrne featured nowhere in his future plans.

Three years became three months and Byrne left Theodore in a rather tempestuous fashion after the final round of the season in Las Vegas.

“I’d had it with this team of disbelieving bastards,” he recalls in Crash and Byrned. “I told them that I wasn’t ever going to get into one of their cars again, contract or no contract. I might have thrown a chair or two.

“I parted by telling them to turn up at Silverstone and watch me drive the McLaren. Then they might finally understand.”

Tommy Byrne - McLaren testThe test – awarded to the winner of the British F3 title – should have been the pivotal moment for Byrne to realise his F1 ambitions, but regardless of how well he performed, there was little chance of him receiving any further assistance from McLaren, especially since Byrne went against their advice when he signed for Theodore.

The last thing McLaren would have wanted was for Byrne to shine in the test, but that is exactly what he did. He lapped Silverstone substantially quicker than McLaren’s star drivers of the time – Niki Lauda and John Watson – who’d driven the same car at the same venue a few days previous in preparation for the test.

“There is nothing other than phenomenal talent that can explain that lap time,” said an awestruck Watson.

“There is no way around explaining it. It was an unbelievable performance. I would argue actually a more impressive performance than Senna did in the equivalent test the following year, which everyone still raves about.”

It was confirmation of what many had suspected all along: Byrne was incredibly quick, and with the right car underneath him, he could quite easily have become a world champion.

But despite making their car go faster than it had ever gone before, McLaren never showed any interest in acquiring Byrne’s services and he was later portrayed in the press as being an arrogant and cocksure wannabe.

And that was the last time anyone ever saw him behind the wheel of an F1 car, his talent and personality lost to the sport.

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