The Greatest Racing Driver You Never Saw

Before he became a Formula 1 legend, Ayrton Senna had a rival named Tommy Byrne, whom some observers considered his superior. This is the story of how Byrne's one shot at the top echelon of F1 ended in mystery.

In his book "Crashed and Byrned," Byrne writes about his rise through European racing's lower ranks, fueled by talent, hubris and the occasional Irish-quality bender. Unable to buy his way into rides as the wealthy Senna could, Byrne gritted into the winner's circle of Formula 3, and in 1982 had a shot at a test with McLaren after a disappointing part-time ride with back-grid F1 team Theodore. The trouble? Byrne believed he had insulted McLaren chief Ron Dennis by turning down an earlier offer to be a test driver, and only a stellar performance during the test at Silverstone could correct his career line. — Ed.

I was there with four other hopefuls: Thierry Boutsen, Stefan Johansson, Quique Mansilla and Dave Scott. I'd been out the night before with my mate. We'd picked up a couple of girls and we brought them to the test, which probably created a bad impression. I mean, she looked like a whore. She wasn't, but she wore lots of make-up and a skirt that barely covered her arse.

This was the test that everybody in racing talks about whenever my name is mentioned. They know everything about it - how I told Ron Dennis his car was a piece of shit, how I screwed my career by being too cocky. Except they know nothing, because none of those things are true. Ron Dennis wasn't even at the test! It was run by Tyler Alexander. Johansson had driven the day before, when it had been a bit damp, so we couldn't really compare his times. Scott and Mansilla did their runs the day after Boutsen and myself. On the day of my test, Boutsen drove first. He did about fifteen laps, came in, and was complaining of understeer. He was given a new set of tires, went back out, and did 1:10.9. It was all conducted in a very professional way. The McLaren mechanics then set about fitting my pedals, which I'd had made up when I'd visited the McLaren factory the week before. They gave us all our own pedal sets, each with our names on them. As we each did our runs, they would have the relevant name on the side of the car. There was a lot of attention to detail.

The Greatest Racing Driver You Never Saw

While this was going on I was a little nervous. I felt a lot hung on this test, that I just might be able to reclaim all the damage I'd done earlier in the year in my relationship with Ron Dennis. But here was Boutsen talking about understeer and he was a guy I respected as quick. But once I got in the car my worries completely dissolved. Yes, there was some understeer, but all I did was brake a bit earlier, turn in a bit earlier and then get on the gas earlier. Result: no understeer! The car was unbelievably good. I was taking corners in fourth that in the Theodore had been third and that Boutsen had apparently been taking in third too. After just the second lap I felt that I needed to go up a gear. I was nearly flat out in fourth through Stowe, which was unbelievable. In the Theodore it hadn't even been flat in third.

By the time I came in on the old tires I'd already gone as fast as Boutsen had on his new tires! Then they fitted my new set. Now I was excited! I was going four seconds a lap faster than in the Theodore. Subtract four seconds from the Theodore's laps in the Grands Prix and I'd been right at the front. They gave my last three laps as 1:10.01, 1:10.01, 1:10.01. My friend Joey Greenan was there, timing me himself, and he's adamant that my last two laps were even quicker but for some reason they didn't show them. He had me down as doing 1:09.6 on my last lap. This was on race tires too, not qualifiers.

To me it was the simple confirmation of what I'd suspected all along. Driving a good F1 car, it was no more difficult to be competitive than driving a good FF1600 or F3 car. If I got into a good car, regardless of the formula, I was good enough to win. This test just confirmed that. Had I made my Grand Prix debut with a McLaren or a Williams, I could have been in a position to win immediately. It's not rocket science. Twenty-five years ago, I was the best driver out there. Other people may have been amazed at the times I ran in the McLaren, but I wasn't. It was normal, it tallied with everything else I'd done whenever I was in a competitive car.

Did I tell the team anything derogatory about their car? Of course not. It was a fantastic car. I may have said something along the lines of "Yes, there's a bit of slow corner understeer that if we could tune out I could go quicker," just in the way of feedback. They thanked me for my time and I went home.

And waited. The phone didn't ring. There was no message from Ron Dennis. Then Motoring News came out the following week and there was a report of the test that was a bit underwhelming and saying my "cocky attitude" had not left a very favorable impression with the management. And from that moment, any thoughts I had of my performance in the test changing my chances with McLaren were over.

About six years ago I was in the pitlane in Road America and a guy stopped me. I recognized him from somewhere. He said, "Hi Tommy, how the hell are you and what have you been up to all these years?"

"Oh, just teaching and coaching," I said. "Yeah, you were so fast that day when you tested the McLaren and you did not even have the best car."

What was he talking about, I asked. I'd had the same car as Boutsen, who'd just got out of it.

"Yeah," he said, "but when I was changing your pedals I was told not to give you full throttle." Well that got me thinking: could that be true? It would explain why I started using fourth gear instead of third - and probably why I was nearly flat out at Stowe, because the car would be approaching the turn so much slower. But I am pretty sure McLaren would never have done something like that - or given me the wrong times. They are much too professional. And why would they even care about Tommy Byrne? I would have preferred not to have run into Tony Vandungen that day, as I'd long ago put that whole test behind me, and he reignited my feelings about it.

So let's ask Vandungen himself what he recalls of that day. "Well, it was an awfully long time ago! But yes, my recollection is that we were instructed to give Tommy less than full throttle – and only Tommy, not the others." Why might that have been? "I honestly don't believe it was to screw Tommy, more to protect him and the car. I recall having spoken to him at the Austrian Grand Prix, when he was driving the Theodore, and it was looking like he'd be getting the McLaren test. He was very cocky, totally confident about how fast he was going to be in the McLaren. And at the test he was the same. I think there was a feeling, probably from Tyler Alexander, who was running the test, that his attitude might just make him liable to crash the car. This wasn't a show car, but it was an active race car, one of the team's pukka cars, and damaging it would not have been good. We didn't feel the other guys were as aggressive about how quick they were going to be, but with Tommy we had a bit of a concern, especially as he was going out after Boutsen, so would have a time to aim for, so we detuned the car a little. You just adjust the amount of throttle available by screwing the throttle stop – the stop that the pedal comes up against – up a little. You then look down the engine's inlet trumpets, and with the throttle against the stop, if you can see any of the throttle slide showing, you haven't got full throttle. It would only take a few seconds. He then went very fast regardless and we all had a good laugh about it, thinking just how fast he could have gone. Tommy was one of those drivers, a bit like Tony Stewart today, who is super- confident, aggressively so – and then goes out on the track and delivers, totally backing up his attitude."

Then there was the matter of the lap times. The 1:10.01 they showed on the board was super impressive. But two witnesses who were watching very closely, Joey Greenan and John Uprichard, two Irish racing stalwarts who had come to watch Tommy's test from the sidelines, are adamant he was lapping faster than that. "John was working for Van Diemen, and we'd arrived there in the factory truck," Greenan says. John was just timing Tommy off his wristwatch and it didn't seem to tally with the times the team were putting on the pit board. So he sent me back to the truck to get the proper stopwatch. I began timing him and he was going up to one second faster than what they were showing. I went to the team and asked them why the hell weren't they showing the proper times? By the end he was in the 1:09s. His last three laps I had down as 1:09.9, 1.09.7, 1.09.6."

Even if we just take the official times, this was the quickest the ground effect McLaren MP4/1 ever went around Silverstone, by a substantial margin. The cool air of autumn would have made for faster times than the hot July air of mid-season, the engine would have been breathing more oxygen, perhaps the team had fitted longer gear ratios in the car to protect the engine during the test and had therefore inadvertently geared it perfectly for the more potent engine performance, thus explaining some of it. But some of that would be negated anyway if there was not 100% throttle opening. Besides, as Watson says, no matter which way you try to explain it, which version of events you go with, it remained a sensational performance.

"Yes, Tommy was sensational that day," says Greenan, "but then again, it was only what I would have expected. Thierry Boutsen was a fairly good driver but he was no Tommy Byrne. In terms of talent Tommy was an Ayrton Senna, no two ways about it. Had Ron Dennis taken him on, had his face fit there, I've got no doubts at all that he would have been a multiple world champion."

Dennis himself recalls Tommy with something that, 25 years on, sounds suspiciously like fondness:

"Good old Tommy Byrne. What a character, and what a talent. I think most people who saw him race would agree that he had what it takes, in terms of the gift of naked car control, to go all the way. But perhaps he lacked some of the other necessary ingredients – the steely determination, the unflinching focus and the towering ambition that mark out the true greats. As a result, Tommy's career has to be viewed as one of underachievement – if only in the context of his very considerable natural ability. He won the 1982 British Formula Three championship well enough, though, and tested for McLaren at the end of that year. He was clearly quick – and, had his undoubted talent been matched by an equal quantity of the other traits a top racing driver requires, then he might well have become a true great, and I would have been delighted if he'd done so at the wheel of a McLaren. Sadly, it wasn't to be."

Whatever really happened that October day in 1982, it came to define Tommy's life. It was the moment when his destiny path split from glittering awards, from fame, from fortune - to some other life. In recognizing the moment as that, he may even have made it a self-fulfilling prophecy. It hit him hard. It's difficult not to think he was never quite the same again.

After the test, Byrne bounced out of Formula 1 into Indy Lights and other series, including a job training Vince Neil. Now an instructor at Mid-Ohio race circuit, he drove his first race in seven years last month, finishing second in a six-hour club endurance match.


The Greatest Racing Driver You Never SawRepublished with permission from "Crashed & Byrned: The Greatest Racing Driver You Never Saw," by Tommy Byrne with Mark Hughes

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