Sex, Drugs and Formula 1: Tommy Byrne's Wild Ride

Tommy Byrne was a gifted young racing driver, but his Formula 1 career was short lived. The exact reasons for this are unclear – though the Irishman's fondness for drink, drugs and women cannot have helped his cause.
December 19, 2016, 2:32pm
This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.

There are some racing drivers who possess the talent to reach the top but are never presented with the opportunity. Others are handed their big chance, but for whatever reason cannot take the final step towards Formula 1 stardom

And then there is Tommy Byrne. The Irishman represents an odd case, insomuch as he was presented with an opportunity, grasped it with both hands, but still came up clutching at thin air. The exact reasons for this are still not entirely clear – despite a book and now a documentary that cover his life and career.

Born in Drogheda in the Republic of Ireland, Byrne was a legitimate F1 prospect in the early eighties. He earned that tag by winning the 1982 British F3 title, with no less than Ayrton Senna succeeding him as champion 12 months later.

By late '82 Byrne was already attempting to carve out an F1 career, albeit at the back-of-the-grid Theodore squad. But, like most aspects of Byrne's F1 efforts, this did not go to plan.

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"I tried to qualify for five races and ended up making two," he explains. "I was having some troubles with the team because they were one of the backmarkers and it was hard to qualify, while I was used to being up front and winning races. And the answer that Theodore gave me was that I just wasn't good enough – after winning the F3 championship."

Nevertheless, the F3 title provided salvation in the form of a test with Formula 1 powerhouse McLaren. But, once again, things did not pan out as Byrne had hoped.

At this point, it's important to mention that the young Tommy Byrne had something of a reputation for enjoying a good time. That is, a really, really good time.

Though undoubtedly very good in the seat of a racing car, away from the track he was determined to enjoy himself to the fullest – a fact that is not shied away from in his book. Today's young drivers might say that racing is their one true passion, but the young Byrne would more likely have named the magic trio of drink, drugs and women. His wild side was undoubtedly part of what made him so quick in the car – drawing obvious comparisons with James Hunt – but it did not sit well with the very staid men who ran grand prix teams at the time.

Byrne and friends enjoy a few quiet drinks

In his book, Byrne recalls: '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.'

The man Byrne's carefree approach to life is believed to have made a bad impression on is Ron Dennis, McLaren's notoriously fastidious boss. Though not present that day, there is a suspicion that Ron was not keen to give Byrne an opportunity with his meticulously presented team, even if the Irishman showed well at Silverstone.

"The test was very important for me," says Byrne. "I'd have driven one of the best cars on the gird and one of the slower cars on the grid inside the space of two months. The difference? Four seconds a lap around Silverstone. I was a second quicker than Thierry Boutsen, who'd just got out of the car, and I thought Thierry was a really good driver."

Tommy is right: Boutsen was a good driver, one who'd go on to contest over 160 grands prix and take three wins. Being quicker than him was no mean feat.

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But this was not enough to convince McLaren that Byrne was worth a punt, the team showing no interest in putting him in a race seat or helping him find a spot at a smaller team for 1983. It later transpired that Tommy had not even been given a fair crack at the whip that day – something he was oblivious to for almost two decades.

"I was over in America, doing driver coaching at Elkhart Lake. I rode my scooter down the pitlane and bumped into Tony Vandungen, who was the guy who put the pedals in that day and worked on the cars. He said to me: 'Tommy, I was wondering what ever happened to you. You did such a great job on the test that day and you didn't even have the best car.' I said that it was the same car that Thierry got out of. Tony says: 'Yeah, but when we were putting in your pedals we were told not to give you full throttle.' I asked him why, and he said: 'I don't know, I think they just didn't want you to go as fast as Boutsen.' I had no idea – it was complete shock to me."

Byrne at the wheel of the recalcitrant Theodore

"Ron told Mark Hughes, who co-wrote my book, that the reason was that this was Niki Lauda's pukka race car and he didn't want me to damage it. That was the official line."

That explanation is contradicted somewhat by the fact that a pair of celebrities got the chance to drive the same machine just 24 hours later. As Tommy explains: "The car that Ron was so worried about me crashing? Nick Mason and Leo Sayer drove it the next day. And Leo said to me later: 'All the mechanics were talking about how fast you were.'

"This is stuff I had no idea about, at the time," he adds.

"Now I think back, it all clicked. It didn't matter. They probably didn't want me to do well because I'd been mouthing off about how fast I was gonna go – I'd been so angry at the Theodore guys that I'd been telling them. Anyhow, the official line is that they didn't want me to crash the car."

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His F1 dream effectively ended that day, and he planned to move to America to chase a professional gig there. However, Byrne was tempted to remain in Europe for a while longer and continued to show well. "I was gonna go [in 1983] to start again, but I stayed another year after Eddie Jordan convinced me to do European F3. And then I did another year with Gary Anderson, and then I finally went to America in '85. So I did try, but it wasn't meant to be." But he did create an impression on several people. In the new film, the highly respected Anderson describes Byrne's talent as on a par with Michael Schumacher's, having worked with both men in their early twenties.

When he moved to America, Byrne decided to enjoy life a little more. In the film, he admits to taking 'enough drugs to kill a buffalo' – we can only speculate as to how much that is – while former F1 driver John Watson suggests: 'If there was a gold medal for shagging, [Tommy] would have won it time and time again.'

"I was having a good time," Tommy confesses. "I wasn't going to bed at nine o'clock and I certainly didn't look like I was taking it that serious. Then I went to Mexico and things got a bit crazy. And there were guns involved and girls involved, yes."

Byrne in his U.S. racing days, presumably having missed the 'No Smoking' signs

That last statement is an eye-opener, so let's fill in some blanks. Byrne may not have looked like he was taking racing all that seriously, but his success in America again demonstrated that he possessed more than the average share of talent behind the wheel. He was runner up in the second-tier of American single-seater racing in 1988 and '89 (only one driver in the series' 30-year history has won more races, and no one has scored more pole positions). Generally, that would be enough to earn a move up to IndyCar – but Byrne never raced in the premier championship.

Instead, he made an unexpected trip south of the border to race single-seaters in Mexico. At the time, talented European drivers could make a living racing in the country, so Byrne tried his luck.

"I was driving Formula 2 and Formula 3. And in Mexico they took their racing very seriously. You'd get up to 40,000 people at a Formula 3 race in Mexico City, and it'd be in the papers every day. But you don't want to get in with the politics of Mexican racing – if they don't like you, they call you gay and a drug dealer. Those are worst things you can be called there. And this is in the paper, the magazines...

"I was kind of a mini celebrity down there," he continues. "I probably made £100,000 a year. And I was sponsored by Corona, so I drank lots of beers. I was sponsored by Nokia for a year, too. I met the president, over from Finland, and he said to me: 'Tommy, we win, we party. We lose, we party.' And then the next morning I would nearly die from tequila poisoning!"

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Byrne recalls one notably eventful night at the house he was living in, when an especially wild party got out of hand. To cut to the crucial moment: "My friend Nacho started shooting upstairs – I guess he didn't like what was going on – and all these girls came running down. There's tits flying everywhere. Nacho just looked at looked at me, shot at me, and missed. That's when I decided to get out of Mexico – I left the house the next morning. A week later I heard that Nacho was dead; he drowned in the swimming pool. He was worth about $40m when he died."

It was at this point that Tommy elected to peruse a less stressful and strenuous existence. "After the 1994 season I called my friend Calvin Fish, who was working at a driving school in Ohio. I knew I needed to get my act together. I figured I wasn't going to make a million dollars from racing, so I'd better get a job. And things have been pretty good ever since. I do 70 to 100 days a year there. And we have a company called Diablo Drifter, selling skid machines that help teach car control."

Today his life is rather quieter, but he is happy that way. "Obviously I didn't make millions of dollars, but it's okay – some people aren't meant to be millionaires. I was told I'd never make any money out of racing, I was told I'd never be a race car driver, and I was told no one would ever read my book, but it all worked out. It just took a bit of time."

Crash and Burn gets its cinema release on December 30th