Dave Coyne -- the ultimate cult hero

He left a trail of battered egos in his wake, but his brilliance was never rewarded. Marcus Simmons drops in on his car dealership

He was the great alley-cat bruiser of 1980s British motorsport, a stocky bundle of stunning car control, racing savvy and ruthlessness who at various stages of his career saw off or outpaced Ayrton Senna, Elio de Angelis, Andrea de Cesaris, Stefan Bellof, Martin Donnelly, Bertrand Gachot, Mark Blundell, Paul Tracy, Bernd Schneider, Eddie Irvine, Alain Menu, Gil de Ferran, Adrian Fernandez, Alex Zanardi, Christian Fittipaldi, Heinz-Harald Frentzen, Jason Plato, Laurent Aïello and Damon Hill.

Today Dave Coyne, aged 47 and considerably more than stocky — "I've put on three stone since I was racing!" — is reclining behind the desk of his office at his Stratfields car dealership just north of Basingstoke. It's a place of air-conditioned refuge from the 30-degree heat outside, though the Stratfields flags (no pikey bunting here) are beginning to flutter, heralding the impending storm approaching from the west. Sometimes he gets recognised by the occasional would-be car buyer, but his is a life far removed from the contemporaries he raced — and beat.

Don't feel sorry for him, because he's fine about it. Even when he was racing he was dealing cars, something that possibly prevented him from pursuing his racing career with the rabid determination (off-circuit, anyway) of those he routinely thrashed on the track. "I always had to earn money," he explains. "I always had a big mortgage. I didn't come from a rich family. Even when I was in karting I was sponsored by people I drove for. Of course that's all right, but you've still got to earn money to live. But that's life isn't it? You can't change it."

From 1980 to '90 Coyne won shedloads of Formula Ford 1600 races and took victory in a bunch of Formula Ford 2000 events (though in the 2-litre formula he was rarely in the best car). From time to time, when the faith of those around him outweighed the lack of funds, he would dip into Formula Three and stun everyone. But it wasn't until mid-1991, by which time he was 33, that he stood on the cusp of an international career. And then along came Michael Schumacher to ruin it all...

Coyne had won the 1990 Formula Ford Festival with a brilliant performance in the works Swift and did a handful of Formula Renault races in early '91 for JMB Racing, a team owned by London-based financial marketeer John Birrane (nephew of latter-day Lola boss Martin). Coyne had excelled in FRenault in '90 with GJ Motorsport, run by Birmingham enthusiast Graham Warren, who had expanded into Formula 3000 for '91. Warren had a vacancy in his British F3000 team from the fourth round onwards, so he called up Coyne. Birrane was happy to release him — to the extent that he provided some of the funds.

First time out, on the Brands Hatch Indy circuit, and with only a half-day of testing under his belt, Coyne qualified on the front row, just 0.12sec adrift of Paul Warwick. He then led the race for 26 laps, "but Graham didn't really have much of a budget and it started jumping out of fifth gear into Paddock — and that's where I lost the race."

After a sixth place at Oulton Park (the tragic race in which Warwick was killed), GJ swapped chassis between Coyne and his Belgian team-mate, Alain Plasch: "I'd got in Alain's car for testing at Oulton and it was half a second faster. We went to Snetterton for the next race and I won that race easily. Then I did the same thing at Thruxton."

By now Jordan Formula One driver Gachot was up for trial for his assault on a London cabbie. When Gachot was jailed, Coyne was telephoned by Stan Oldacre, who was helping Jordan with finance for its debut F1 season: "Stan used to sponsor Tommy Byrne and he helped me out a bit too. He said, 'Dave, I've got you on the shortlist for this drive. Get your F1 licence sorted out.' But then Eddie Jordan called me up and said, 'Schumacher's just come up with all this money. What can I do?' Stan had called me after that race at Thruxton — I was supposed to get that drive."

One week later came the International F3000 round at Brands Hatch. Warren, who was running Giovanna Amati in this series, placed an entry for Coyne to race his year-old British-series Reynard. But he had a cunning plan: "I drove Amati's new Reynard in the test because Graham thought she'd say, 'Let Dave use the car." Incredibly, Coyne, who had shed a stone and a half in the past few weeks, edged out series pacesetters Fittipaldi, Zanardi and Emanuele Naspetti to head the times. Further down the order were Frentzen, Hill and Aïello... "I did 20 laps of the GP circuit and they called me in, laughing. Graham said, 'Get out and wait — the track's a bit dusty.' So I sat there saying, 'How did we do?' and he said, 'All right— not bad.' So I went back out the next time and he called me in after four laps. He said, 'Get out the car, shut the door and leave it. You're over a second a lap quicker than anyone and you have been since the start.' The rest caught me up when they put new tyres on but I was still fastest. Even Jackie Stewart came up and shook my hand that day. But after that it was probably the end of my career...

"I got the car working so well that Amati got in it and was much quicker than she'd been. She said, 'I want that car and no-one else is getting in it.' I said, 'It's pointless doing it in the old car — it's a second and a half off the pace.' But we did it, and in the race the throttle jammed open and I had a big accident and cracked the tub, and that's why after that I never won another race in 3000. If I hadn't done that race I would have won the British 3000 series. It was the biggest mistake of my career."

As little known as his brush with Jordan is the fact that, bizarrely, Coyne was in the frame for a handful of Pacific F1 drives in late 1995, two years after he'd last competed in mainstream single-seaters (he was back in FRenault in '93). Swiss enthusiast Georg Paulin had tried to do a deal for Coyne to share one of the ex-TWR Jaguars in 1992, and Dave even tested the car at Silverstone, "but Paulin made so many promises to everyone and then when it fell back it looked bad on me and it never went anywhere. I never heard from him for ages and then out of the blue he rang me and said, 'Dave, look, I've got the budget to do the last few rounds in F1.' I knew (Pacific boss) Keith Wiggins from karting and told him I didn't know where this guy was coming from. I went along and had a seat fitting and everything, but it all went wrong again at the last minute."

There was also a touring car outing with Peugeot in the 1993 TOCA Shoot-Out at Donington Park in which Coyne finished fifth, despite power-steering failure and a misfire: "When I won the Festival Mick Linford of Peugeot had come up to me and said, 'That's one of the best drives I've ever seen.' I didn't even know who he was — I didn't follow touring cars. At Donington Mick took me to the hospitality and said, 'Right, I want you to drive for us in '94, but you've got one stumbling block: I can't ask you to sign a contract until I know what Patrick Watts is doing, because he's got backing from Shell.' Then along he came with the money. Story of my life."

Another missed opportunity, but just imagine Coyne in the mid-90s BTCC, dishing it out on the track and standing up on the podium with that other car dealer and absolute master of racecraft, John Cleland. They have so much in common that they'd have hated each other, of course. But 10 years on you can just imagine them getting together at some awards do, swapping gossip on the motor trade and then, once a few drinks have gone down, gleefully rubbishing Menu, Plato, Harvey...

Don't doubt Coyne would have been a star, for he was the improviser extraordinaire. You want proof? Let's take two separate F3 outings in the mid-80s. First of all, the British F3 round at Spa in September 1984. Coyne had all but wrapped up the two major British FF1600 championships for the works Van Diemen team, and was offered a ride in the Belgian race by Murray Taylor Racing. He'd dabbled in F3 since '81, but had done only a handful of races in the category, and this would be his first of the year.

You wouldn't have guessed it. He qualified fourth, got delayed on the first lap avoiding a crash between Harald Huysman and Johnny Dumfries, then charged through to finish third with a new lap record. "Murray's regular driver, Mario Hytten, wasn't doing the race, so his car was sitting in the garage," says Coyne. "I only had to pay for the tyres so I was a bit nervous about complaining about anything. My car had a top-end misfire in practice and I told Murray just before the race. He said, 'Why didn't you tell me before? Mario's car is a good three tenths faster than yours.' Otherwise I might have won the race..."

Two years later, Coyne was at the Osterreichring for a European FF2000 round with Swift, supporting the German F3 series. "We were in the next garage to the Helmut Bross F3 team. Helmut asked if I wanted to drive his year-old Reynard. Frank Bradley (the Swift boss) was there and said, 'Dave, you've got  to get in it.' I went out in the rain and I was fastest by three and a half seconds."

Sometimes you feel that time has allowed Coyne to embellish his stories, but in this one he sells himself short: with no testing, he'd qualified the Reynard seventh in the first, dry session. The second session was wet. In fact, Dave was actually fastest by five seconds! From seventh on the grid, he burst through to lead — by the end of lap one... But, running on old tyres, he lost the advantage late in the race and faded to fourth. Bross stayed loyal, ran Coyne to the 1987 F3 Euroseries title, and fielded him in random Interserie sportscar races through to the early '90s. And that kind of sums up this man's career.

His competition now? Well, he gets his kicks in Superstox: "It's an old car, a bit heavy. And it's a young man's sport — you get banged about like you wouldn't believe." Not enough to stop him winning a final recently in Ipswich. Another trophy. Another memory. Coulda been a contender? Still is!