Tommy Byrne podcast

by Ed Foster on 13th December 2016

Recorded live at the screening of Crash and Burn, Motor Sport's Simon Arron interviews Tommy Byrne and director Sean O'Cualain about the film and Byrne's career.

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Simon Arron: Ladies and gentlemen, Tommy Byrne.

Tommy Byrne: And? Sean O'Cualain!

SA: We’ve met him already!

Welcome on stage to both of you. I think the audience reaction Sean tells us what we need to know, people have enjoyed it even though this was a special two dvd edition which wasn’t quite anticipated.

Tommy, can I ask you. Going through something like this, the fact you’re here, means I presume you’re quite happy with the production. But something like this, is it therapy or torture?

TB: Torture. I’m actually not happy with it, but I have to be here because I’m getting paid. No, that’s a joke! Actually none of us are getting paid yet. I obviously don’t watch it any more, certainly the last 20 minutes I think are hard to watch. Plus I’ve seen it five times in front of an audience. Does anybody know what bits like to what yourself on a big screen, it’s kinda scary. I didn’t know this was coming, I just thought it was going to be a documentary. But Sean did a good job and it’s hard to watch but it’s true.

SA: As you watch it, difficult though it might be, is there any particular moment when you think “jeez I just wish there’s one thing I did differently.”

TB: [Long pause] No.

[Laughter]

SA: It’s a fair answer.

TB: I’ve been asked the same question “what’s your regrets?” Maybe I wouldn’t have told Jo Ramirez to go f**k himself. There’s a couple of small little things, Jo is a nice man.

SA: Does he think that about you?

TB: Yes I think he does, but remember a lot of stuff you find years later. I wrote the book and I found that the Theodore team didn’t even want me driving for them. That was Sidney Tiller wanted me driving and they fired Jan Lammers for me. Julian Randles and Jo Ramirez were quite happy with Jan – great driver. Of course I didn’t find that until 20 years later. If I had known that at the time it would have made a lot more sense what was going on, how come they wouldn’t listen to me. But watching it, what would I change? Of course there’s some stuff. We did 70 hours of filming and a lot of the stuff I wouldn’t want on there, but it is what it is.

As far as regrets, I keep wracking my brains and probably when I got to Formula 1 with the Theodore I shouldn’t have been drinking in Caesars Palace and I shouldn’t have moutherd off to Julian Randles and Jo that night because I had  the McLaren test coming up and it probably hurt me with the McLaren test. That is what I would not do.

SA: It surprised me to think I was probably working for Motoring News at the time and it surprised me that we didn’t give you that much coverage because I remember colleagues being at the test and saying what an impressive job you’d done. What are your outstanding memories of that day? You said you were nervous before you got in the car, but once it was all up and running I presume it all came naturally to you?

TB: I was only nervous because I already told the Theodore people how fast I was going to be, come watch me, you’ll see. Because they were telling me I couldn’t drive. Julian Randles told me if Keke Rosberg was in my car he’d be on pole position and I was 23 years of age and I couldn’t handle it. So I said “come watch me, I’ll show ya. Come watch me,” and of course I said that probably too much.  The only reason I was nervous was because I listened to [Thierry] Boutsen talking to the mechanics and he was saying the car was understeering really bad and I thought “I hope I can do it.” I started getting nervous then, once I got in the car and did a couple of laps I braked a little earlier, turned a little earlier, put the car on the gas and there was no oversteer whatsoever. What a fantastic car, unreal how good the car was. I wasn’t nervous any more after that.

SA: Sean, it’s nice that the footage exists… there’s a glimpse of Tommy by an F1 car, driving it beautifully. It must have been quite hard for some of the stuff, nowadays if a driver fell of the Formula 1 ladder and went off whoring in Mexico everyone would have iPhones, the footage would exist. You’ve had to use some interesting graphics to illustrate certain things. There’s very little Formula 1 footage, I presume anything from 1982 you’d have had to pay a fortune for?

Sean O'Cualain: We couldn’t afford it. We really tried very hard but there’s no way we could afford any of it. As a producer said it would have cost something like £30,000 a minute. If it would have cost £3,000 there would have been an argument because I would have wanted it, but 30 grand you just can’t. It would have been a fifth or sixth of our total budget.

Tommy got to Formula 1 on his own talent, but by the help of his friends and family who just went beyond what is normally done by friends to get someone to Formula 1. They really believed in him. The same when we were making the film, the film couldn’t have been made without the personal archive of his friends who had taped it on old VHS, marked out Tommy Byrne. It was their own archive.

SA: So is it just stuff people have recorded off Grandstand on a Saturday afternoon?

SO: Yep that’s all they had. In Ireland Sports Stadium, Grandstand here that’s how people recorded it – that’s all we had, because it had been wiped. I’m sure somebody watching an Excel sheet had gone through it and said “we’ll keep Senna, Brundle,” Tommy Byrne winning Formula Ford that all came from old VHS tapes that his friends had gone a couple of years ago transferred them to DVD and that’s how we got all the footage. There is not a single frame of Formula 1 in that documentary. I don’t think it takes from the story at all, I think Tommy got there, very, very close and I think to go back to you earlier question: could Tommy change one thing? I think that got Tommy to Formula 1. How could he change those things? If he had been a different person with the same talent but a different personality he wouldn’t have got within an arses roar of Formula 1.

SA: He wouldn’t have persuaded his mum to claim she was having an extension built to buy a Formula Ford car.

SO: Well that’s a common Irish thing.

SA: Oh okay! [Laughter]

TB: He’s right, there were always extensions being built on houses back in those days.

SO: We had a banking crisis there a while back.

SA: Despite all the difficulties of your humble upbringing, you still managed to get into motor racing. Now when you compare what it was like 35 years ago with how it is now, in this day and age a Tommy Byrne wouldn’t have a cat in hells hope of getting anywhere near a racing car.

TB: Yes I mean people come to me every day and they want to know, they have dreams of being a race car driver. If you go to America and you have $30,000 you might be able to win a prize to get you to USF2000 Championship which then will cost $300,000 and if you win that you can get into an Indy Lights car which will cost $1,200,000 and if you win that you can get to IndyCar so there is a ladder. Over here, no, you have to be taken by Red Bull or McLaren or somebody to pay for you all the way up and you can’t do it anymore.

SA: Given the way things have become you must harness a certain pride that you did as well as you did.

TB: Hey, the movie just happened. When I decided it’s time to get a job that was 1994 and things have been pretty good. He [Sean] came along and this all started and it seems like it just happened yesterday but I really am doing fine and I’m still alive, no matter what, if you watch that movie you’d think its Angela’s Ashes. [Laughter] Tommy’s not around anymore. That was 20 years ago, and it was very hard because Sean was trying to bring up the stuff that happened and it did because how can you make a documentary without that.

SA: How is this compared to other films and documentaries that you’ve been involved with? I presume it’s staggeringly unusual.

TB: There can be no comparison. It has to be by far the best. Sean can talk about that!

SO: I was agreeing with you to a point. It’s totally different to anything I’ve ever done. It’s the most unique story in Irish sport because we’ve never had someone who got their fingertips to such a high level in Formula 1. Yes there was a golden era in the 80s, Eddie Irvine much later came along, but at that time…

TB: Eddie Irvine was a Protestant from Northern Ireland.

[Laughter]

And nearly won a World Championship!

SA: He also had help from Camel and Marlboro along the way which you didn’t.

SO: And just to go back we had a good old struggle because maybe the last day we spoke about the stuff that Tommy didn’t want to talk to, and I respect that as well. It’s not an easy thing to have to bring all those memories back for somebody, bring all that bad emotion up. It’s not a nice part of the job that you want to do. I didn’t enjoy it Tommy, but it’s something that you have to do and I think in life, particularly in this story you have to measure someone’s success by how far they’ve come, rather than the height they scaled and that’s not just being kind to Tommy, I think that’s a decent outlook on life.

SA: You said during the documentary that whenever you’re in a racing car you felt you could beat anyone. Were there any others out there that you rated at all?

TB: No, if you asked me then it would be no. If you ask me now the politically correct answer would be “they’re all really great drivers and I was so happy to be involved with all of them and I was happy to wake up in the morning and get in a race car and I love myself and I love everyone around me.” But ask me 30-40 years ago and I’d have said “no.” Realistically if Ron Dennis asked me “Tom do you think you’re the best driver in the world?” What am I going to say? “I think so? Maybe not. Maybe there’s a couple of guys who are a little bit better.” If you’d have asked Senna he’d have given you a big sneer and walked away. You have to believe it and I believed in myself so much it really does make a difference when you’re driving. If you believe so much it’s probably two or three tenths of a second a lap.

SA: I think one of the most pressing questions is: did you ever give Ayrton his wheels back?

TB: First off it wasn’t Ayrton’s car, I used to get the cars for the Brazilians from John McCambridge down in London. So Ralph Firman… the Brazilians would come, I would go to London, get a car for them, Ralph would sell it to them and they would drive it. Ayrton never did pay for the car. All I was doing, my car was a better car than his because I had the special wheels on mine. I was just too lazy and switched them over. We didn’t know he was going to come back to claim the car he didn’t even own in the first place. That’s to set that story straight.

He was really, really upset about those f**king wheels when I don’t even think it was the wheels.

SA: Did you have much interaction with Ayrton, apart from almost coming to blows in the Van Diemen factory. You were at different levels at that time but working from the same base.

TB: Yes, we lived together, in the same factory every day, breakfast in the white lodge every day, we had dinners together with Ralph Firman and his wife, we were together a lot. I picked his dad up from the airport and drove him back up to Snetterton. He didn’t speak a word of English – that was a long trip.

Yes, he knew how good I was, I knew how good he was. I think he was the one who was a little more jealous of me than I was of him. He was the one who got pissed off about me winning the championship, me winning the Festival in the car.

We were together a lot, he got drunk once a year in Macau or somewhere and he got s**tfaced one year in Macau and I think somebody texted me last week, I don’t know if it was Stuart Evans or somebody just got in touch with me: “did you spike Aryton’s drinks in Macau.” Good story, because you can say what you want these days. We were sitting around the table, we were all s**tfaced, including Ayrton, he was banging some drinks and hitting them like that. All I know is they all left the table and left me to pay and of course I had no money.

SA: Sean, from the screenings you’ve had so far of the documentary what has been the reception generally?

SO: The perception in Ireland has been “how come we’ve never heard of Tommy Byrne before?” Its only motoring enthusiasts from a certain era who remember him and in Ireland very little is known of Tommy. Of course his book went down a storm a couple of years ago, it did very well. I see the price of it has gone up in the last couple of days – is there anyone out there with the book? You’re sitting on a small fortune!

TB: By the way there’s a new book coming out in early January and that one belongs to me.

SA: It’s funny you mention that because I remember Mark Hughes who was one of the talking heads in the move, and wrote the book, I remember while he was researching the book he wrote a column in Autosport and it was all about the McLaren test. He didn’t name Tommy, he described his role as a fantastic driver who disappeared off the face of the earth, didn’t name him and I said “everyone knows that’s Tommy Byrne.” We were at the Grand Prix the following weekend in the press room and I was amazed at the amount of people who came up to Mark and said “who the hell is that?” Alright it was probably 20 years later, we live in this tiny little bubble and you think everyone remembers everything, I was amazed, I’m not going to name them but there were high-profile writers and commentators and they’d completely forgotten about it and I was completely gobsmacked because of the heights he achieved while he was achieving them.

You said you reckon Brands ’82 might have been your greatest race. Do you stick with that?

TB: In the Formula 3 race? That was my greatest race because I had all those troubles with the team, I got a new car for that race. I loved the track and obviously I won by a lot.

But my greatest race was, when you get out of a Formula 1 car on a Saturday and not qualify and you fly home to England and you jump into a Formula 3 car the next day which is totally different, it’s like bicycle wheels. The biggest race I ever won obviously, the one I loved the most was when I beat Dave Scott at Silverstone.

SA: Do you still speak to Dave Scott?

TB: You mean after me calling him a four-eyed w****r in the book? He actually Facebooked me and said “You know what Tommy, you were right, I was driving bad that day.” That was 20 years later.

SA: Are there any questions from the audience?

Audience member: What drives you now? How are you now going to become the multi-millionaire that you didn’t come before?

TB: I’m not. I’d be quite happy just to be able to get by and buy good things for my kids and make sure they get along a little bit better. I never really thought I was going to get £100m, I just said that... that’s what possibly could have happened. I would have been happy with a couple of million.

What drives me now? Working at the Mid-Ohio school. We have a business: Diablo Drifter, driving the car the Diablo Drift that Gary Anderson designed for me and Dave Meehan my partner who was in the movie was Senna’s mechanic. I’m doing ok, everything is fine and I do some driver coaching if I like the team, if I like the driver, if I get along with them. That’s what drives me.

AM: Do you still drink a lot?

TB: No. I’m pretty good, a couple of shots a couple of beers I’m probably in bed.

AM: A lot of footage of you leading from the front and that’s the best way to win, but in the words of Ayrton “if you no longer go for a gap are you no longer a racing driver?” Have you ever gone for a gap where you thought “that wasn’t on, but it’s me or him?”

TB: Have you read my book? I went for a gap on John McCraken at Mondello in 1981, I went back because I was leading the two championships in England, I went back to Mondello just for the fun of it and John was doing pretty good. He got pole and he beat me off the line, he lead me for 19 out of the 20 laps, I couldn’t get by, I was overheating and close to him and it was getting really bad: he was going to beat me. You can’t have anybody beaten you back in Ireland, then I wouldn’t be the superstar any more, John McCraken would be the superstar. So on the last lap I just drove across the grass and t-boned him and took him out. If I had have known what a bad-ass he was I would never have done that. I found out years later he was a tough guy because he came to America. Just a little guy but mean, I got friendly with him and six months later he died in a car accident.

Early on in your career and I know I did the same to Dave Coyne, Dave are you here? I did have to give Dave Coyne a brake-check once at Oulton Park because I looked in my mirror and he was too close and I could see his eyeballs and I’m thinking “I can’t believe he’s so close to me in that car” because I didn’t think his car was as good. I brake-checked him way too early, I crashed and he crashed. It turned out Dave Coyne was a really, really good driver. Sometimes you make mistakes.

SA: He was a big bloke as well.

TB: He was a fast driver.

SA: Talking of going for gaps, you certainly went for gaps on Dave Scott at Silverstone that day didn’t you?

TB: I always used to carry a lot of downforce because its time, I loved the lap time. He had a lot less downforce, he always did, I just couldn’t… if he had left me alone and not put me on the grass I could have got past on the second lap and I was gone. I had to be careful because I was going to get crashed out. I’ve gone for gaps but not like Ayrton. Ayrton did that as well, but that was Martin Brundle at the time when Brundle was beating him and he got wigged out by it all, he had to show his stuff and do it to Martin Brundle and say “hey, I’ll take you anywhere.”

AM: Two things: I like the film. I thought it had a black cloud over it, at the end of the day Formula 1 was the biggest sport in the world and Tommy got his a**e in a prime spot and drove in Formula 1 and that is amazing. None of us or very few of us have got there. We all wanted to but we didn’t get there.

TB: You’re right, what I will say I did drive in the space of two months I drove the Theodore, one of the slowest cars on the track, because of budgets. I’m older now so I know what was wrong. I drove the slowest car and one of the fastest cars on the track, the McLaren. I got to drive the two different ends of the spectrum and I was four seconds a lap different. I could have qualified on the front row of the Grand Prix and I’m going home with the Theodore. I went through my life knowing I was quick, and I proved it. And I got into F1.

AM: I’m lucky enough to have a son who is sic years old and lucky enough to have raced cars before. He’s grown up wanting to be a racing driver. This week there’s a go-karting programme with kids who are 8-10 years old, dad spends £150,000 a year in T-kart, Junior Ginettas stuff like that. I believe my son has a chance, more so because he’s coming from a dad into racing. He doesn’t know the offside rule, he knows the racing line. I really believe the young age karters, you’re beating the passion out of them almost instead of letting them discover and enjoy it themselves. What age do you think racing will make a difference when you go?

TB: Well I never did go-karts. I started when I was 15 or 16 in a little Mini around the fields and stuff. I drove the first time in a Formula car at 17 or 18. I’d take my kids dirt kart racing, all three of them. One was four because he was going to be turning five because Jeff Gordon won his first race when he was five. His name was Cullen “blaze” Byrne so I thought lets het him out there. He won his first race then I retired him. I had two other boys, one was super-fast and one was average, which is still good. They have to want to do it. If the four year old had come to me after that and said “Dad I just really, really want it. I want to drive” I would have. He didn’t so that’s the end of that.

AM: There’s been so much talk during the movie about what set you apart and what made you different and one was the fact that you always worked as a mechanic on your own car then got into the car and drove it. Do you think that gave you an edge and made a difference?

TB: For sure, when I started, I was telling someone last night, I had no idea what I was doing the first couple of times I started working on the car. But I learned from Ralph Firman, that was the first major… I drove for PRS, but where I realty started learning about the car, corner weights, the tyres, toes, cambers, was from Ralph Firman. Then I went to Gary Anderson, then I learned more and more. I learned so much about the car, I could tell if the corner weights were off by five pounds just by driving through the turns and that was because of those guys. I knew a lot, sometimes later on and these days those engineers do not want the driver to know anything because they do it all now by computer. They’re kind of telling you what to do, they don’t want anybody who knows what they’re talking about when it comes to car set up because that’s your job.

AM: I’d like to ask you, I’ve been blown away by your successes. I’m so proud for you. Your career, you mentioned McLaren for example where you had your big break after winning Formula 3, winning Formula Ford, having Murray Walker singing your praises and David Kennedy and Eddie Jordan. Didn’t you have anybody around you and you used Stuart, who actually prepared you like mentally, to get you in a frame of mind that when you were in front of these guys you could act in a slightly different way?

TB: I wouldn’t listen to them. You’re right, I needed somebody, I certainly needed somebody there when I went in to see Ron Dennis for that meeting for sure. I don’t know why Murray Taylor sent me there on my own. I just, I never really had anybody that I felt would do anything for me. I don’t know. I had a lot of advice but I never had the management. For me I thought a manager was somebody who would get you drives, get you work not tell you what to do. You’re right, for sure if I had just done a few things different and had somebody to help me out then yes, but I can only blame myself for that.

SA: Do you listen to people now?

SO: Not directors no.

[Laughter]

TB: I know you have to have an open mind now for sure yeah. Absolutely things have changed a lot. I did have a hard time listening.

Perry McCarthy: We all thought you were great but we weren’t going to tell you that. What I was interested in about Theodore was what you thought when Jackie Stewart came over to teach you to drive. Did you get to the bottom of what the click was in the back of the Theodore?

TB: I don’t know what it was, all I know was I was 14th quickest in the practice session and when they took the fuel out and went for a qualifying run I lost over a second a lap. I thought that I heard something, I don’t know what I heard, I thought there was something, there had to be something because I wasn’t going to lose a second in two hours because no good driver does. But I lost all this time and I just barely ended up qualifying. The Theodore answer, Julian Randles again, his answer was… actually it was Jo Ramirez who brought Jackie over to tell me how to drive the car through the turn.

You’ve won five championships, nobody’s ever done it before, but at that time it had been four because I didn’t win the Formula 3 championship and I was just trying to qualify the car. They should have wanted to go faster too. That’s what happens, can you imagine if somebody brought somebody over to Ayrton Senna or even to you Perry and say “Tommy you need to go through the corner like this…” come on. It’s a turn. He was standing in one spot and I lost… thank god guns weren’t legal because I really would have done something…

[Laughter]

SA: He did do a few more laps in F1 Perry, than you did!

TB: And I looked up to you!

AM: Tommy, do you ever wonder where the speed came from? Is it possible that the very fact that you were cocky and sort of single-minded got you to the place you ended up in Formula 1? Could you have got there had you been more considerate, asked about it more? Would you have had more doubts?

TB: Well the cockiness actually was I was just joking around a lot. People would ask me “do you think you’re going to win today?”

“Sure I’m going to win.”

I most likely did believe I was going to win but that was just my way of answering it. What makes you different is I needed it so bad. I needed to win so bad, more than the other guy, because what was I doing to go back to? Go back to nothing. Go back to Dundalk. That was my chance, this was it, and that sure does make a difference to your speed. As I said it’s probably worth two to three tenths a lap just to believe you’re better than the other… Dave Coyne was a fantastic driver, like I said I thought Dave was a **** at the time, I just thought he had a better car than me, that’s why I brake tested him. So sometimes you know being ignorant helps you a little bit, but I just believed in myself so much.

Another thing, the mechanics and the engineers I would never let them tell me it was me. That’s a problem, god knows how many good drivers slip through the cracks because the engineers or the mechanics tell them “oh you’re just having a bad day today.” That happens a lot and I would never stand for that and every time they said “Tommy what’s wrong?” Wait a minute, I knew my times, everything was written down, I knew what happened, the next day I’m slower, obviously something happened, it’s not me. I always defied them. I seen drivers and they would talk drivers into being “it’s your fault.” Obviously when I got to Formula 1 I couldn’t do that anymore.

AM: What was the best night out that you had?

[Laughter]

TB: I can’t remember.

[Laughter]

Obviously Gerhard Berger seems to think I had a great night and he put me to bed and I beat him the next morning. The only problem is I can’t remember if he put me to bed or not. I thought I might have put him to bed that night.

AM: [Inaudible]

TB: No, I was never… remember I turned that down plenty of times. I was never going to be that way. The 1983 season was a really good season, we actually had fun as drivers, all of us. I know Joe Saward was there starting off as a journalist, after Formula 1 was over then I let my hair down. Right up until that I wasn’t too bad, but then we had a lot of fun that whole year. We had a great time, all the drivers were going out doing stuff together, Gerhard, me, but we were all hiding in the disco. Gerhard would be over there, I would be over there, [Emanuele] Pirro was somewhere else, [Pier-Luigi] Martini was somewhere… we were all trying to be good. Gerhard goes on to make millions of dollars racing. So it’s all a load of bulls**t about I didn’t make it because of the partying.

SA: I was going to ask you, 1983 Gary Anderson tells a story, I think it’s from ’83. There’s a race at Paul Ricard where practice was fogged off and you and Gary repaired off to a bar somewhere because that seemed like a better option and while you were sitting there on your third or fourth beer you then heard the sound of Formula 3 cars firing up at which point you have to rush off. I can’t remember if you were first or second fastest. Nothing seemed to have made too much difference, certainly at that level.

TB: Obviously another story about Tommy Byrne… wrong. We went… yes it was rained off. That’s why I wrote the book, I got better stories than that. Yes it was rained off and it was me and Gary and all the mechanics went off to a café down the road because we weren’t supposed to be racing for the rest of the day because it wasn’t going to come back again. It looked like it and that’s what we were told kind of. We went to a little French café and me and Gary started teaching them how to make Irish coffees and drank lots of Irish coffees and then we got the word that the qualifying or practice is back on, so we all went back there. Gary forgets what he said at the time, yes I drove the car obviously with six or seven or ten Irish coffees and I was fine, in the car I was fine and I had to qualify it for Monaco and I think I started last and I had to finish sixth to get to qualify. All Gary said was he didn’t know how I could drive the car because he couldn’t see me coming past when he was holding the pit board. That’s the story I remember.

[Laughter]

Brian Jones: More and observation more than anything else and that is we’ve heard from two drivers tonight. Perry here as well, but from a personal point of view I got far more enjoyment out of those two guys at the early levels of their career than I do from anybody these days.

TB: Thank you Brian Jones. Brian Jones has always been there for… you remember me I went over there in 1977 I think for the first time for the Formula Ford Festival, ’76, I did the festival more than anybody knows. You used to watch the young drivers. Do you remember Thierry Boutsen was there and came from Europe and went really, really fast and nobody ever came from anywhere to be up the front at the festival. That’s why the day he tested the McLaren I was going “if he thinks the car is not handling good then I have a problem because that guy is good.” But Brian has been a huge supporter.

BJ: Lots of people tried to come over, even Schumacher finished in the wall.

SA: Ladies and Gents I’ve just had a signal from the lady on the left that we have to wrap things up. Could we have a round of applause now for Sean and Tommy?

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