Tommy Byrne: McLaren Sabotaged My Formula 1 Test Drive And Career
Butting heads with Ayrton Senna, pissing off Ron Dennis, racing for gun-toting criminals Mexico. And that's just a fraction of Tommy Byrnes's story.
Very few biographies have more apropos titles than "Crashed and Byrned: The Greatest Racing Driver You Never Saw". The book-turned-movie focuses on the meteoric rise of Irish racing driver Tommy Byrne, his brief brush with the ugly side of the Formula 1 circus and the subsequent aftermath in the years that followed.
Byrne will say he knocked on the Formula 1 door a few years before his time, but his straighforward diction, no-nonsense attitude and his admitted penchant for hard partying says he was a decade or two too late. Somewhere between the rebel playboy drivers of the late-‘60s and the polished, sponsor-friendly pilots of the ‘90s, there was Byrne. Somewhere in the middle.
As the 1981 Formula Ford festival winner, with 22 professional wins under his belt, landing on the podium in over 33% of the races he entered and six championships to his name, Byrne’s skill behind the wheel is undeniable. However, what truly makes his story special are his endeavours and clashes off the track. Butting heads with the likes of Ayrton Senna and Ron Dennis, and racing and driving for unstable gun-toting characters south of the border.
There’s no shortage of entertaining stories in his book, but I sat down to talk with Byrne over the phone about what he calls “the most important story” that didn’t make it to the movie: the 1982 McLaren Formula 1 test drive at Silverstone. An event that arguably changed the course of his career.
How did you get that now infamous test drive with the McLaren f1 team?
The top three drivers in the Formula 3 Championship that year got a 25-lap test with McLaren in either Watson’s or Lauda’s F1 car. I was the F3 Champion that year so that was part of my prize. But I was told even before the test, by Ron Dennis, that there wasn’t a seat available at McLaren, no matter how well I did. He already had Lauda and Watson still signed for the year after. I knew I wasn’t going to get a drive, but I was going to show them what I could do.
Of course, we went out the night before the test with a couple of girls and met a couple of more girls. I don’t think I drank much but I definitely smoked some pot. I knew I was going to go fast at the McLaren test, and that was just going to be the icing on the cake.
When we went to the track the next day — I was with a Formula 1 photographer, my buddy John Townsend — we brought the girls with us, and that’s when it started to dawn on me. Driving into the track at Silverstone, I started to think, ”what the f*ck am I thinking?!” So I made sure he kept them away from everybody. So nobody knew about the girls, nobody knew I was out the night before. And when I went to drive the car, I did a pretty damn good job.
When I watched the other driver go before me, Thierry Boutsen — who I have a lot of respect for as a driver — I listened to him when he came back in and I heard him complaining about understeer. And I thought “shit. I hope I’ll be able to do as well as I said because if he’s complaining about understeer, the car must be pretty bad.” So that had me worried a little bit.\
How did the actual test go?
I got in the car. I did one lap, two laps, three laps, then on the fourth lap, I realized it did have a little understeer. So I started to brake a little bit earlier, turn a little earlier, and gas it a little earlier, and the understeer disappeared. So after the first 15 laps, by the time I had to come in for fresh tires I was already faster than Thierry [Boutsen].
I went back out on fresh tires and the car was crazy good like it was on rails. I’ve never driven anything like it. But I was just happy I did what I said I was going to do.
Talk about drugs. Driving a car like that, going that fast, it’s like all the drugs at once.
But I was just disappointed to not get into the 1:09.00s range. I think I got 1:10.1 on my 22nd lap. No one has been in the 1:09.00s in a long time around Silverstone in a Formula 1 car. So I put my head down and went for it again and got the same exact time, 1:10.1. I was so close, so I went for it again and did it in 1:10.1 again. I did the exact same time three laps in a row. I thought that was it, that was the fastest I could go.
Joey Greenan, a friend of mine at the time, was there timing me and he told me, later on, I did a 1:09.6. I honestly didn’t believe him. I believed McLaren and didn’t think twice.
When did you find out the real reason for the difference?
I think it was 20-25 years later, I was driver coaching at Road America and I bumped into the mechanic who was working on my car at the McLaren test. We got to talking and he said, “Man, you were so fast that day. I remember how we were all talking about it after. And you didn’t even have the best car.” And I said, “What do you mean, I had the same car as the other two guys?” He said, “We were told not to give you full throttle.” I asked why and it was because they didn’t want me to go too fast.
The top engineers and mechanics got together and decided not only to not give me the proper times but to basically sabotage my throttle too. So, say I did the 1:09.6. That was the fastest time ever around Silverstone on race tires (in those days qualifying tires were around two seconds per lap quicker). A proper throttle would’ve saved another 3-4 tenths, I would’ve been in the low-1:09s, maybe 1:08s. If I got that, who knows what could’ve happened. The 1:10.1time was already enough to have people talking for years.
It took me years to get over the fact that I got to Formula 1 and didn’t make it. It’s pretty disappointing.
Did the upper brass at McLaren ever admit to it?
We got Mark Hughes, a very renowned Formula 1 journalist, the one who helped write my book, to reach out to one of the engineers who went on record saying McLaren messed with the throttle. [Hughes] then asked McLaren team principal Ron Dennis about it and he admitted it too, but he said it was because he didn’t want me to wreck Niki Lauda’s Formula 1 car. Which is bullsh*t, because he let Nick Mason and Leo Sayer (two complete novices) drive the same car the next day. So basically Ron Dennis lied about the whole thing.
What do you think was the reasoning?
I think it was because I pissed off Jo Ramirez, at McLaren and the team at Theodore Racing because I was too cocky. That’s the only thing I can think of.
I never really got into it with Ron [Dennis]. I had a meeting with him once before all of this about my contract with Theodore Racing and McLaren’s option for my services, and it was really embarrassing because I came off so uneducated.
When it came time to make the movie, the group putting it together left that whole part out. So I asked them “what the hell happened to the most important part of the movie?” They told me Mark Hughes told them not to mention the test in the movie or Ron Dennis would sue them.
And it couldn’t have been about defamation, because he and the mechanic already went on record saying so in my book.
If that happened today and I got a test drive with McLaren, sponsored by Marlboro, and that happened and people found out, that would be a big deal. Because that’s just ruining someone’s career.
Were any other teams interested in hiring you because of the time you set at Silverstone during the test?
No. Everybody knew what the time was, but they already had their driver lineups set. It wasn’t quick enough for them to change their minds on drivers.
I was about to go to America in 1983, after that. I was done with F1. Because you don’t win six championships, get to Formula 1, don’t make it, then start over. It’s nearly impossible. Eddie Jordan convinced me to stay another year with European Formula 3 because he thought I might have another chance. So I did, but I didn’t win the championship, I finished fourth. We did talk to some sponsors and we talked to Ken Tyrell about a drive, but he wanted £1,000,000.
A couple years later, it would have been a different story. Things would have been much different because test drivers started becoming more commonplace at teams. But who knows?