The Greatest Driver You Never Saw
From Senna-esque talent to total obscurity, the rise and fall of F1’s most incredible could’ve been.
Lost to the annals of what could’ve been, racing knows few stories more intriguing than that of Tommy Byrne. Byrne, 58, now lives in Florida, where he works as a driving instructor for Honda. But in the early 1980s, the Irish wheelman gave us a glimpse of his natural talent, the kind of naked skill some still believe to be on par with the likes of Schumacher and Senna.
Byrne’s rise was nothing short of prolific. Over the span of just four years, he ascended the ranks from Irish stock car racing obscurity to British F3 champion, and onto the pinnacle of motorsport. In 1982, Byrne made his debut for Theodore F1, driving one of the year’s slowest cars. He managed to qualify for two races, but mostly partied, and split with the team after an altercation with management following the U.S. Grand Prix. However, due to contractual obligation with Marlboro, McLaren invited Byrne to test at Silverstone that year.
"I badly wanted to show those fuckers from Theodore how wrong they were,” Byrne wrote in his autobiography.
At the test, he was paired with Thierry Boutsen, a Belgian driver who’d go on to amass 163 F1 points, and twice finish runner-up at Le Mans. Boutsen turned a 1m10.9s lap. Not slow.
Byrne then went out and clocked a 1m10.1s lap, not only besting Boutsen, but breaking Niki Lauda’s record for fastest time ever for McLaren at Silverstone. Then he did it again. And again. Three identical 1m10.1s laps, back-to-back, on his first try.
More unbelievable still, McLaren mechanics later admitted they’d locked out full-throttle power on the car, because Byrne was new, and they were afraid he’d bin it.
One witness, who was timing at the event, even claims that McLaren didn’t display Byrne’s true times: 1m09.9s; 1m09.7s; 1m9.6s.
So why didn’t Tommy Byrne make it? Take a look at the trailer below, and you’ll get an idea.