In 1981, Dundalk’s Tommy Byrne was on the crest of a wave. He was rapidly becoming known as one of the fastest drivers in the business and looked set for a career in F1. He returned to Mondello Park, where he started racing initially, with his works FF2000 Van Diemen RF81 and backing from Irish Oil company Ola. According to Tommy, first gear stripped on the warm up lap, hence the quick conversation with Ralph Firman on the grid, but once up and running, he was in a class of his own. The rest, as the saying goes, is history. And if you have not read his book Crashed and Byrned, do so immediately!
While Tommy drove the works FF2000 Van Diemen, Ayrton Senna drove the FF1600 car for the same team. At the end of ’81, Senna had gone back to Brazil, apparently disinterested in motor racing. The team put the Irishman into Senna’s car for the Formula Ford Festival at Brands Hatch, often referred to as the World Cup for F1600. Far from struggling to acclimatise himself with the slower car, Tommy won the event, adding to his rapidly increasing status. The following year, Tommy graduated to British F3 and won the championship, immediately attracting the interest of several Formula 1 teams.
Incredibly, he competed in a few Grands Prix with the uncompetitive Theodore team the same year, before earning himself a McLaren test at Silverstone, along with Stefan Johannson and Thierry Boutsen. Not only was he quickest on the day, he also set one of the quickest non turbo laps ever- even eclipsing the time set by the team’s star driver Niki Lauda. this fuelled the story that team boss Ron Dennis approached the car as Tommy came into the pits and said “You’re quicker than Niki!”, with folklore suggesting that Tommy responded “Niki Who?”
Having had a chat with, Tommy he confirms this never happened, in fact Dennis was not even at the test. He does say however, that he was so frustrated with the performance of his Theodore, that at the Las Vegas season closer,he eventually told the team boss to stick his drive and to “Come see me in the McLaren at Silverstone, I’ll show you how fast I am!” True to his word, Tommy stopped the clocks at 1:10.1, quicker than both of McLaren’s drivers had managed in qualifying for the British Grand Prix at the same venue. Both Joey Greenan and John Uprichard, present on the day of the test are convinced that Tommy was in the 1:09 bracket on at least three occasions but McLaren refused to confirm those times or give them to Tommy. Years later, Tommy met a McLaren mechanic, Tony Vandungen, who told him that he had, under orders, adjusted the car so Tommy did not have full throttle on the day. Regardless of the last two stories, one thing is sure- Tommy Byrne was proper quick.
Eddie Jordan: “Forget Senna and Schumacher- Tommy Byrne was the man….”
Here is some decidedly ropey footage of the famous McLaren test- but even from this you can see he was on it- he certainly doesn’t look like an F3 driver finding his feet.
As a good aside to this story, Tommy was home for the release of his book a few years ago and I ended up having a pint with him. My better half happened to ring and asked me where I was. I said I was having a pint with Tommy Byrne. Obviously, Jenny didn’t believe me so I put Tommy on the phone. He spoke to her for about 5 minutes, winking and making other unprintable gestures in my general direction. A week later a parcel arrived in the door. I opened it and it was a copy of Crashed And Byrned. Odd, I thought, as I already had a copy (and had already read it twice!). I opened it and scrawled across the inside page was “It looks like I know your bird better than you thought- best of luck, Tommy Byrne!”
Thanks Tommy and Jenny. I think……
Main image from Con Connolly.