Belfast Telegraph

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Belfast date for amazing 'crash and Byrne'

 

By Sammy Hamill

Tommy Byrne has been called the greatest racing driver you never saw, but some of us did see him and many of us still lament the waste of a talent that was compared to Ayrton Senna back in the day.

A penniless lad from Dundalk, he shot up the ranks to rock the racing boat in the 1980s but fell just as spectacularly, descending into a world of drink and drugs which killed his career before it had truly taken off.

His extraordinary story is told in a wonderful book, appropriately titled 'Crashed and Byrned', which has since been turned into an acclaimed TV documentary.

Now a reformed character living in Florida, where he is a racing driver instructor, Byrne is back in Belfast tonight as a special guest at the SPARKS Action Medical Research Motorsport charity dinner at the Culloden Hotel, where he will be joined by Rally GB winner Elfyn Evans and Malcolm Wilson, who has just announced he has re-signed Sebastien Ogier for his World Championship-winning M-Sport Ford team.

There will be many motorsport supporters there who remember Byrne as the driver who punched Senna and riled McLaren boss Ron Dennis to such an extent he refused to have anything to do with the Irish maverick.

It was Dennis who played the pivotal role in a decision that effectively sent Byrne off the rails.

The background involved McLaren promising a test drive to the winner of the 1982 British Formula Three Championship. It was expected to be Senna, but instead it was this cocky wee Irishman with an ego that was equalled only by the huge chip on his shoulder.

The McLaren drivers at the time were Niki Lauda and John Watson, and it was Ulsterman Watson who set the car up for the test which also involved Belgian Thierry Boutsen and Swede Stefan Johansson, both of whom went on to become regular F1 drivers.

It is part of legend now that rookie Byrne blew them all away, even lapping Silverstone faster than either Lauda or Watson had ever done including qualifying for the British Grand Prix.

But Dennis didn't want to know and Byrne embarked on a spiral of self-destruction which saw him become involved with Italian hoodlums who used his motorhome to smuggle drugs, an exotic millionairess who wanted to 'keep' him in luxury, and a Mexican playboy who bankrolled him and then shot himself.

And the book is peppered with names so familiar in Irish racing circles - Martin Donnelly, David Kennedy, John Uprichard, John McCambridge and many more - who played parts in Byrne's climb and collapse.

The rejection by Dennis destroyed Byrne, although some will say he was on the path to destruction from the day he was born.

He never drove an F1 car after that test day at Silverstone and, although he went on to race in America and Mexico, the fire had gone out.

"I got drunk for the next 15 years," Byrne says in the book, which will be available at a signing in Creighton's new filling station at Balmoral tomorrow between 12 noon and 2pm.

Belfast Telegraph

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