Sometimes F1 drivers can be criticised for having too much of a life away from F1. Like many racing drivers in the 1970s James Hunt’s off track antics were legendary. Jenson Button spent much of his early years partying, and more recently Lewis Hamilton has faced some questions from critics about his celebrity lifestyle affecting his focus.
All of these pale in comparison to Irishman Tommy Byrne, however. He made it to F1 but his wild lifestyle cost him a chance to be talked about in the same way we do now about the likes of Fangio, Clark, Senna, and Schumacher. His story was told in book form in 2008 and he’s now the subject of a new documentary titled ‘Crash & Burn’.
Byrne rose through the junior ranks quickly, and a successful season in Formula Ford in 1981 saw things take off very quickly in 1982.
Winning the British F3 championship that year was impressive considering he missed some races to go off and compete in F1, but Theodore were not a quick team and in five Grand Prix entries he only qualified for two, neither of which he finished. He was booted from the team after he allegedly threatened to hire a hitman to take the chief engineer out. Yep, that’s the kind of ‘wild’ we’re talking about!
Byrne told WTF1, “I drove Formula 1 and Formula 3 in the same year, all while I was still doing the F3 championship. I got to drive the slowest car in Formula 1, which was the Theodore, and the fastest car in Formula 1, the McLaren, in the same two months. I won that prize for winning the F3 championship.”
Despite those results his speed was never in doubt. At the McLaren test at Silverstone he proved much faster than the two other young drivers testing that day, Stefan Johansson and Thierry Boutsen, and was even lapping quicker than the team’s race drivers Niki Lauda and John Watson had done for that year’s Grand Prix.
This was impressive, even more so after it turned out that his mechanics had been told not to allow Tommy to use full throttle. Byrne explained: “I wasn’t a McLaren driver, Ron needed ‘yes’ men and people he could control and he wouldn’t have been able to control me.” Ron Dennis wanting calm, professional and obedient drivers? Now there’s a surprise!
With no decent sponsorship to fall back on that turned out to be it for Byrne’s F1 career. He went over to the USA and competed in the American Racing Series (now known as Indy Lights, the feeder series to IndyCar), where he finished championship runner-up in 1988 and 1989.
Despite the change in scenery he didn’t give up on his partying: “My lifestyle got crazy after F1, I went to America and that’s where I did most of the crazy shit. I didn’t take things as seriously and drove for a lot of different teams, partied more than I should have and was starting to run out of time.”
He retired from racing in 1992, at which point he settled down and became a driver coach in Florida.
But what kind of “crazy shit” did he do? You’ll have to watch the documentary to find out in what is sure to be a fascinating story. ‘Crash & Burn’ appears in UK cinemas on December 30th and will be on available on DVD February 13th.