Sex, drugs and Formula 1: Ireland's Tommy Byrne tells his enthralling story

Dundalk native talks racing against Senna, testing a McLaren in '82 and other tales

Tommy Byrne,

Irish Motorsport star Tommy Byrne with his autobiography at William Hill Bookmakers in Dublin. Picture by Niall Carson PA Archive/PA Images

"Forget Schumacher and Senna. Tommy Byrne was the best of them all."

That is the view of former Jordan F1 team boss Eddie Jordan about former Irish driver Tommy Byrne who took part in five Formula 1 Grand Prix during the 1982 season.

He is the subject of a new documentary called Tommy Byrne: Crash And Burn: The Greatest Racing Driver You've Ever Seen.

The 58-year-old Louth native, who now lives in the United States, says the documentary came off the back of his critically-acclaimed book from 2009.

"Determination and a lot of friends," he says of how he went from Dundalk to motorsport's grandest series at the dawn of the '80s.

"I just kept pushing. I had such a belief in my ability. I was able to be not put down by engineers and mechanics, because the first thing people do in racing is they blame the driver. I was never having any of that so that was a huge thing for me and for any driver." 

 

"The reason probably that the documentary has been made is I did get to drive the fastest car in Formula 1 which was the McLaren. I won the prize of 25 laps in that car. And I drove the slowest car in Formula 1 in the space of one month, maybe six weeks," says Byrne.

"If I didn't drive the McLaren so fast, which I did, there probably wouldn't be a story. I think the story is who would ever have known, just because I won five championships doesn't mean to say I could have driven in Formula 1. But I did get to drive that McLaren."

The five championship victories came in other motorsport series, winning the Formula 3 championship in the same year that he took part in F1.  

"Nobody's ever done that ever. And I won the Formula Ford festival in Senna's car and I stepped down from being in a higher Formula. Nobody's ever done that before," he said.

Byrne was British Formula 3 champion in 1982, one year before the late Senna, who started F1 not long after that.

"The Senna thing, we worked for the same team, we drove for the same team: The Van Diemen team. He was one year behind me and I heard about him coming over. Ralph [Firman Sr] was saying 'the fast man is coming, the fast man is coming'. But his father wouldn't let him race," said Byrne.

"We eat in the same place, breakfast every morning at the same spot in the cafe. We weren't the best of friends but we certainly weren't enemies. He knew how quick I was and I knew how quick he was. We knew if we got together suddenly on the track, there was going to be a problem." 

But they would only share a racetrack twice ultimately.

It was the success in Formula 3 that led to a possibility to get a test with F1's famous McLaren team, who were led for a long time by Ron Dennis.

They didn't see eye to eye.

"I wasn't the type of driver that Ron Dennis was looking for. He was looking for a yes man and I would probably never have - he knew probably after a couple of interviews that it probably wouldn't have worked," said Byrne, adding that he found out his car was slowed down 24 years after the fact.

Ultimately, he would have five F1 entries and two race starts with the Theodore team.

Byrne also discussed partying and drugs in London after the brief F1 period, knowing that there would be no return to F1 after the 1982 Caesars Palace Grand Prix in Las Vegas (fellow Irishman Derek Daly finished sixth in that season ending race).

On one occasion, he recalls: "Some friend of mine gave [a substance] to me. I thought it was cocaine. I just snorted the s*** out of it all day long." 

But he added that he was never addicted to drugs.

He also recalled a rollercoaster time in Mexico which ended abruptly.

"It ended when [my wealthy friend] went nuts and started shooting his gun off upstairs where there was a bunch of naked girls running around upstairs - and downstairs - and they came running downstairs because he was running after them. He'd just lost his mind. I looked at him and said 'Nacho, que pasa? What's the problem? What's wrong with you?' He just took the gun and shot right at me. And missed," said Byrne, quipping that Nacho, who was worth about $40 million, was never a good shot. He would die shortly after drowning in a swimming pool.

"He really liked me a lot. I don't really know in what type of way he like me a lot, but it was way too much.

"I had to tell him, 'listen, I love you too but I love women better'. He was trying to ride me one day. I was on top with some girl and next thing, he's trying to climb on top of me and I'm like 'get off'. I was just laughing because I thought it was funny if my friends could see me now. And then I looked over and saw the bodyguard was over there and he just gave me a dirty look and then I got scared. But I did fend him off. He was like a terrier dog trying to jump up on you."