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F1's ultimate loose canon

Laurence Edmondson February 12, 2010
Tommy Byrne was Ireland's most prodigious talent in the 1980s © Sutton Images

By now you may have heard of Tommy Byrne, the release of his brutally honest autobiography a year ago gained him notoriety among F1 fans, but unfortunately the public's consciousness came about 25 years too late.

For those still unfamiliar with Byrne, he is the antithesis of Lewis Hamilton. That's not to say he was slow, in fact in his prime he may well have been quicker, but his character was about as far away from the PR trained and perfectly presented modern F1 driver as it is possible to get. Nevertheless, just like Hamilton, it was McLaren that gave him his big F1 break. Sadly it wasn't quite as successful.

In little over five years Byrne went from driving a Mini Cooper in Irish stockcar racing to the big-time in Formula One. He openly admits it was something of a culture shock for a "knacker from Dundalk" to arrive in the F1 paddock. But he was definitely ready for the opportunity after securing championship victories in British Formula Ford and British F3, during which he had caught Ayrton Senna's attention as a serious rival. Sadly his first F1 drive came with the under-funded and painfully slow Theodore team in 1982. To his credit Byrne qualified for two of the races, but his prodigious talent went largely unnoticed and he left the team after a bust up with its management at the US Grand Prix in Las Vegas. But for Byrne the Theodore drive was just the warm-up, he knew his big opportunity would come with McLaren and a test at Silverstone that it was contractually obliged (due to its sponsor Marlboro) to offer him.

On the day of his test he was pitted against Theirry Boutsen, with a number of other up-and-coming drivers sampling the car during the week. Boutsen went out first but came back complaining of understeer after setting a time of 1:10.9s. It was a respectable lap, and as the car was prepared for Byrne, the Irishman knew it would be a defining moment in his career.

Tommy Byrne had an unsuccessful few races with Theodore before the McLaren test © Sutton Images

"I badly wanted to show those f***ers from Theodore how wrong they were," recalls Byrne. "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 get on the gas a bit earlier. Result: no understeer! The car was unbelievably good."

His best time of 1:10.1s was unbelievably good too. Although not directly comparable, it was the fastest time any McLaren had ever recorded at Silverstone, including the qualifying times set by Niki Lauda and John Watson in the same car at that year's British Grand Prix. If that wasn't enough, he had set three identical lap times of 1:10.1 on his final three laps. It was an astounding feat of consistency for such an inexperienced driver, surely there was another side to the story.

The truth is there was another side to the story, although it might not be quite what you'd expect. It turned out McLaren wasn't being completely honest with Byrne. One of its mechanics that day, Tony Vandungen, later spilt the beans: "My recollection is that we were instructed to give Tommy less than full throttle - and only Tommy, not the others. I honestly don't believe it was to screw Tommy, more to protect him and 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. He then went very fast regardless and we all had a good laugh about it, thinking just how fast he could have gone."

But what about those lap times? Surely Byrne couldn't put in such impressive laps without full throttle. A witness at the test and one of Tommy's friends, John Uprichard, had a stopwatch that was telling a different story to McLaren's.

"I started timing him and he was going up to one second faster than what they were showing," said Uprichard. "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 at 1:09.9s, 1:09.7s, 1:09.6s."

McLaren never did reveal why it didn't show Byrne's true times, but the bigger question was why it didn't offer him a drive. Ron Dennis has often been posed with the question, even more so after the autobiography's release, but always meets it with a stock response.

"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. 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 have become a true great, and I would have been delighted if he had done so at a wheel of a McLaren. Sadly, it wasn't to be."

But whether he had those "ingredients" or not - and there are plenty who believe he did - there is no doubt that less motivated men have driven for top teams, some with McLaren no less - Michael Andretti springs to mind. But due to the unfair system within F1, Byrne's talent and personality was lost to the sport. It's definitely a point worth dwelling on as we enter a new season with three or four pay drivers on the grid and very few genuine characters.

Quotes taken with permission from Crashed and Byrned by Tommy Byrne and Mark Hughes

Laurence Edmondson is an assistant editor on ESPNF1

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Laurence Edmondson is deputy editor of ESPNF1 Laurence Edmondson grew up on a Sunday afternoon diet of Ayrton Senna and Nigel Mansell and first stepped in the paddock as a Bridgestone competition finalist in 2005. He worked for ITV-F1 after graduating from university and has been ESPNF1's deputy editor since 2010